CIO Career: How Do You Screen For Cultural Fit?


It's Sunday night.  You review your commitments for the week, and it seems you have over committed yourself yet again.  You just can't find enough good people to cover your most important projects. 
Perhaps, you plan to double the size of your team, and now face the challenge of hiring an entire new group of people.  Maybe you need to replace your senior staff, and now have the opportunity to reshape the character of your group.
Whether you need to hire a whole team of experienced professionals, or just that golden one, you must think about how a new personality will fit your organization.  You probably know from experience that many, if not most failed hires stem from poor cultural fit.  On average, cultural mismatch accounts for about half of first year attrition. 
So what can you do to make sure you hire the right ones?
In many cases, rapid turnover costs more than not hiring at all.  If you take the time to calculate the cost, you will also think hard about how to reduce attrition.  Interviewing well and making good choices will begin to address this challenge.  If you look at your hiring practices, you will also look at how you screen intangibles. Screening for cultural fit is not easy, but there are some simple things you can do to help increase your success. 
1. Define yourself.  Any search professional will tell you that most clients describe their culture in similar ways.  "We are collaborative, entrepreneurial, open-minded, team-oriented and have a sense of humor."  Your recruiter will nod politely having heard this before.  If she is good, she will find other ways to put her finger on the pulse.  Even if she understands you though, it does not mean that you are aware of the signals you are transmitting. 
Using the same terms as other firms to describe your culture creates an obstacle for yourself, your candidates, and your recruiter.  Instead of screening broadly for intangibles, highlight one trait that you cannot do without.
Dave Sutton, former CEO of Inforte explains, "If you don't know what culture you have, you can't screen for it. We look for people who come from a culture of learning.  I may ask a silly question like, ‘How many golf balls are in the air right now?' If the candidate begins to enthusiastically analyze the problem, I know we are on the right track." 
2. Broadcast your values.  Once you have decided on the most important element of fit, don't keep it to yourself.  The people in your organization need to speak the same language, in order to provide you valuable feedback.  Each may react to a candidate based on their own biases, so you need to be sure that candidates are screened for values that are important to you. Neal Prescott, Executive Vice President of Digitas says he and his team conduct exit interviews, which provide them the opportunity to assess their own culture. ""  Neal assigns one person specifically to evaluate 

Hiring a top performer 
Top performers will provide maximum impact in a culture that suits them. Choosing an outstanding consultant means not just looking at past accomplishments, but understanding your own values and how the candidate reflects those values. 
One way to begin to define your culture is to ask others what they think your values really are.  You can begin to do this by surveying your key stakeholders about their views of your firm.  Try using a forced choice assessment.
The idea is to push your team to make a choice so that you can see where there is correspondence, and where you need to probe more deeply.  The highest rate of consistency will illuminate your most dearly held values, while unevenness will show you where you need to define and communicate your culture.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself about the high achievers on your staff.  Focusing on high achievers will not only tell you where you are, but where you want to be:

  • 1. Are your outstanding employees more exceptional achievers or more team players?


  • 2. Do they excel more in client communications or internal communications?


  • 3. Are they more knowledgeable about an industry or highly intelligent and adaptable?


  • 4. Do they depend more on logic or intuition to solve client problems?


  • 5. Are they more concerned with getting the right answer or making a strong impression on the client?


  • 6. Are they better at staying on task or creatively solving a problem, even if it takes more time to reach a conclusion?


  • 7. Are they more of a team leader or a self-starting entrepreneur?

Take these questions and create a simple email survey, which your staff can respond to quickly.  Try to include six or more participants to give yourself a basis for comparison.  Make sure to take the survey yourself.
When the answers come back, take a look at how they stack against your own.  The answers that match your own and are (consistent) are likely to indicate that you understand and are communicating your culture well in those areas.
The questions that receive an uneven response are the areas to dig into.  Talk with your stakeholders and ask people in your organization what their thoughts are.  You will learn a lot about your team's perceptions of themselves and you.  You will then have the raw materials from which to begin to strengthen or change your culture.

