Finding Talent: Know Your Culture Before Hiring

I met an executive this week who told me he could determine cultural fit in five minutes after meeting a candidate. He then went on to say the person had to be:
  • Assertive
  • Affable
  • Articulate
  • Professional in appearance
I then asked if all people hired this way were successful. He said, of course not, that has nothing to do with cultural fit. I shook my head, dazed.
This brought back a déjà vu moment when I first became a manager (it was over 40 years ago in financial planning at a big manufacturing company) and was instantly assigned to the MBA corporate recruiting team. The VP HR told me to find people who had top grades and met the same 4-A standard.
It turned out to be a bunch of hokum.
It took me about ten years to realize cultural fit had nothing to do with appearance, affability, assertiveness, and how articulate the person is. At best these traits represent social skills and extroversion, but certainly not ability, team skills, performance, or cultural fit.
What Determines Company Culture
In order of importance, here are the factors that I’ve seen actually determine a company’s culture.
The CEO and the company’s strategy, vision, and mission. A company’s underlying culture is in large part defined by its CEO. Consider Steve Jobs as an example in comparison to every other high-tech, big or small company CEO. Next consider the industry, the competition, its financial strength, and the company’s strategy.
Whatever culture a company has can shift overnight when financial conditions change or it gets bad press or loses or wins a big order or gets a new CEO (think Microsoft, GM, and Yahoo!). To get a high-level sense of a company’s underlying culture, find out who gets ahead and why.
Job fit. If the person isn’t motivated to do the actual work required, cultural fit is a meaningless assessment. When the work isn’t motivating, people are less cooperative, they make excuses, they’re harder to manage and work with, they’re less flexible, and overall they’re less productive.
I wrote a whole book on assessing job fit, so I’ll just summarize the idea that it’s best to first define the work that’s required and then define the actual culture in which it’s done. If you get this part backwards, you’ll hire the wrong person.
Managerial fit. One of the prime reasons good people underperform is due to a difficult working relationship with their direct supervisor. For them the supervisor represents the actual culture.
Problems here are typically related to how the person needs to be managed, their need for support and development, how each wants the work done, and how well they get along.
In my opinion, the relationship with the hiring manager is a prime determinant of cultural fit, yet I find few HR leaders who address it directly or properly.
Organizational pace and structural fit. Where a company is on its organization lifecycle is another determinant of a company’s actual culture. Fast-growing companies coupled with a highly charged and competitive environment represent a totally different culture than those found in larger, slower-paced, more mature organizations.
When I ask candidates to describe their most significant accomplishments, I specifically ask about these situational and cultural issues. I have met very few people who have thrived in both cultures.
Sophistication and decision-making. While larger companies have multiple layers of decision-making and small ones very few, how these decisions are made are often worlds apart.
For example, I still meet talent leaders at big and supposedly sophisticated companies who take great pride in reducing cost per hire, yet never consider the impact of the lost opportunity-cost when an important hire falls short on quality and fit.
On the flipside, I just spoke to a board member of three mid-sized companies who’s forcing everyone from the shop floor to the executive suite to consider the strategic impact of every decision.
Whether formal or ad hoc, a company’s decision-making process is a core component of its culture that needs to be considered when assessing candidates on cultural fit.
What is cultural fit anyway? It’s obviously much more than someone’s appearance, and how affable, assertive, or articulate they are. Yet these personal attributes are what most people use to assess cultural fit.
Determining if someone fits the culture starts by defining the culture, not by defining the person. And defining the culture starts by defining the real job, the hiring manager’s leadership style, and the company’s strategy, pace, sophistication, and intensity.
Then look at the CEO for his or her stamp on culture, and how pervasive it is throughout the organization. The deeper the better, and the more important cultural fit is to the person’s ultimate success.
All this applies to the company looking for talent – and the talent themselves, whether you’re a CFO, CEO, senior manager, middle manager or professional or technical worker. The person considering joining a company should also look at his or her cultural fit with that potential employer.
About the Author
Lou Adler is CEO of The Adler Group, a 35-year-old search and recruitment company in the US whose clients include Intel, McKinsey, Disney, ESPN and General Dynamics. He also wrote The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (2013) and Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007). This article originally appeared on LinkedIn’s Influencer blog, and has been re-edited for clarity and conciseness.
Photo credit: Shutterstock 


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