Why Hiring for Culture Fit is a Bad Idea…

Ask most leaders today and unless they’ve been hiding under a rock, they’ll agree that culture is more important than compensation in attracting talent, motivating teams, and building successful companies. Build a great culture and chances are you’ll build a great company. Choose to leave your values and virtues undefined, and well…. Good luck.

So, it’s no surprise that in an age of corporate scandals, remote work burnout, and social isolation during the pandemic, companies have been doubling down on defining their culture and hiring for “cultural fit”. In fact, it’s one of the biggest reasons employers and employees decide to part ways with each other. How many times have we heard or said, “they just weren’t a good cultural fit” on the way out of the door?

So, why is it such a bad idea to hire for cultural fit?

First, let’s get something straight. Despite the controversial title, I’m not saying that culture fit isn’t important. In fact, culture is crucial! It’s what invigorates us in our jobs. It’s what makes us feel included and aligned with our company’s vision. So, of course we’d love if our next hire were someone who felt the same way – aligned with our values and vision.

The problem is that when managers hire for “cultural fit”, what they usually mean is that they like to hire candidates with whom they felt “most comfortable” or “clicked” with them during the interview. Oftentimes, this means they shared a similar background – perhaps they came from the same city, enjoyed the same activities, went to the same school, or had the same experiences in life. And if the interview doesn’t “flow” well, many managers might think it’s because the candidate wasn’t a “fit”.

It’s pretty easy to see how this idea of “fit” can unintentionally create bias in a hiring process – after all, most people feel more comfortable with people who have a similar background or ideas.

Recruit globally – the bigger the pool, the more diverse and balanced your team will be.

If you’re looking to create a top tier organization, you need to look for the best grouping of talent – an “all-star” team, if you will. Even in sports, no “all-star” team has a roster of people who look exactly the same. When was the last time you saw a great basketball team with players of the same height and skillset? This is why, at Ionic, we look to recruit globally – the bigger the pool, the better the chance of finding the best talent, and the more diverse the pool, the more well-balanced the team will be.

Here’s how we source and evaluate talent at Ionic:

Recruit global talent – we are a fully-remote company, so we recruit globally. If you’re not remote-ready, access the biggest and most diverse pool of talent you can.

Skills-based assessments – take the time to set up online assessments (cognitive and job specific skills) to help take the bias out of your recruiting. Anyone can write a great resume, but you want someone who can do the job well.

Interview systematically – In 1998, John Hunter and Frank Schmidt published an analysis (of their 85 years of research) that showed that typical, unstructured job interviews were worse than a coin flip in hiring the right person. In fact, interviews that are unstructured only predicts about 14% of an employee’s future performance.

Structured interviews are essential for evaluating talent. At Ionic, only after we assess candidates do we bring them in for an interview. And when we do, we interview in a structured manner – evaluating talent against the core traits that fit with our company’s values. We use the “MAC framework” – how well can someone “self-motivate”, “self-assess”, and “self-correct”? Whatever framework you use, ensure it aligns with your company’s values, aligns with the needs of the job, and is systematic in its approach on evaluating those things.

Unstructured job interviews are worse than a coin flip.

In a future blog post, we’ll dig into the MAC framework and talk about how we developed this framework after learning from some of the world’s most high functioning organizations. But until then, consider this – if you want to build a high potential and high performance team, focus less on cultural fit and more on recruiting from the biggest and most diverse pool you can access, and create processes to take the bias out of your interviews. You’ll find that your team will benefit greatly from talented people who align with your company’s values vs an interviewer’s idea of “cultural fit”.

Book notes: Trillion Dollar Coach – Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

The ‘cult’ of remote work evangelists believe that the lessons of ‘classic’ Silicon Valley companies are outdated and don’t apply to us. When it comes to mentoring and coaching – we couldn’t be more wrong.

Bill Campbell was a legendary mentor to Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jonathan Rosenberg, Sundar Pichai, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg and countless other important innovators of modern tech. If his advise was good enough for them – they’re definitely good enough for us…

Now – obviously in a remote world – mentoring and coaching are delivered via a different medium – but the approach largely stays the same. Many of us have a tendency to neglect the elements that Campbell did so effortlessly – but in reality – we need to be finding ways to increase the frequency of coaching delivered to our remote teams instead.

