Why T May be the Most Important Letter in Culture

March 21st, 2016 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Cultural Fit, Leadership No Comments »

Diverse Team at Work

“I can’t wait to see what HR is going to do with this.”

The other day, I overheard someone wonder aloud what HR was going to do in response to particularly troublesome behavior by a group of managers.

As an anthropologist of company cultures, I see this question the same way a field anthropologist might see a shard of pottery: it’s an artifact that can give me insights into the culture, values, and unquestioned assumptions of that culture.

So, what does this artifact tell us?

It tells us there’s a very real possibility that the CEO, CHRO, and the rest of the senior leadership team are not fully aligned around what the culture should be.

Why? The comment indicates that HR is responsible for ensuring that managers consistently behave in ways that create and maintain the culture, and reflect the company’s values. However, culture emerges from the day-to-day behavioral choices of the CEO in particular, and the entire senior leadership team, not just the CHRO. It’s their responsibility to make it happen throughout the organization.

Why can’t we just let HR handle it?

It doesn’t matter what HR does to build the culture if the CEO serves as a role model for a culture built on a different set of values. Employees will follow the CEO’s lead every time, and they don’t just take their cues from what you reward. They also take their cues from what you tolerate, put up with, and don’t address.

In fact, these cues are much more powerful, because the human brain is hard-wired to notice and respond more powerfully to misalignment than alignment.

For example, if innovation is a core value, what’s the worst innovation-quashing behavior you tolerate today? For example, do mediocre “innovations” never get killed off so their resources can be reassigned to more promising projects, those with break-through potential? If so, might it be because you don’t reward managers who have the courage to get honest and stop advocating for resources for the mediocre projects they’ve been leading?

What if you want to emulate the most financially successful companies by developing a highly inclusive culture? What exclusionary behaviors do you tolerate? In average and poor-performing companies, people who don’t fit into the dominant group are constantly on the receiving end of “micro-inequities” and “micro-insults,” so over time they speak up less and less.

Here’s a common example. How many times have you heard a man call other men “ladies” in a gently mocking manner? That’s using the very definition of what I am (a woman) to make fun of men. Think about it. Would you ever say, “O.k. Hispanic people (or old people, or black people). Meeting’s over!”

If you’re having trouble recruiting women – or any other demographic group — while your competitor is not having any trouble at all, ask yourself what you are tolerating that they are not.

Here’s a truth serum that cuts straight to the heart of the issue.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst behavior I tolerate in others with regard to this value? What about the entire leadership team? What is the worst behavior we collectively tolerate with regard to this value?”

This will be an extremely uncomfortable conversation, to say the least, but it cuts to the chase and helps you begin exploring any gaps between the culture you have created and the one you want to create. There may not be precise right and wrong answers, but you’ll begin the journey to ensure cultural alignment and authenticity.

It helps to have professional facilitation, but even if you don’t want to invest the money in an outside expert, have the conversation anyway.

Do we make culture building too hard?

I would say yes, we do. It’s simple. Don’t make it complicated.

There’s an adage that your leadership will be established by the first person you hire and the first person you fire. The same applies to the culture you establish. It comes down to the senior leaders’ behaviors, particularly the CEO.

Bottom line — four things define culture:

  1. the behaviors you exhibit
  2. the behaviors you encourage in others
  3. the behaviors you discourage in others
  4. what you do when they do the wrong thing anyway

That’s it.

As long as the CEO, CHRO, and other leadership team members are consistent in these four essential leadership choices, then a strong, strategic, and forward-thinking HR team can ensure that the recruiting, leadership development, organizational development, compensation, and all other processes and systems support the culture you are working hard to create.

What do you think? Drop me a line in the comments below. I love hearing your perspectives.


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Three Keys to Hiring the Right Cultural Fit

March 2nd, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Communication, Cultural Fit, Interviewing No Comments »

businesspeopleshakinghandsHas this ever happened to you? You had a strong team in a great company with a culture you loved. You interviewed diligently to fill an open position, and were fortunate enough to snag someone who was very successful, very talented, and very skilled.

Awesome! You thought you had the right fit, but within months, this individual quit – or perhaps you had to let him or her go – because he or she turned out to be a poor fit with the culture.

