Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Skills Versus Cultural Fit

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Over the weekend, a friend asked me, ‘would you rather hire someone who has the exact skills you need or who would fit in well with the company?’ Of course, having both is preferred. But what if you really could only hire for one?

Let’s look at two potential candidates. Candidate H has average skills and experience – he could do the job competently – but seems like an excellent fit with the culture of the organization. Candidate E has exemplary skills and experience – far beyond what you’ve seen in other candidates – but the interviewers have some doubt as to how well he would fit into the culture. My argument is: hire H every time.

In my experience, many people have the skills needed for a job – if we have the patience to seek them out. But very few people would fit into our culture for the long haul. They are more precious, and this is an argument from scarcity.

Moreover, people with seemingly average experience tend to flourish in the right environment. They find friends, who subtly challenge them to perform better, work harder and accomplish more. They want to succeed in this perfect environment, because they do not want to have to leave it. The opposite happens too – people with great skills in the wrong environment tend to become satisfied, and do not continually hone their skills, because colleagues do not push them. The more common occurrence is the strong skills person simply uses the organization to tread water as he finds a better culture fit. He does this because his mistake (and the organization’s) becomes obvious quickly, to him, and he knows he’d enjoy even greater success in an organization with the right culture fit. And he knows his skills will sharpen in that environment too.

In addition, skills tend to erode over time, as markets, customers and organizational needs evolve. But a good cultural fit tends to remain a good fit for years. Culture evolves more slowly than skills. When you hire H, you hire for the long haul.

Two other arguments for hiring H come to mind. First, we send a signal about our organization when we hire E over H. We signal that we will compromise the core of the organization for the possibility of a short-term benefit. We have plainly demonstrated an unwillingness to hold firm to fundamental beliefs; we have started down a slippery slope. Once begun, that compromise feeds into other, more significant, compromises; before you know it, the firm has become a different place.

Second, we spend too much time at work. We want to spend that time with men and women who actively, and in subtle ways, contribute to the enhancement of the culture we experience every day.


Written by Russell S.

November 13, 2009 at 12:10 am

Posted in Hiring, Management

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