Forget Cultural Fit and Look for Cultural Impact

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By: Chris Carosella for Entrepreneur, Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Each and every person you hire can profoundly impact your company’s culture. As you grow your team, remember that directly related experience is often not the best way to predict success. Consider instead a candidate’s potential to impact the culture — and the business.

Diversity among leadership, for example, has been shown to directly benefit a company’s market value and profitability, according to new research from Harvard Business School. To cultivate the diverse team that will help your business thrive, look for people who align with your company’s core values and weigh that in the balance with the experience they bring to the table.

This may mean rethinking your ideas of your company’s culture and of what it means to fit in. We know that company culture is critical to employee engagement and that higher engagement translates to better employee retention, increased productivity and greater financial success. At the same time, only 34 percent of employees are engaged at work, Gallup reports. In an effort to improve engagement, many leaders make the mistake of hiring people exactly like the ones already on the team.

Instead of hiring people on the basis of similarity in age, gender or ethnicity, deliberately hire people with diverse ideas, experiences and backgrounds. If people from different backgrounds are having trouble “fitting in,” then the problem is probably with your company’s culture. The solution is to hire those who have the potential to positively impact the company; meanwhile, work on making your company culture ever more inclusive so that every member of your diverse team can thrive.

Cultural Impact vs. Cultural Fit

When someone has the potential to positively impact the culture, direct experience becomes less important. Despite my lack of marketing department experience, for example, a Fortune 10 company I worked for saw my potential to impact the culture and offered me a marketing leadership role in its headquarters. I represented the field culture: I had managed sales and operations in the field and understood our customers. The hiring manager recognized that I could positively impact the home office culture by bringing the field perspective to HQ. That manager was right: The company’s market share climbed from third place to first during my tenure.

Along those lines, there may be times when you don’t immediately see the potential for cultural impact but when the company needs the experience a candidate brings. If your startup needs to develop a platform unique to your business, quickly hiring a good software developer — or two — will mean prioritizing experience and expedience over cultural alignment. Cultural impact is also a secondary concern for remote employees whose exposure will be more peripheral.

The Core Values Hiring Playbook

While hiring for culture fit is often the go-to move for startups, it tends to stifle diversity because it allows unconscious bias to take the lead. To create an inclusive workplace, focus more on how hires will impact the culture than whether they “fit in” right now. Research shows that the team you build will be more diverse — and more successful — as a result.

These steps will help you determine who you need and how to evaluate them throughout the hiring process:

1. Assess your priorities.

You need a clear understanding of whom you’re looking to hire. As a first step ahead of interviews, outline the common attributes of people successful in the position.

To assess alignment, everyone involved in the hiring process must first clearly understand what you mean by culture and values. You might even develop and enforce a standard rating system as a team — a strategy that gets everyone on the same page.

When value alignment is key, your ideal candidate doesn’t need to have experience that exactly matches your job’s description. A candidate with a master’s degree but little job experience, for example, may lack the track record with the specific job requirements but may bring an abundance of “soft skills” — critical thinking, analysis, research, collaboration — that will prove valuable to your company over the years. Research suggests that a focused, hands-on education may even prepare a candidate better for a job than comparable work experience.

2. Go beyond the pleasantries.

Finding employees who align with your culture is difficult because smart candidates may be familiar with a company’s mission statement and core values and may weave key phrases into their interview responses. But a candidate saying the right things doesn’t automatically mean he’s aligned with your values.

Craft interviews carefully to ensure they go beyond the superficial. Ask questions that call for specific examples of how candidates have worked within similar cultures. Don’t let them get away with vague or general answers.

The team’s assessment should also probe more deeply than whether the candidate has equivalent experience. The questions Jeff Bezos kept in mind for hires as Amazon grew provide a useful template. Some are more specific, such as “Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?” while others, like “Will you admire this person?” and “Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?” are more nebulous. Questions like these give the team a window into the ways a candidate might impact the company’s culture.

3. Give them room to stumble.

Go beyond pat questions and answers. Give candidates a problem similar to what they will face on the job so they can talk about how they would approach and resolve the situation. Ask about challenges they have faced and elicit details on how they resolved those problems.

In both scenarios, listen closely for words, feelings and actions that align with your company’s core values and the needs of the position. Listen even more closely for things that don’t. For example, if collaboration is crucial but the candidate’s description is full of “I” statements, the candidate may not be a fit. Don’t ignore red flags like a candidate communicating inappropriately to the situation or avoiding your follow-up questions.

4. Get outside the box — and the HR department.

Don’t limit your recruiting efforts to the recruiter and the manager — get the team involved in the interviews. Candidates can meet with peers, direct reports and other colleagues. Your current employees are good at identifying who will be a strong fit.

While you’re mixing up the interview structure, also find different settings for these conversations. Engaging with candidates over a meal, via Skype or in a conference room provides additional information on how they react and interact in different settings.

To make this approach work, everyone involved will need some training to prepare. Discuss at length what this position entails and requires. Give the team specific criteria so they don’t fall back on nebulous feelings that replicate age-old hiring discrimination problems. For example, research shows that we tend to shy away from hiring people with longer commutes — a seemingly innocent bias that actually perpetuates racial and economic inequality.

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