Empowered Team

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Hiring For Cultural Fit - Redux

Chris Wilkinson

Head of Talent @ Forward Partners

Culture and hiring for cultural fit - particularly in tech - is a widely debated topic right now. Perhaps we can attribute some of the hype back to when this deck was cited by Sheryl Sandberg as being “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” The reality of course is that cultural fit has been widely adopted as a core hiring priority for some time and in most industries - not just technology.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understand that being able to articulate in detail the behaviours and skills that you value in employees is critical for hiring success;
  • Understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ process for screening for cultural fit - especially not ‘the beer test’;
  • Understand that the wrong cultural fit will be toxic and damaging to your company;
  • Understand that the definition of wrong cultural fit will change as your business evolves as values are never stationary.

However, what is clear, from reading the various articles and attending many events on this topic, is that there is no clear consensus on how to hire for cultural fit - especially in hyper-growth scenarios that require scalable and repeatable processes. The challenge in building a process that screens for cultural fit comes from the fact that many companies struggle to define what culture is let alone articulate what their culture might look like to anyone that is not part of it.  

Some companies like Transferwise tried adapting principles from Robert Sutton's business text and baked the ‘No Assholes, No Bitches’ policy into their hiring process. However, this approach still doesn't satisfy the need for a solid and scalable hiring framework that screens for cultural fit. How do you know if someone is an asshole, who decides if you are one and most importantly, how do you screen for assholes at scale?  

More often than not, processes aimed at screening for cultural fit tend to boil down to a simple ‘beer test’ with the interviewer. The problem here is that simply enjoying someone’s company for half an hour is no guarantee of cultural fit. At Forward Partners the challenge in hiring for cultural fit is particularly acute due to the stage at which we encourage entrepreneurs to think about building scalable hiring processes. Typically at the very early stage founders like to hire people from their immediate known network or their friends (a tactic that can be very effective).  

Transitioning from hiring people that you like and know can be an emotionally tough decision and often coincides with founders having to think of their business as a very different type of organisation. To build a hiring process founders have to start putting in the building blocks internally to address the challenges of how to think of themselves as an organisation; how to brand themselves; and how to articulate to others what the market opportunity is. Put simply - we ask entrepreneurs to think of what cultural fit means to them from the get go and very few of them get it right straight away. Over the past three years our team has helped founders through a number of scenarios when broaching the subject of hiring for cultural fit. Below we outline a few of these scenarios along with some tips we have found useful in the hope that you find them useful too.  

What does cultural fit mean?

Founders often struggle to articulate what cultural fit means to them and their company. Google uses the term Googliness to articulate cultural fit for them but this is only useful when everyone knows what it actually means. One way of defining what your cultural fit is in the context of hiring is the set of values, assumptions and skills that people need to be successful in your business. In our experience these differ wildly from company to company. Facebook looks for ‘builders’ and in the early days they were vocal about looking for candidates that liked to ‘move fast and break things’. Conversely a company like WorldRemit was founded by one of the world’s foremost experts on remittances and money transfer and as a result they built one of the USP’s around a culture of hiring for deep subject matter expertise. A financial startup dealing with people's money needs to convey a certain level of stability to its customers and as a result they might not want to be seen as a ‘move fast and break things’ company thus their culture needs to reflect this.  

This sliding scale also applies when considering the scope for accepting those who do not ‘fit’. In our experience, an early stage startup that relies on informal working relationships and individual initiative requires a close ‘fit’. However, as a business starts to scale they tend to rely on a more orthodox management set-up and in this scenario some degree of cultural deviation may be acceptable. They key challenge here is around identifying what values, assumptions and skills are important to your business and deciding on how comfortable you are deviating from them when hiring.  

Tips:

Internal alignment is key.

It's critical to understand and be able to articulate in detail the behaviours and skills that you value in employees and ensure that everyone in your team can as well. At Forward Partners we encourage founders to constantly check themselves against the following questions and we encourage them to repeat this exercise each time the organisation has gone through a significant milestone (fundraising, significant team size change etc...)  

With your team:

Imagine your company is a person at a party, who would they be? Describe them.

Describe your product and then your brand in three words each.

What’s your big mission? What change is your company trying to create in the world?

What values does your brand stand for? Choose the 5 key values that you feel best define your brand.

How do you bring your brand values to life in your team interactions? List 5 ways (using any/all of your brand values).

Thinking about the way your team interacts with each other, do all the brand values you have chosen apply as “team values”? Are there any you would add? Pick up to 6 values you would use to describe your current team interactions and see if they are the same as your brand values.

Now write down 6 values you would (think like, 12 months down the track)

What would a team displaying your aspirational values (the ones you chose in Exercise 3) feel like? (How would they bring those values to life? What would the office space look like – buzzy and lively? Quiet and determined? What would celebrations look like?)

What kind of stuff would you see, watching the team over the course of a typical week? Jot down three ideas.

Screening for cultural fit

There is no ‘one size fits all’ process that works in this scenario. Generally, the best advice is to have an experienced interviewer running the process, involve as many people as possible in the hiring process (within reason), and have a scoring system i.e. a candidate matrix complete with a scoring card that every interviewer uses to score a candidate numerically on cultural fit.  

However, there are pros and cons to this approach. Hiring well is difficult, and having the team help with interviewing can enhance candidate evaluation, and improve the prospects of securing a target hire. On the other hand, co-ordinating schedules can slow the process down, not everyone is a great interviewer, and there is a risk of mixed messages being communicated if the team is not properly in sync with the management team.

Tips:

Make sure you have the right people managing the interview process

Do you have trained and smart interviewers running the process that really know what a good candidate looks like? If not then consider using a trusted and experienced contact, agency and / or your investors (if they have an internal talent function) to run the interview process. Simply relying on a last minute search of ‘What to ask in an interview’ and printing it out will not work. Nor will anything less than an hour per session suffice. We have seen hires brought on board after a 15 - 30 minute coffee session where they simply do a run through of a CV - this is not an interview and more to the point this will not give you any colour on potential cultural fit.  

Thorough interviewing requires deep subject matter expertise, significant pattern recognition from running a lot of interviews and hiring people as well as the confidence and ability to push back, probe and interrogate in a manner that continues to engage and excite the candidate rather than scaring them off.  

Fully brief the team

For every member of your team going into an interview they will need to understand the cultural requirements and key indicators that you are screening the candidate against as much as the person running the process does. Good candidates will be put off by anyone that fails to understand what the requirements are - they want to ensure fit too. This is also another chance to ensure that the candidate comes in to the team with their eyes wide open and knows what works and what doesn't in your company.  

Debrief

Each interview will be different and some of the messages, themes, red flags that come out of the session will vary. Make sure that you properly coordinate and share feedback amongst the team. By doing this you will continue to build up a detailed picture of what the team thinks and ensure that there is continuity in your messaging to the candidate.  

Go with your gut

There is no substitute for gut feel. If you are not sure and the team is not absolutely sure then don't hire. As previously mentioned, the pain of making a wrong hire is worse than the pain endured delaying a hire.  

Useful Links:

Chris Wilkinson

Head of Talent @ Forward Partners

Chris has helped build the leadership teams for some of the world’s most innovative digital companies. Prior to Forward Partners he was a Senior Associate at the digital headhunting firm The Up Group and placed C'level executives at companies such as Skyscanner, JUST EAT, WorldRemit and Circle. Chris is passionate about disruptive businesses and is now hands-on with helping Forward Partners’ portfolio scale their businesses from a people perspective. In his spare time Chris enjoys playing jazz piano, writing sitcom scripts and drinking IPA.

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