Blinkers off – the case for recruiting from outside your sector

Jerome Bull | 4 July 2019

For many employers, recruiting from within their industry is preferable to appointing a candidate from outside the sector. They believe that this specific knowledge is a prerequisite for success, and that candidates without this insight present an unnecessary risk.

In NSCG’s industrial practice however, our experience is that certain managing directors, general managers and senior operations executives are able to successfully switch sectors, and that these individuals often bring a fresh perspective along with the ability to add value beyond the application of existing industry knowledge.

Those able to make the transition, however, do come with a specific set of skills and characteristics, and NSCG has recently completed a research project to identify them:

An aptitude for learning

In order to successfully switch sectors, individuals need to quickly familiarise themselves with new products, processes and industry terminology. This learning may also extend to specific regulatory and marketplace requirements. The ability to make sense of a new environment at both a conceptual and operational level is, therefore, critical to establishing credibility and making an early impact. According to Duncan Martin who has worked at senior level in fmcg, waste management, nuclear energy and multi-sector private equity-backed manufacturing environments: “this requires a logical mind and the ability to acquire and assimilate new information”. It is not about becoming an expert in everything, but rather having the ability to grasp the fundamentals by simplifying complexity.

A developed understanding of manufacturing systems technology

Participants in our research consistently reported that, in order to shift from one industry to another, it is essential to have a reliable operating framework to work from, and to understand the key principles of manufacturing.

Stephen Forbes, MD Explore Manufacturing (part of the Laing O’Rourke Group) explains the need for: “a set of appropriate KPIs, typically including safety, productivity, cost, quality and customer service, via which you manage performance. When moving industry you need the ability to interpret KPIs and to adapt them to the environment that you are working in”.

High levels of performance are also underlined through the adaptation and application of continuous improvement tools and techniques. Keith Broadbent, an Operations Director who has worked in the automotive, telecoms, luxury yacht and electronics sectors, commented: “You need to break down the principles of manufacturing – structures, KPIs and good people; the building blocks are common. The overall manufacturing process is essentially made up of a linear sequence of activities which can be measured, manipulated and improved”.

Leadership capability

Success in any senior role is largely dependent on the ability to gain the support and commitment of the team. This requirement is intensified when moving into a new sector where a lack of market knowledge, and the absence of an installed base of contacts, has the potential to undermine credibility in the short term. The key to gaining respect in the first instance is a willingness to show humility, demonstrate interest in other people and to listen and learn. Credibility is also likely to be achieved by correctly identifying and addressing the priority issues.

Beyond this, the attainment of results is based on an ability to get the best out of other people. This is characterised by a visionary outlook and the capacity to align others behind a common set of goals. Specific attributes contributing to success in this area include an open and participative approach, enough courage to make and act on tough decisions and a willingness to manage performance, both good and bad. Communication is also vital here.

Business skills

The ability of senior managers to anchor their efforts back to the goals and objectives of the broader business is obviously key. Tom Carpenter, a CEO who has worked in the electronics, pharma and cable manufacturing sectors, comments: “you will not survive without good business skills; commercial acumen is therefore a prerequisite”.


Many participants in our research identified determination and tenacity as crucial to achieving success. There is much talk in modern management literature about the need for innovation – at NSCG, we believe that perseverance and discipline are at least as important. More than this, success is about having a well thought-through plan and being prepared to work to it.

Contributors in this area commented on the importance of:

  • “Remaining focused in your efforts…identifying the priorities and using your metrics to guide you”
  • “Having a clear plan to work to”
  • “Being able to cope with setbacks”
  • “Having a level of determination that enables you to deal with opposition and adversity”


Individuals that fail to make the leap from one sector to another were consistently reported as being too rigid or inflexible in the way they applied their tools and techniques. Typically, they were too prescriptive and kept trying to do what they have always done, rigidly implementing what had worked for them in the past. Julian Allen, a senior executive in the FMCG and building products sectors observed: “you cannot afford to be too slavish to one particular style.”

In short, the above capabilities can go a long way towards mitigating the risks of appointing an unsuitable candidate from outside (or indeed inside) of the sector. Organisations should be encouraged to remove sector-specific blinkers and bring in fresh, paradigm-shifting executives, as long as the candidate they are looking for has the above skills.


Jerome Bull leads the executive search team at NSCG. Building on this research, NSCG has developed an assessment toolkit to support recruiting companies in their decision making in this area. To find out more, please get in touch.

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