Picture it: A search for a VP of Marketing for a growing global company in a smoking hot category.

We define the role, evaluate hundreds of candidates, and emerge with a star candidate. This candidate has relevant experience in the industry. She is excited about the company, and is gunning for exactly this type of role. She’s smart, thoughtful, driven.

Except we worry about a cultural mismatch.

The company’s executive team is outspoken and opinionated. They have had their share of passionate debates and heated disagreements, sometimes with raised voices…though always with the intent of getting to the right outcome for the business.

But our lead candidate is… different. She is more likely to think first and THEN say the smartest thing in the room. We could see that she prefers to take time to process objections and questions and then respond thoughtfully, rather than just react.

We struggled. Do we hire her? She certainly has the skill for the job, and the will to do it. But will she be able to be effective in this environment? How would she do in a culture heavy on direct communication, extroverted passion, and opinionated leaders?

But we had to make a decision, and quickly. Read on for the step by step playbook we used.

What we did:

We engaged with the question of cultural fit; we didn’t just ignore it and say no to the candidate to reduce the discomfort. Often, companies that question cultural fit will err on the side of being conservative, and ding a candidate who they feel is not a fit. Instead, we leaned into the uncertainty we felt. We had – in short order – many big conversations. And we benefited from those nuanced conversations and reflections.

Here are some of the things that we discussed: 

  • Passion is a core value in this company. Which exhibits of passion are outside our existing conception of that value? Will someone who is quieter still be able to exhibit and lead on passion? We quickly realized that in the case of this candidate, being the loudest voice in the room was not her way of showing her energy and passion. But producing excellent work, thoughtfully and quickly, was.
  • If the company has historically been extroverted and this candidate is more introverted, is that a bad thing? Or just a different thing? We realized that just because the current make-up of the management team skewed towards extroversion, in fact, much of the company wasn’t necessarily made in that image. Furthermore, this told us that vocal leadership isn’t the only way to be successful… and maybe shouldn’t be.
  • Do the traits we are reacting to – a more reserved and deliberate thoughtfulness in this case — prevent them from getting their job done and being effective in their role? Going further, could this trait help them in this way and we’re just overlooking it?
  • Should we bring in someone who will fit with the culture? Or someone who will add to it? Once we think about a new person being an add rather than an exact match to what we have already, can we think of situations where their personality could be just what we need? This answer became pretty obvious – always skew toward hiring for add.
  • How would the others on the team need to adjust to accommodate a different style? We played out these scenarios.
  • Are the knee-jerk assessments we were making ones that we would attribute to someone we knew well?

We shared our concerns with the candidate. At that point, we were more concerned that the rest of the executive team would be the reason for any ineffectiveness, not the other way around. The candidate offered examples of how she had worked with strong personalities effectively in the past, pointed out that she is often the calm one in the storm, and reiterated her interest in the role.

We got data. Everyone on the executive team took the Predictive Index behavioral profile assessment, and so did our finalist candidate and the rest of the candidate slate. Turns out our finalist candidate was the closest fit, according to the results.

Naturally, we also talked with references — people who had worked with this candidate before.

We also invited the candidate to meet with a more neutral third-party with a different vantage point – in this case, one of the company’s investors, who was focused on company results more than specific interpersonal dynamics.

All of this data collection increased our hiring confidence.

We made a decision. Armed with our insights and data, we took the leap and offered our top candidate the job.

The Upshot:

She said yes and she’s been a force ever since! The company has grown, and has continued to attract a diversity of other new hires.

A few months after the new VP started, the chatter from others in the C-suite was: “She fits in wonderfully… She is passionate about what she is doing and totally knows her stuff; it just comes out in a more channeled and poised way versus jumping up and down and talking fast the way some others do. Generally, her input is better structured and more planned, and therefore very effective. It helps the team to have someone who is cool-headed when others can be more hot-headed.”

Takeaways and Tips:

  • The words we use confer a judgment. That judgment needs examination. For instance, is someone low energy (confers apathy or lack of passion)? Or calm, cool and collected (confers grace under pressure)? Separate out the facts from the assumptions that you are making.
  • Sometimes, especially when your organization is in growth mode, cultural fit is not as important as cultural add. Be deliberate not just about hiring to fit the culture now, but about shaping the culture you want to grow into.
  • If you interpret your cultural values too narrowly while your business is small, you could hunt for a long time, and have trouble scaling as quickly as you need to.
  • Having the tough conversations – in person — will help you hone in and articulate what your culture stands for and what it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply interview a candidate and fire off your pros/cons list in an email. If you do, you miss the opportunity to unpack your impressions, confront your discomfort, and challenge your assumptions.
  • It can help to turn your attention to the top performers on the team already. How are they not perfect? How are they not exactly aligning to the ideals of the company? Often we are more picky with prospective hires than we are with people we have already hired, because we are nervous about taking a leap of faith.
  • The beer test can be a poor proxy for cultural fit. Asking yourself, “would I want to have a beer with this person?” is more about first impressions than actually getting to know someone’s values and how they are likely to behave in situations that matter to the business.