cultural fit, but relies on his whole team for insight.  According to Neal, "People will self-select out of the interview process, if you are forthcoming about your culture."
3. Assign specific interviewers with the task of screening fit.  Interviewing and hiring are critical to business growth, but often take a back seat to urgent projects.  It is challenging enough to get meetings scheduled.  Assigning one or two individuals with the specific task of screening cultural fit will begin to provide you with consistent, almost measurable input about your potential hires.  Their increasing capability and your increasing trust in their abilities will help you make effective decisions quickly, and save your team valuable interview time.
Stacey Martin, Human Resources Manager for AMS-CGI, says that she conducts fit interviews for her team.  She does not use a fixed set of questions, but does focus on several important cultural elements. "The candidate must want to own a piece of the business, yet work in an ambiguous, global environment." She reports a low attrition rate based on poor cultural fit. Instead, she attributes most experienced hire departures to lack of knowledge or delivery failure.
4. Test for one cultural element and feel the rest.  If you define your culture in a few words, it becomes much easier to measure candidates against that benchmark.  Do not be afraid of missing the big picture while screening the details.  Many hiring managers use the "airport test" as their primary screen. They think, "if we get stuck in an airport together for 6 hours, will I be able to stand this person." Trust that you will know that and much more, even if you test for only one specific trait.
Peter Blatman, IT Strategy lead partner for Deloitte Consulting says," In an interview, we look for collaboration crediting the whole team.  If the person uses the word ‘I' a lot, it raises a flag.  I prefer to hear about the candidate's contribution, while giving credit to the team. If the team succeeds, you succeed."  Peter holds collaborative skills as a determining factor to consider while making hiring decisions.  His interviews, however, will also reveal a lot about a candidates leadership capabilities, their professional insight and their client skills. 
He trusts that he will get a rich evaluation, even if he probes one specific area.
5. Do not forget that interviews are a two-way street.  Candidates looking at new opportunities begin by defining their own desires.  This includes functional and industry focus, size of company, travel requirements and other tangible benefits an employer has to offer.  When asked what differentiates opportunities, however, most say it's the people.  The new company "feels" like a good place to work.  They are expressing their reaction to a company's culture.
Mitch Rosenbleeth, Regional Managing Partner for Booz Allen Hamilton describes a formalized process, which encourages interviewees to ask questions evaluating Booz Allen's culture.  This provides a screening mechanism, as well providing information to the prospective hire.  He recognizes that the candidate must understand and accept the culture in order to succeed.  "We recently had a senior level candidate, who asked questions like, ‘Who do I need to get to know?' and ‘How do I build my team here?'  That is the type of person who will fit in here."
The decision to move to a new company is emotional as well as rational.  Letting a candidate know your values, and that you are screening his fit will add to his comfort level.  Screening for cultural fit gives you a competitive advantage in a tight hiring market.  You transmit your organization's personality through the questions you ask, as much as the statements you make.
6. Use your search firm as a resource.  Hiring managers generally do not rely on search professionals to screen cultural fit.  Just as you would not rely on a search firm for the final decision about skills, you should not rely on a search firm for the final decision about cultural fit.  You can, however, obtain clues about a candidate's style and values from your recruiter, especially if you have a long-term relationship with your search consultant. 
Many times the most valuable asset a recruiter offers is their ability to provide feedback about intangibles.  Recruiters make decisions every day about who they want and don't want in their personal networks.  A question you might ask your recruiter is, "How valuable would this person be as a member of your network?"  Or "Apart from this search, under what circumstances would you reach out to this person?" At minimum you should ask the recruiter to provide feedback about the candidate's motivations.  If you miss that, you are not taking advantage of a valuable resource.
A clear assessment of your firm's culture is a valuable asset and competitive differentiator to be used when hiring.  Once you have a good understanding of your values, you can communicate them to your organization and use them to screen candidates.  You will screen more effectively and attract higher quality candidates. This will help lessen turnover and will make you a more attractive employer creating a more cohesive, profitable organization.
About the Author
Jason SandersJason is the Managing Director of J. Sanders Associates, an Executive Search Firm. To find out more about Jason or to network with him, please click here.?

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