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Monday, Feb, 12, 2018

Choosing Who Will Play Well in Your Culture

Hiring for an executive position?  People at this level profoundly impact your culture (for better or worse) by their style, values and attitudes. To be successful they need to be accepted by their team, boss and peers and understand “how we do it around here.”. It’s a tricky road when your new leader is also expected to change your culture.

Outsiders do bring a fresh perspective but need to be careful they don’t alienate people in the process – a difficult predicament. Perhaps that is why 92% of Fortune’s top 100 company’s CEOs came from internal promotions.  The insider has a definite advantage.  Some 64% of executive outsiders are fired or displaced in the first 18 months, compared to 38% of insiders.

But how can you know who will be able to play well in your company culture? While most organizations do a good job of matching candidates to the knowledge and skills needed for the job, it is more complex to assess who will be in tune with the “invisible rules” and cultural values that will make or break them.

First, Know Your Culture

The reason culture is difficult to define is because it is largely invisible (beliefs, assumptions, values, habits).  It reveals itself in the language people use, the policies (empowering, controlling?), how decisions are made (autocratic, inclusive), the level of transparency and inclusion in communicating and the stories that circulate about key successes and failures.  Culture includes the daily habits of how work is done. 

You can see what is really valued (not the espoused values) by what and who gets attention and appreciation. What does your company care deeply about? Nordstrom cares about customer service, Google prizes innovation, NASA is all about teamwork, the Union of Concerned Scientists cares about scientific integrity, Tom’s mission is giving poor kids new shoes, Amazon and FedEx are passionate about the customer’s need for delivery speed.  

Second, Design Good Interview Questions and Process

Be prepared by having thought through your questions in advance.  Behavioral interviews in which you invite candidates to tell a story about how they handled something in the past are very revealing, because you see what they did rather than a fantasy about how they would handle a future scenario perfectly.  Some good questions might include:

·         Tell me about a time when you needed to implement a large change process.  What are you proud of?  What would you do differently? (See how they collaborated, made decisions, planned, worked with others, etc.)

·         When working with your team in the past, tell me what you most needed, valued and expected from your staff. (What they expect)

It is also revealing to have a candidate give a presentation about a topic (what they see as the key trends impacting your industry and opportunities for the future).  This is the mindset they are entering your organization with and will drive their decisions.

Consider using a team for interviewing to get multiple perspectives.  We all have biases, so it is a way to circumvent hiring in your own image. Allow possible direct reports to interview final candidates.  They are usually excellent at detecting who will fit.

Many corporations have also found pre-assessment testing or psychological evaluations to be helpful and revealing.

Third, Use Your Networks to Look Deeper

People who have powerful networks can be very advantageous in generating a fresh strategic picture of strengths and opportunities.  Strong potential allies with industry savvy is a definite plus . Check out their LinkedIn connections.

It is harder to get references from past employers these days, but people who have left the company or know the person through another network might be very useful.  It is also revealing to see how the candidate acts when not “on stage:” Invite them to chat over coffee, take them around the building and have an informal conversation, ask the receptionist his/her impression.

Fourth: Assess the Data, Use Your Intuition

You have your criteria, the interview data, you have assessed each candidate on each desired attribute and now you need to make the final decision.  Beyond the logical, rational assessment your intuition might be broadcasting a signal (this person will be terrific or something feels off here).  Don’t dismiss this data. 

Goleman (Social Intelligence) describes the “neural wifi” where we actually exchange information nonverbally, brain to brain.  This information reveals if the person is anxious, calm, vibrant, inspiring, and so on.  When you combine this with observing if body language and tone seem congruent to what is being said, you can pretty accurately feel if someone is being honest (we sense incongruence as a feeling of caution, lack of trust).

Just be aware of your own biases: we like to hire someone who is just like us! This is where team interviewing and gathering multiple perspectives are so valuable.


Picking the best candidate is a critical first step but they need your help in the first 100 days for the things they can’t know, no matter how much of a super star: your culture, history, key relationships, strategic and operational situation.  In over 15 years of onboarding new executives they always reflect on how valuable onboarding was to their success and feeling welcomed and supported from day one creates strong bonds of loyalty.


Connie Meyer is president of Performance Partners®, a management consulting company in the Washington DC area.  

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