Will your next executive hire fit your organization’s desired Culture? Why you should care, What you should know, and How to ensure.

I founded my consulting business in 1991 based on a premise: ”Entrepreneurs don’t build businesses…they build teams who build businesses.”  The wisdom in this saying was in the building of teams.  The right teams.  And how do we do that?  By getting the right people on the bus, says Jim Collins, co-author of ”Built to Last” and author of ”Good to Great.”

Yes, and it takes more than that, I challenge.  Over my thirty-five year career in recruiting and organization development consulting I’ve seen many good recruiting matches come together, only to fall apart before their natural expiration date.  Why? The most common answer is that the new employee really didn’t fit the culture, or couldn’t live within the culture, or the culture changed and left them behind.  It wasn’t that they didn’t have the technical skills, industry skills, good communication skills, the energy and drive to succeed, or any of the other ingredients we read about in our job descriptions.

We must get the right people on the bus, and then we need to inspire, engage, develop, and retain them.  Maybe a leader can do that for one, two, three, ten, maybe even 20 people.  But as the organization grows…sooner or later they will need to rely on the culture of the organization to leverage their leadership impact on all employees.

So, you are wondering, how do we do that?  How do we create talent matches with organizational culture that will be productive and last a long time?  I work with my clients to understand their current culture, decide on their “desired culture” and what they want from new executive team members, and then assess executive candidates for best fit.  Once hired, we then onboard carefully and keep an open dialogue going to get constant feedback.   

Let’s look at each of these elements of successfully matching and developing talent for our desired cultures.

First: Know our Culture.

Groups, tribes, and nations are defined by their cultures.  Observe, document, engage, design, test, plan, implement, and then re-test and re-design our desired culture. Will we have the same exact culture at 200 employees as we had at 10?  If not, what do we want to change about our culture and who do we want to become?   Why?

We need to identify the culture in existence today. Culture is created at the top.  Everyone knows to look to the owner, CEO, GM, or team boss to find the source of our culture.  Each person we hire onto the executive team will be seen by their subordinates as a creator or reinforcer of culture.   What are the norms, expectations, and shared experiences of our employees today?

Second: Design our Desired Culture.

Once we accurately and thoroughly identify our current culture, then we ask ourselves if this truly is the best culture for our current and future organization.  What is our Mission? What are our Values? How can we best live our mission and values and allow for maximum passion in our employees? How can our culture help us to be more competitive in the marketplace? Recruit the best talent?  Raise capital?  Better serve our customers? Provide a higher quality product?

Draw a picture of our desired culture, document it, and create a written plan detailing how to move our current culture to become more like our envisioned “desired” culture.  This is the primary focus of Organization Development, the study and art of change in organizations.

Ed Catmull, Co-Founder of Pixar Animation Studios, often reminded his teams that their priority was not to be fast, or for work to be easy…their priority was quality.  Thus, he worked tirelessly to instill a culture that valued quality and encouraged behaviors reflective of a culture necessary to deliver quality in their animated films. (“Creativity, Inc.” 2014. Ed Catmull.)

Private Equity (PE) firms are in the business of successfully building businesses.  They live or die by their success in creating shareholder value, building enduring organizations, and knowing what matters.  To quote Dan Costello, Partner in the PE firm TSG Consumer Capital: “Company culture really matters.  Brands lose direction without it.  Having an empowered team that believes in the brand and vision is critical to the unpredictable entrepreneurial journey.” Know our desired culture.

Phil Knight, founder of Nike, fought for years to build “A new type of Shoe company” and nurtured a distinct culture that fought at every turn for survival against the big competitors, greedy suppliers, industry titans, and government bureaucrats. Nike’s culture was their secret weapon, and Phil knew the importance and value of having the right people on the bus, regardless of the “creative marketing idea of the day” or past experience of any one person. A culture of passion prevailed to become a business today worth $100 billion.

Hint: if the current executive leadership team struggles to agree on the desired culture, don’t worry…help can be found!  The work and effort to come to agreement on culture is itself a bonding exercise that pays big dividends.  If that doesn’t work…and you still cannot agree…then your executive team is in serious trouble!

Third: Identify what we want in our Executive Candidate.

Do we want someone to preserve and reinforce our current culture?  Or lead their teammates to a new or different culture?   Or figure out our Desired Culture for us?  Though not a tangible or measurable requirement like “Must have 10+ years of experience in our industry,” this requirement is critical. We must know our cultural expectations of each executive-level candidate before we interview or hire them.  Gain agreement, and then make these expectations clear in the Job Description.

Fourth: Assess Candidates for Best Fit.

Determine how to assess candidates for these cultural requirements documented now in our Job Description.  How would we know the candidate possesses the right values, habits, intentions, and tools to create and reinforce our desired culture?  And…how will our interview and selection process help us to know? At a minimum we could just rely on our “gut feel” when we meet candidates, since we are intimately familiar with the culture of our own organization.

When the stakes are high, and gut-feel isn’t enough, then we put more effort into candidate assessment and selection for impact on our client’s organizational culture.  Get to know a candidate’s motivations in life, career aspirations, basic principles, current life priorities, and references from past employers, teammates and subordinates.  Engage them in conversations that encompass many aspects of their work lives and decisions.  Find out what inspires them and, conversely, turns them off. Get to know their decision making by engaging in behavioral interviewing.  Involve others in the selection process, with the specific goal of assessing their potential cultural impact on your organization.

Ask candidates about their values, intentions, preferred work styles, and how they would create or reinforce your desired culture.  Sometimes candidates can be very eloquent about their own impact on and preference for specific elements of organizational culture.

Fifth: Onboarding.

I chuckle when organizations tell me ”we properly onboarded our new executive in the first week on the job!” Onboarding takes weeks, months, and sometimes years.  Onboarding is the process of guiding, mentoring, and supporting a new member of the team until that point when they can take full responsibility for their own development and success in the organization.  How long do you think that takes?  And…who benefits if they succeed?  Onboarding is worth the effort for both parties.

Onboarding is constant, persistent, active, and interactive.  With open communications, we get meaningful feedback and can then design systems and procedures to adjust behavior and expectations. Like a heat-seeking missile, the hired candidate will hone in on the desired culture through proper onboarding activities.  We then solidify desired attitudes and actions through rewards for and reinforcements of the correct behaviors that support the cultural impact we desire.

Though we cannot touch or measure the cultural impact of candidates when reading their resumes, exchanging emails, or even quick phone calls, assessing cultural impact is vital in the hiring of executives.  Though not often listed in job descriptions, knowing what we want from candidates to achieve or preserve our “desired” cultures is also critical.  Knowing, assessing, and then supporting executives in achieving desired culture is the oft-missing key to success in leading our organizations.

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