Why Culture Matters: Finding a Cultural Fit for Your Team

Why Culture Matters: Finding a Cultural Fit for Your Team

March 25, 2021

We are pleased to share the first post in our latest series on Human Capital. Featuring practical insights on designing, building, and managing an organization’s growth, this series offers a new perspective on the most valuable resource any company has: its people.

Products, processes, and prices change with the market. And the market is volatile. If your company’s competitive advantage is based solely on a product, a process, or a price point, its ability to compete is subject to the whims of the market. But your company has one unique competitive advantage completely within its control: its culture.

Founded on values and built by leaders committed to those values, company culture can define a brand, inspire customers, and retain employees. It follows that hiring people who fit and will foster that culture should be a top imperative. One of the toughest challenges facing fast-growing companies is finding great talent. When your team is moving fast, it is tempting to hire fast. But that approach can ultimately be very costly.

Growing your leadership team and employee base means finding people with the additive quality of exponential productivity. That is, finding a “1+1=3” formula in every hire you make. The hidden component in that productivity equation is cultural fit.

Getting cultural fit right can unlock massive value for an organization. However, the costs of getting cultural fit wrong can be high, too.

Cultural Fit Matters

Cultural fit refers to how closely an employee’s attitudes, behaviors, and values align with those of the hiring organization. It also encompasses how well a candidate complements the existing team, in terms of shared values, company culture, and abilities that fill gaps within those of the existing team. Since culture is typically set and sustained from the top, this approach is especially critical when hiring leaders of teams.

Getting cultural fit right can unlock massive value for an organization. However, the costs of getting cultural fit wrong can be high, too. A candidate with all the right technical skills could still be a (costly) mis-hire since they cannot get things done within the organization because they are a bad fit. Muddling along with this person, and perhaps ultimately replacing them, means you and your team lose valuable time in a fast-moving and -growing organization.

It is important to articulate what “cultural fit” is not. Many leaders confuse cultural fit with shared interests, hobbies, alma maters, senses of humor or even hometowns. Even worse, “cultural fit” can become a conscious or unconscious way people discriminate while hiring, which will work against the company’s diversity and inclusion goals.

How can a company avoid painful mis-hires? One way is assessing cultural fit at every stage of the interview process.

Culture Fit and the Interview Process

Identifying fit is so crucial it sometimes warrants its own interview – the fit interview. Below are best practices to incorporate cultural fit into your process and conduct an effective fit interview specifically.

Company values are the bedrock of a strong culture. A company’s leaders build a strong culture by championing those values and modeling behaviors that reflect them.

1. Preparation

Company values are the bedrock of a strong culture. A company’s leaders build a strong culture by championing those values and modeling behaviors that reflect them. That means, if you and your team want to find a candidate that aligns with company culture, the company’s values must shape the culture-fit interview – especially when your team is hiring for a leadership role. An effective interview starts with preparation.

Interviewers – Before any interviews start, the interview team should understand cultural fit well. Assessing fit is not about finding a capable candidate; it is about finding a capable candidate who fits the organization and can work and lead effectively within it.

Furthermore, every interviewer should consider cultural fit as a filter for every conversation with the candidate. That might mean paying attention to the whole person during interviews (body language, self-awareness, etc.), how they treat admin support who schedule their interviews, or how they handle awkward technical glitches that sometimes happen on a Zoom call. It definitely means sharing interview notes, so the team can develop a clear 360-degree picture of the candidate. Or, it might mean participating in an interview specifically to determine cultural fit.

Yourself – If you are the dedicated fit interviewer, definitely familiarize yourself with their resume, but also educate yourself on what your team already knows about the candidate and layer your questions over that knowledge. If the candidate tells every interviewer the same anecdote, you will want to probe beyond that to hear about other experiences to get as much of a three-dimensional view as possible. Assess your own strengths and weaknesses and those of the team, so you can spot a candidate who complements you and your team. The best-fit candidate should be a functional fusion of complementary skills, attitudes, and values.

