Culture Fit is Vitally Important to a Newly-Hired Leader’s Success

As a premier expert in senior executive team building, Cathy Higgins of  C.A. Higgins & Associates has always driven home the importance of culture fit for a senior leader joining an organization. She asserts this characteristic is as important as the executive’s skills and technical responsibilities.  Karen Henry of Orange Coast Human Resources agrees,

“Culture fit is critically important, both for the candidate and for the hiring organization.  My approach is to always be transparent. If the organization needs a self-starter with initiative as opposed to someone who prefers a lot of structure and direction, I make that clear. Also, it’s helpful to recognize that candidates gather cues and clues about culture from what they observe, not just what is stated. For example, once when I was interviewing a candidate in Northern California, he took the fact that I wasn’t wearing socks as an indication that he would like the culture and joined the company. My retention rate with hires was over 95%, which is quite a feat in Silicon Valley.”

Culture issues account for as much as 50% of failures when an experienced leader joins a team in a key position.  This issue can be particularly sensitive when bringing in a new member of the leadership team to supervise others who are steeped in the organization’s current culture, especially when the new leader is actually being brought in to help evolve the culture.  Not surprisingly, the new leader runs into resistance.

Without Culture Fit, Hiring an Experienced Leader Won’t Fix Your Problems

Leadership Hires Made Without Considering the Context of Culture

It’s common to see CEOs of high growth organizations look to recruit a key member of the leadership team from outside the firm who can bring needed skills that aren’t currently available. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense because the organization is lacking the skills needed and wants to strengthen the organization’s bench, create a possible successor, and free the CEO up for more strategic work.

A typical profile of the candidate then, may be someone with years of experience from a larger firm in the desired skill area. Yet, too often, the hiring team gives little thought to evaluating the culture fit. Elements of the hire’s previous culture may have contributed to their success, and be missing at the new organization. The two case examples below both concern sales leaders, but the same issue arises with other disciplines.

Case Example #1: The “Silver Bullet” Rainmaker

I lived through this example many times over thirteen years at my former consulting firm, The Cambridge Group. “Rainmakers” from other consulting firms like McKinsey were hired with great expectations for their sales performance. Unfortunately, they quickly learned that McKinsey pricing and relationships did not translate into a smaller environment with a different brand name. 

Mid-level project directors who came from McKinsey to manage projects also typically were not able to make the adjustment. Their style of work was too bureaucratic and slow moving.  No one can argue that these individuals weren’t highly skilled consultants and/or successful salespeople. Unfortunately, despite considerable onboarding and training investments, their skills weren’t translatable. 

Over the years, I only saw only a few individuals make the transition.  The others typically left relatively quickly, as they didn’t appreciate going from being a high performer to not delivering, and having their compensation reduced.

Case Example #2: The Experienced Big-Firm Salesperson

A rapidly growing 100-person firm recently hired someone with specific sales channel expertise from a much larger 3,000-person firm. This individual had been focusing on this particular channel for several years.  When the sales executive came on board, she was expected to generate quick results.

But, the new company’s name didn’t “open doors” for her, and it turns out that her relationships were partially due to her former employer’s reputation and market clout.  Both she and the new employer overlooked the fact that the new, entrepreneurial brand she is now representing is radically different from her previous, large, well-known employer’s brand.  In this case, the hire from the large firm was a misfit with the smaller firm’s culture, and her experience was not translatable. After four months, she is no longer with the organization.

Assessing Culture Fit

The best way to assess cultural fit is to first define your own organization’s culture and values. Then, ask behavioral questions of candidates to understand the fit.  Karen Henry explains,

“As far as hiring, sit down with the leadership team to identify the characteristics and competencies they seek. From that, develop questions for the interview, to see how candidates feel about these cultural values.  Open-ended behavioral questions, as part of the interview process, make a big difference.”

After Hiring, Don’t Skip Onboarding the New Executive

As a leader, perhaps you are certain you are including culture fit in your hiring.  The next common issue I see is a lack of onboarding for the new executive. At times, this stems from a mistaken perception that the new leader should simply know how to get things done in the new organization. After all, isn’t that what they were hired for? The CEO is relieved to have the new leader in place and ready to move their attention on to the next challenge. While it may seem obvious, hiring alone won’t ensure a new executive’s success. Investing time in onboarding is also important.

Hiring a new executive is a particular challenge for organizations, because leaders are also expected to build the culture as well as participate in it. But being mindful of cultural fit during the hiring process and paying attention to onboarding will help smooth those challenges.