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5 Reasons Why Rookies Outperform Experienced Execs in the Workplace

Do you remember the thrill you felt when you just joined a firm or project team? The intellectual sparks that brought feelings of untapped, incredible possibilities? Possibilities of what you could create, the impact you could generate, or the difference you could make with the resources at your disposal? You were ready to lead, run with it, engage with others, and prove yourself. The sky was the limit. At least until you ran into that someone we’ve all met in our careers – the person who has “been there and done that.” They were too focused on the roadblocks to see the possibilities you saw so clearly.

While experience certainly brings increased know-how, wisdom, and confidence, it can also create blind spots. Once we know the patterns, once we’ve seen it before, we can become blind to new possibilities. We stop asking why, and we just do. We build up scar tissue and learn to be afraid of going down certain paths. On the other hand, people who approach a task with a fresh, new perspective – we call them rookies – lack knowledge, but offer a willingness to learn, think creatively, and deliver quick wins. Unfortunately, at companies with a culture where seniority and rank are traditionally highly respected, rookies are often underutilized. And veterans are celebrated even when some of their ways may not yield the best results.

People who approach a task with a fresh, new perspective – we call them rookies – lack knowledge, but offer a willingness to learn, think creatively, and deliver quick wins.

In our research we found that rookies are more capable than we might expect. In many cases, inexperience can work to your advantage: It can spark a dazzling performance and help you compete with, if not surpass, even the most talented, experienced players. Not only can you benefit from your inexperience, but it is also desperately needed in today’s rapidly evolving world of work.

We studied over 400 workplace scenarios comparing how inexperienced versus experienced professionals approach a particular type of work. The results of this research showed that being a rookie – facing a new problem or a challenge for the first time – can provoke top performance. In the realm of knowledge work, rookies tend to outperform those with experience, especially when it comes to innovation and speed.

Being a rookie – facing a new problem for the first time – can provoke top performance

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Here’s why: In our rookie state, we tend to:

1. Explore new possibilities.

Those new to a task are unburdened by outdated knowledge and potentially faulty assumptions and bring an increased openness to their work. This enables them to venture into unexplored terrain rather than get stuck in yesterday’s best practices.

2. Ask for help.

Facing a knowledge gap, rookies turn outward and seek guidance from experts. Our research shows they consult with five experts for every one expert a veteran staffer does. Because they mobilize a diverse group of networks, rookies often bring more current and more well-rounded expertise.

3. Move cautiously but quickly.

Rookies aren’t actually big, bold risk takers; rather, they operate cautiously, taking small but quick steps and seeking feedback in an attempt to stay on track. They work in lean and agile ways and stay closely aligned with their stakeholders.

4. Improvise.

Traversing uncharted and often uncomfortable territory, rookies work to survive, improving and working tirelessly to provide for basic needs.

5. Feel anxious.

Needing to scramble up a steep learning curve, a desperation-based learning kicks in. While self-confidence might be high, rookies’ situational confidence is probably low, causing them to work harder, smarter, and faster in order to prove themselves.

This way of working – humble, curious, open – is what we call “rookie smarts.” But rookie smarts is not the exclusive domain of the young. It is a mindset: one that is available to all those who are willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. In fact, the most successful rookies we studied were experienced leaders who were in a rookie assignment – new to an important, hard piece of work.

Rookie smarts is not the exclusive domain of the young. It is a mindset: one that is available to all those who are willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

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And, not all new professionals operate with rookie smarts. Some don’t stop to realize the size of the knowledge gap, and they continue on auto-pilot rather than kicking into learning mode. Others fall victim to hubris. To maximize your chance of scoring big while in a rookie role, work your rookie advantage:

1. Ask the naïve questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions to help your higher-ups and key stakeholders clarify the real needs. But remember, naïve questions are different than stupid questions. Naïve questions are natural, innocent, and unaffected. A naïve question has no preconceived answers and often cuts to the core of an issue. Stupid questions lack intelligence and common sense. Naïve questions invigorate thinking; stupid question are simply annoying.

2. Seek out the experts.

Instead of pretending you know what you are doing, let people know that you’re clueless . . . but learning. Reach out to at least 5 experts to apply diverse expertise to the problem at hand. Activate the mentoring gene in your more experienced colleagues by not only being sincere, but taking action.

3. Move fast.

Anxious to prove yourself, it’s tempting to jump in and make a bold move. The best rookies, however, first scope out their situation. Then, avoiding bold, blind moves, they reduce risk by taking small, calculated steps. With each stride, check in with your stakeholders and get fast feedback to make sure you are on track. Move like you would if you had to walk the hot coals: be cautious, but quick, and keep moving.

4. Admit your mistakes.

Early in your career, you’re sure to make a few rookie mistakes. You’ll earn respect by admitting your screw-ups and fixing them fast. When we hide or downplay our mistakes, it leaves people questioning both our capability and our connection to reality. When we talk frankly about our mishaps, the conversation shifts from blame and cover-up to recovery. And there’s more good news: when we fix mistakes quickly and completely, customer satisfaction tends to go up. Don’t just own the mistake; fix it fast and fully.

5. Stay humble.

Don’t let your success go to your head. Feel free to shoot for the moon and try to make the “impossible” happen, but deliver results and do so with humility. Inspire others with your passion and enthusiasm, and take them with you on your rookie smarts journey.

Rookies are an asset to any team or organization. Giving them the space to shine and unleash their powers pays off big. Getting a new rookie on a team presents a unique window of opportunity when everyone, inspired by the rookie’s energy and enthusiasm, can imagine and go after new possibilities.

Rookies are an asset to any team or organization.

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So go ahead. Unleash your rookie smarts. Treasure it, develop it, and share the power of your rookie thinking with others. And who knows, maybe it will not only make your organization more productive but also make it a more fun and engaging place to work – a place where the impossible becomes possible.

Did you like today’s post? If so you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up HERE and receive The ExchangeGain Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!

Liz Wiseman, President of The Wiseman Group, teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world. Some of her recent clients include: Apple, Disney, eBay/PayPal, Facebook, GAP, Genentech/Roche, Microsoft, Nike,, and Twitter. Liz has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking as one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world. She is the author of bestsellers Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work and Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, as well as The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools. She is a frequent keynote speaker for companies worldwide, and has been a guest lecturer at BYU, the Naval Postgraduate Academy, Stanford and Yale. Liz writes for Harvard Business Review, a variety of other leadership journals, and is an active contributor to healthcare and education reform forums. For 17 years at Oracle Corporation, Liz was the Vice President of Oracle University and the global leader for Human Resources Development. She holds a Bachelors degree in Business Management and a Masters of Organizational Behavior from Brigham Young University.

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