November 16, 2018

Leverage Culture for Better Hires

Walker White

Walker White
Senior Vice President, Products/Flexera

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The sad truth is that people are typically hired for what they know, but they are usually released for who they are. The cost of hiring the wrong people is staggering: according to Forbesat least 30% of the employee’s first-year salary. It’s also well understood that a company with good culture will outperform those lacking good culture. The famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, is one of my favorites.

At BDNA, we combined behavioral interview techniques with our corporate culture. The success rate was not perfect, and we never expected it to be. However, we did find that this approach led to fewer bad hires, particularly in the leadership ranks, where failures are even more costly.

Here are four key elements to better hires:

1. Know your Culture

To be effective, you must understand your culture. This is no easy task, and I’ll not propose a method to uncover it here. However, be sure you do the hard work to uncover your real culture, not what you want it to be or the slogans you put on a wall. Remember your culture is not what YOU say it is, it is what OTHER people say it is, including your customers. Dig in courageously; embrace the good and work hard on the bad.

We have all worked for organizations that have put thrown together value statements about which the employees privately scoffed. Fixing “bad” elements of your culture is a very time-consuming process. At BDNA, we had a value around customer success, but our real culture around it was very reactive; we sprang into action when things went wrong. While it was painstaking to re-build that culture to be proactive, it was worth the effort.

2. Believe in your Culture

A common question I was asked by candidates was, “What makes someone successful at BDNA?”. Since we understood our culture well, it was easy to answer: people who exhibit the traits of our culture succeed; others did not. Our culture had 6 elements, three around “living” the BDNA way, and three around “working” the BDNA way:

  • Be Good: Follow the golden rule, treat others with respect, and act with integrity in all things
  • Play to Win: Work hard, desire to be the best, and always persevere
  • Have Fun: Maintain perspective, don’t take yourself too seriously, and laugh often
  • Think Customer: Walk in their shoes, get ahead of problems, and make solutions scaleable
  • Take Action: Embrace velocity, act decisively, and be courageous through change
  • Better Together: Be a passionate team player, practice and foster transparency, and always be willing to pick up a shovel

Be certain you can easily and immediately describe your culture in simple, understandable terms. If you struggle to remember the values or can't describe them concisely, they may not be the right ones...or the real ones. Also, if you’re trying to change your culture, you’ll need to believe in where you're headed and hire towards it.

3. Ask the Right Questions

With your culture in hand, its time to develop the questions. Behavioral interviewing is well documented by others. The method I use is from Manager Tools that they first discussed 10 years ago, and it’s simple and timeless. It requires the “lead” (describing the job requirement), the “question”, and the “behavior” for which you are looking. For example, “We often have to work with difficult people. Describe a time you had to work with someone others would have described as difficult.”

Behavioral questions force long answers, and long answers allow you to discern if a person will fit your culture. If you’re an active listener, the opportunities and areas to probe further present themselves clearly. I always found myself asking at least one clarifying question or asking for further explanation, digging deeper on how they reacted to a situation and if that matched our culture. Don't be distracted by the “what” of the answers and lose sight of what you’re trying to find out, which is more about the “who” and “how”.

4. Pair your Questions with Your Culture

I tried to interview every employee that came to BDNA. As the organization grew, my interview became more of a sales pitch, as I trusted my team to have screen candidates against our culture. However, when I was doing the interviewing, particularly for leadership roles, I crafted my questions towards the culture. Here are some examples:

  • Take Action: “We’re in a high paced environment that requires constantly adapting to new situations. Tell me about a time you had to make a difficult change.” I was really digging in this question for what a person considers difficult change. If the change was being moved an office to a cube, they really don’t understand the environment we’re in. ???? I was looking for major muscle movements, total business pivots against conventional wisdom. Candidates sometimes gave a personal rather than business example. I did appreciate the candor of personal stories, provided the change was relevant to business.
  • Think Customer: “Our business is evangelical, as it’s a new space, and our customers’ success is paramount. Tell me about a time you worked with a customer to ensure their success.” For frontline employees, this was easy to evaluate: sales, services, product management, etc. However, some candidates would respond to this question by saying they rarely interacted with customers, which was a big red flag for me. The best answers came from those in support roles who would first re-define the “customer” as their internal customer, then proceed to give a story about helping internally. They always got hired.
  • Be Good: “We want people who never compromise either their or our integrity. Describe a difficult ethical situation you faced.” I heard from saints who expressed regret over borrowing a pencil without asking, and sinners who re-priced products to make a quarterly target. I’m not sure of the psychology behind it, but more than any other question, I found this one to be the most revealing of a candidate’s character. The choice of the situation seemed to define their ethics. The candidates that described more nuanced examples - where shades of gray abound - seemed to align better, rather than those providing obvious examples where right and wrong were easily distinguished.
  • Have Fun: “We spend a lot of time together, and we want to have fun while we’re here. Tell me about a funny thing that happened to you at work in the last six months.” This was always my last question, the question I most liked asking, and the question that got the best answers. It’s not often in an interview where you can laugh out loud, and this often led to that. The best stories were always self-effacing, showing someone who really didn’t take themselves too seriously. It also demonstrated confidence, for who among us doesn’t trip over their own feet from time to time?

There’s no silver bullet for hiring the right people.

However, I do believe you can hire the right people for your organization by understanding who you are and then seeking out those that embrace the same values. Pairing questions that capture "who they are" with "what they know" will go a long ways to improving your hiring as well as retention. And, if nothing else, you’ll have a few laughs and collect some good stories along the way.

Comments? You can contact me directly via my ExecRanks profile.

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