You thought you did everything right in posting, reviewing resumes, interviewing, being meticulous, asking great questions, and involving all of the team members. There’s no doubt you hired someone who could have been successful, since he or she had already demonstrated it elsewhere. However, their style didn’t work in your culture – and it gave you a headache just thinking about how much time and money was wasted trying so hard to fit that square peg into a round hole. Ouch.

First of all, don’t feel too bad about this mistake – most managers make at least one hiring decision that turns out to be a misfit. In fact, cultural fit is the area in which I see the greatest number of costly mistakes, because I am asked to provide executive coaching for a struggling new leader who, in fact, would have performed beautifully in a different culture.

Here are the three most common mistakes in interviewing for cultural fit.

Mistake #1: Asking direct questions about culture.

When it comes to assessing cultural fit, don’t use direct questions about culture, such as “Tell me what kind of work culture motivates you” or “Do you like the culture where you work?” Direct questions about culture don’t help you gain insights into the candidate’s fit.

In a typical year, I talk with people in 30 – 40 companies, and because they often talk about their cultures, I see firsthand that almost everyone describes their company’s culture in identical terms, such as “fast-paced.” When it comes to interviewing, this renders the use of words to describe culture meaningless.

Mistake #2: Asking about results they’ve achieved, without listening for cultural clues in their answers.

This is where many interviewers inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot. They perceive questions about results as being (somewhat logically) only about results, so they only listen for results.

I made this mistake myself, and paid the price. Early in my management career, I asked a candidate about the results she had achieved in her current role. I listened carefully and was impressed with what she had accomplished. She was quite a talent.

What I failed to do was listen closely to clues about how she achieved the goals, which turned out to be largely working on her own. She was very independent in nature, and she proved to be a terrible fit with the warm, collaborative culture that was the hallmark of my employer at the time.

People hated coming to her with their questions, which was a real problem since answering their questions was 30% of her job.

But I owned at least half of the responsibility for her failure, because I failed to match the way the candidate worked with styles the culture would embrace, or at least tolerate.

This brings us to Mistake #3…

Mistake #3: Not including a culture interviewer.

Let’s continue with the same example. Six of us interviewed the candidate, but none of us specifically owned the responsibility for a deep dive on cultural fit. Even so, two of the interviewers expressed reservations about “something I can’t put my finger on – she seems a little distant somehow – I’m trying to be open to someone who’s been successful with a different style than I’m used to, but… I’m probably being too close-minded here…”

Had at least one of us been assigned the job of being laser-focused on cultural fit, he or she would have been much more confident and certain about the importance of these concerns, and would have been asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers.

So what are the right questions to ask, and what should you listen for in the answers?

Surprisingly, you may already be asking the right questions, and you may not need to add any others. Isn’t that great?

If you’re already asking for specific stories about how they accomplished results, you’re on the right track.You’ll get much better insights into cultural fit if you ask them to walk you through how they accomplished their results, in the form of a SOAR story:

  1. Situation: What situation did you face?
  2. Obstacles: What obstacles were in your way?
  3. Actions: What actions did you take to solve the problem or achieve the goal?
  4. Results: What results did you get?

As you can see, the results are only 25% of the question, and in the other 75%, you have many opportunities to gain insights into cultural fit.

For example, if your rate of growth is particularly fast compared with other companies in your industry, you probably have a culture that values fast, independent decision-making because there are hundreds or thousands of decisions to be made every day and not enough people to make them. That’s the nature of a company in a very rapid growth stage, such as in the first two years after an IPO.

As we’ve seen, while you can ask the candidate to talk about his or her experience in rapid-growth situations, you’ll probably get a beautiful, convincing answer, but it will be useless.

If you were in the fast-growth situation above, you would listen for evidence that their actions included a lot of fast, independent decisions, and that they used time-consuming collaboration only for complex decisions that required a great deal of buy-in from multiple stakeholders.

If their answer to the question still leaves you uncertain, but the candidate is a good fit in other ways, ask them to think about a time when they had to move very quickly and decisively, and to tell you about it in great detail. Listen for clues about how they handled the situation. Would that approach work in your culture?

Compare notes with the other interviewers, and make sure you give equal voice to the culture-fit interviewer, and you’ll get the right fit.

Enjoy your interviewing, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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