The isolation of remote team members require even more touch than in-person to maintain morale and alignment.

There are clearly some disadvantages in coaching remote – such as the difficulty to read body language and the development of trust. But many of the ‘Campbell-isms’ can be applied equally well remote – such as his methods of coaching directly, meetings, feedback and morale.

Remote also gives us several advantages – such as the frequency you can ‘see’ (via video) your team members, ability to provide feedback faster via async communications and the ability to make changes faster.

Here are some super raw notes

  • Campbell coached Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Sundar Pichai at Google, Steve Jobs at Apple, Brad Smith at Intuit, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, John Donahoe at eBay, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Dick Costolo at Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook
  • Campbell-isms:
    • Mentor gives advice – coaches get their hands dirty
    • Best coaches make good teams great
    • Title makes you a manager – your people make you a leader. 
    • You have to become a great manager before becoming a great leader 
    • Great coaches lay awake at night thinking about how to make their people/team better
    • Bill believed that what peers think of you is more important than managers think of you. 
    • 5 min favors go a long way – be generous
    • Love the founders – CEOs come and go but there will be only 1 founder 
    • If you’ve been blessed – be a blessing
  • Hiring:
    • 4 key characteristics to look for in hires – smart, integrity, work hard, grit 
    • When interviewing candidates – asking ‘how’ they achieved X is an important question. Will tell you if the candidate is hands on, doer, team builder, etc 
    • Big turnoff was if candidate was no longer learning – not asking enough questions 
    • Coachabilty is key to all successful players – look for this key trait in interviews, on the job, etc.
    • Keep note of how long they take before giving up. Also how they celebrate others’ success when peers succeed. 
    • Pay attention to people that show up and work hard everyday. Not everyone should be quarterback. 
    • Smarts and hearts 
  • Meetings:
    • Managers – be the last person to speak. Your job is to break ties and make decisions 
    • Start staff meetings w personal discussion. Get to know people and share stories – helps bring honesty and have more candor discussions in making decisions. Small talk is important – interest in people’s lives. 
    • In meetings – see the entire field – not just the person talking. Look around the room to see who’s committed and who is not. Then talk to them outside of the discussion to get them aligned.
    • 1:1s – personal, performance on goals, peer feedback, how to measure yourself amongst best in world
  • Rule of 2:
    • Pick the best 2 people in the org that know about subject to make the decision recommendation. He was big on ‘pairing’ people up to develop relationships but also bring the right subject matter experts together.
    • Team dynamics is often overlooked as important to success. Pair people up on projects. Helps build trust. 
  • Firing:
    • Letting people go is a failure of management – not the people being let go.
    • Important to let people leave with their heads held high – treat them well and with respect 
    • Send out note with their accomplishments as they depart 
    • Be clear early in conversation and provide details. Firings shouldn’t be a surprise. 
    • Treating departing people well is important to the moral of those staying. Many of who you lay off have closer relationships to continuing team members than you. Treat them with the appropriate level of respect. But company has to move forward – so don’t apologize too long. 
    • When you fire someone – you regret it for a day – then say you should have done it a long time before. 
  • Trust: 
    • Team must have a willingness to be vulnerable 
    • Trust enables you to have more direct conversations 
    • Phycological safety is the biggest factor in best, successful teams. Trust is key to that. 
  • Feedback:
    • Be candid and aggressive with negative feedback – you can do this if safety and trust is there. Candor plus caring.
    • Deliver negative feedback in private
    • Bill never had an elephant in the room – it was always directly on the table.  Trust was there to be able to talk about anything.
  • Morale:
    • Be a person that gives energy and not takes it away
    • When things are going bad – morale in the team is bad – and you can’t fix things when morale is bad. Need to build up team first to make changes. 
    • Work to revitalize the team then get to the problem. Teams can’t solve problems if they are a problem also.

Great lessons for all leaders – remote or otherwise… Read the book.

If anyone has additional notes from the book or ideas on remote company coaching in general – love to hear them! You can reach me on Twitter – @andytryba