How to Stop Leaders from Focusing on Cultural Fit
“They wouldn’t fit in here,” a senior leader says. “They wouldn’t be a fit with our culture.”
I can’t recall how many times in my career I have heard this feedback as leaders are assessing talent to join their organizations. Not a cultural fit. Couldn’t work here. Just wouldn’t fit in with the team. Don’t see them getting along with everyone else.
It’s an instinct. It’s a gut feeling. It’s a premonition. The leader has assessed so much talent in their career. They know who will succeed and who won’t succeed here. The leader knows best.
Cultural fit has increasingly become dangerous code language. When leaders don't want to hire someone, them not being a cultural fit can be a last-resort way to reject them. And because no one wants to be responsible for being the one to have made a “bad hire,” we move onto the next candidate. The one that will be a “cultural fit.”
How do we define our work cultures? It’s the values, behaviors and sometimes unspoken and unwritten rules of how we operate and get business done. Rather than leaving culture as a vague term that's then up to interpretation, we need to be specific on what makes up our cultures and what qualities will make individuals successful in our organizations.
So how do you stop leaders from using those two words? Start with these three principles.
1. Discourage questions that are synonymous with cultural fit
Leaders might stop using the words cultural fit, but that doesn't stop them from asking questions that come back to the same vague principle. Here are some questions to watch out for:
Could I travel with this person post-pandemic and make small talk in the airline lounge?
Could I enjoy a glass of wine with this person?
How can I assess our chemistry over video?
Would I invite this person to my home for dinner?
Would I trust this person to watch my children? (As a friend pointed out, if they don't like children, does that make them a bad person?)
Ensure the focus is on evaluating talent on a skills fit and a values fit to avoid bias in evaluating individuals.
2. Focus on skills fit
What are the key skills needed to do this job successfully? What are the prior experiences that would enable this individual to make impact in this role? And what did the job description actually say?
For example, if you are hiring someone for a performance marketing role, you will want to ensure they have expertise in customer acquisition, email marketing, ecommerce merchandising, website analytics and optimization and more. You want to focus on their track record of success, find out what they have learned from their mistakes and get a good understanding of where their expertise lies.
Ask yourself what skills are a must-have, and what skills are a nice-to-have. No one individual will check all the boxes for all of the skills you are looking for. Remember that you are also looking for talent who will learn and grow with the organization.
3. Define your values, then evaluate for values fit
You can’t assess and hire for a values fit if you don’t have a clear articulation of what your values are. Ensure your organization’s values are well defined. Then use those values as criteria for how you evaluate if talent will be successful at your organization.
Starbucks outlines the values it lives by, including “acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and with each other.” A key question to ask a candidate for a job at Starbucks would be: Tell me about a time you had to lead with courage and conviction to challenge the status quo.
Another example of a company that outlines its values is Google. It cites as its values the “10 things we know to be true.” One of the 10 things Google knows to be true: Fast is better than slow. A key question to ask a candidate would be: Can you reflect on a time you brought a product to market and how that process from start to finish could have been faster than it was?
And finally, Whole Foods focuses on six core values. “We promote team member growth and happiness” is a key value that is critical to its success. It creates empowering environments where people can flourish and reach their highest potential. Based on this core value, a key question to ask a candidate would be: Tell me the ways in which you have enabled your teams to be successful at work and at home in this pandemic. How have you been a role model for focusing on your own mental and physical wellbeing?
When you are clear about what you stand for, and the values that make up your culture, it then becomes easier to evaluate talent fairly and consistently. Let’s stop focusing on cultural fit. Let’s start focusing on the skills and the experiences great talent will bring to our organizations.