Hiring for Cultural Fit… One More Nonsensical Idea

Businessman escapes from the crisis on a paper boatWe all know that human resource departments are fertile ground for fads and notions that sound much better than they actually are. Much of this irrational exuberance is due to the fact that HR managers, constantly in search of new silver bullets, are overly quick to embrace ideas that excite the imagination in the abstract but turn out to be speculative, overly simple, not really measurable in terms of what they contribute to the organization, and whose failure or lack of impact is relatively easy to rationalize after the fact.

Once such idea is called hiring for cultural fit. Implementation of this strategy means evaluating candidates against some broad (read ill-defined) statement of cultural attributes first and then, for those who pass that threshold, assessing skills or competencies. Some bloggers seem to endorse the idea, and there are consultants who now claim to be able to help companies hire precisely in this way. Who doesn’t love American opportunism?

The belief that culture is the principal driver of corporate greatness effectively took root with Tom Peters’ publication of In Search of Excellence in 1982. He argued very persuasively that he had discovered eight common practices that produced high performance cultures and led to exceptional performance. In 1994, with Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras followed suit with their own list of eighteen visionary companies whose “enduring greatness” features (consciously driven cultural characteristics) could also be synthesized and replicated.

Other writers have also promoted these simple cultural formulae, but the point to be made is that in all of these cases, their research was dubious and their conclusions were based upon selective, subjective observations. For the full explanation and proof of this, read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig (Free Press, 2007). It is one of the most insightful business books ever written.

Rosenzweig’s research offers evidence that instead of cultures seeding high performance, the reverse is true: A highly performing organization spawns the cultural attributes that Peters and Collins saw as causal. Although these characteristics may be common in many highly performing organizations, they do not coalesce into some universal formula that explains success. In fact, a large percentage of those companies with “high performance” cultures – today’s heroes – eventually become tomorrow’s dogs!

Not convinced?

Just take a look at the lists compiled by Peters and Collins. A great many variables affect a company’s performance, most of them related to the marketplace and their competitors, which are beyond the control of a company’s management. Guess what happens to the cultures of those once high flyers when their performance begins to tank?

So, how does this relate to hiring for cultural fit? It’s a chicken and egg thing. Hire for the culture (most often a list of vague notions without an iota of supporting evidence) and you’re likely to overlook the exceptional performance skills and talents that fostered the “culture” in the first place! You may acquire some “good” team players and people who appear to meet some nebulous definition of leadership potential, but that’s shooting at the wrong target and is likely to exclude those rare, incredibly talented individualists who make the difference, but who don’t conform to stereotypes.

Cultures change as players come and go, starburst products flame out, strategies evolve leaving things behind and requiring a journey in a new direction, and the marketplace and competitors exert new and unexpected forms of pressure. What types of problems will you exacerbate by hiring people who are aligned, loosely at best, to a culture that will inevitably change?

Unless you have an HR mandate to experiment for the sake of experimenting, it makes more sense, financially and with respect to shareholder value, to look for exceptional talent in every role and let the culture take care of itself.

__________________________________________________________________________13259f4For more than forty years, Frank Gump has been helping corporations become more productive and profitable by helping management teams identify and hire top performers and manage them most effectively. Developed and refined through extensive experience in more than 1200 organizations in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia, ADGI’s Organizational Management System (OMS) is a finely calibrated, technologically advanced decision-making process offering the potential for enormous payback. Contact ADGI for more insight and connect with Frank on LinkedIn. Follow ADGI on Twitter @ADGIGroup. Like ADGI on Facebook and follow us on Google+.

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