Candidates – Prepare candidates by telling them what to expect from the fit interview, how much time to budget, and the goal of the interview. Consider sharing the approach of a fit interview with them ahead of time. That means making sure they know what the company’s values are and ask them to come in prepared to talk about how they demonstrate those values not just in their work life, but in their total life.

 

2. The Interview

Cultural fit interviewers should set the context for the conversation. Consider these tips:

  1. Explain that this time is for getting to know the whole person – how they think, process information, solve problems, and communicate ideas. While it might not focus entirely on their career path, it is not just chit chat or friendly conversation. And, see if they can tell you what the company’s values are. (If they prepared well, then they should know this!)
  2. Explain your role at the company and in the interview process. You will be focusing on determining whether this candidate is a long-term fit with your team.
  3. Set expectations about how you plan to spend the interview time. We recommend 45-60 minutes, always leaving time for the candidate to ask a question or two at the end.
  4. Using the company’s values as a framework for the interview, let the candidate choose anything from their career or life that demonstrates the value that resonates most with them. Simply seeing which value they choose to lead with tells you something.  And, the example they share from their life tells you even more. Then dig into that one experience that they share. Ask probing questions and go deep. Don’t let them get away with vagueness. Ask them why that value resonates most. Choose questions that help you drill into company values and cultural fit in the context of how this person could fit into the equation to make 1+1=3. Shift gears and ask them to choose another value and give a different example of how they demonstrate it. Push them to share about themselves beyond work, so you really understand what motivates and drives them. Ask them about cultures or leaders that did not resonate with their own, and dig into why that was the case.
  5. Read between the lines. How a candidate responds to surprises, questions about past failures, or the unexpected can go miles in helping you understand what makes this person tick. What you are looking for is alignment with your organization’s core values. That does not mean cookie-cutter answers or things that “sound good” in an interview.
  6. Remember, although the interview may seem like a casual conversation instead of an interview at times, it is your chance to see the person behind the resume.

 

3. Follow-up

How you follow up after an interview can be as important as how you conduct it. Thank the candidate and set clear expectations for next steps. The market for talented leaders is very competitive. If you have a stellar candidate with potential to be a great fit, attention to details, like timely follow-up, an email that tells them why you are excited about their candidacy and what to expect next, or even just a personal phone call about next steps does, in fact, go miles to securing a great cultural fit.

 

Cultural Fit Dos and Do Nots

Always:

  • Stay aware of unconscious biases and preconceived notions that may lead to overlooking great candidates or overvaluing weaker ones.
  • Pay attention to a candidate’s reactions, body language, and where they get curious in the interview. Pull threads when your interest is piqued or when things don’t add up.
  • Remember, you are being interviewed, too. Candidates have options, so every interview should have an element of “selling” the candidate on the company, team, and opportunity.

Never:

  • Make assumptions about candidates, their backgrounds, or gaps in resumes. Get curious and ask questions instead.
  • Discuss politics, family status, social issues, or religion. You are assessing how candidates form opinions and solve problems – not what opinions they hold or lifestyles they live.
  • Confuse pedigree with potential. A stellar resume does not guarantee cultural fit.
  • Ignore red flags during the interview process. Chances are they will resurface later as serious problems if you hire the candidate.

 

In conclusion…

Hiring for cultural fit means hiring someone who “pluses-up” your team’s productivity and shares your organization’s values. To find fit, you and your team are looking for how a candidate thinks, solves problems, communicates, and leads or contributes to a team. Remember: your company needs people whose “1” plus your company’s “1” equals 3. You can make extraordinary hires by keeping cultural fit in the equation.

 

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Serent Capital invests in growing businesses that have developed compelling solutions that address their customers' needs. As those businesses grow and evolve, the opportunities and challenges that they face change with them. Principals at Serent Capital have firsthand experience at capturing those opportunities and navigating these difficulties through their experiences as CEOs, strategic advisors, and board members to successful growing businesses. By bringing its expertise and capital to bear, Serent seeks to help growing businesses thrive. Learn more about our portfolio companies.

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