How My Company Hires for Culture First, Skills Second, 2011
By Alan Lewis
No two organizations' hiring processes are alike. No technology company hiring manager would ask a programmer applicant to teach the alphabet, but it's the first thing a school administrator might ask of a teacher. Obviously, you need different criteria to assess if people possess the skills needed to succeed in different positions.
But skills don't tell the whole story. Every organization needs employees who mesh with its core values — the principles that define who you are as an organization and that shape day-to-day business decisions. Employees who do not adhere to a shared corporate culture dilute it, detracting from the essence that gives your company its identity and helps it achieve aggressive goals. In my view, every organization's hiring process — from Microsoft to PS 90 to everything in between — should screen candidates for the best cultural fit.
I'm the owner of Grand Circle Travel, a $600 million international tour operator for Americans 50+, and like many executives, I've found that in my business, alignment with my company's culture and values counts far more than do skills or experience. In most cases, if an associate shares our values, we can teach the job skills. That's why more than a decade ago we adopted a values-based hiring model. This decision has not only enhanced our recruiting efforts, it has contributed to the long-term success of our associates and of our organization.
Interviewing for values may sound difficult, but it can be easily embraced throughout the organization and by hiring managers. Here are three pieces of advice to keep in mind when working to develop a values-based hiring process:
Don't just ask candidates to tell you how they espouse your company's values; let them show you. You can learn a lot more about a person from watching him or her interact with other job applicants and employees. At Grand Circle, our process includes a group interview, in which multiple candidates interview for various open jobs at the same time. We observe candidates undertaking unique and often quirky challenges, and interacting with each other. Candidates act out scenarios that show us whether or not they exhibit our core values — open and courageous communication, risk-taking, speed, quality, teamwork, and thriving in change. To test for risk-taking, for example, candidates role-play how they would deal with a situation in which one colleague has been called out of town and needs a less-experienced coworker to take his or her place in an important presentation. We also engage candidates in a "raw-egg drop exercise," in which they work in teams to design a travel vessel for the egg (using only straws and tape), develop a marketing presentation to "sell" the trip the designed vessel will take the egg on, and then drop the vessel from about 10 feet. From this exercise, we're able to quickly learn which candidates exhibit leadership and teamwork qualities, which ones perform well in unusual situations, and which have done their background research on the company.
Be crystal clear about your culture and values. You don't want to hire someone destined to fail, wasting their time and energy (and yours). Being open is the best way to avoid that. Prospective associates will walk away on their own if they don't believe they can fit in with your culture. We've seen it many times — as in the man who called our raw-egg exercise "really weird" and the woman who announced she didn't want to be part of our "kumbaya culture." It was far better to screen out these people in the initial interview than learn of their discomfort with our values during their first months on the job.
Don't combine skills interviews with values interviews. When values are assessed in a separate and distinct process, you will very likely learn something that you would have missed had you screened a candidate for skills simultaneously. One of our organization's young superstars came to his group interview with virtually no relevant job experience — which would have held him back had we been focusing on skills — but he demonstrated such ambition and leadership that we jumped to hire him.
Hiring good cultural matches is the best way to assure the continued success of your company. It leads to higher retention (43 percent of our employees have been on board for five or more years), better employee engagement, and deeper connections with customers. In your hiring process, isn't it time you looked beyond skills to what's most important — your company's values?
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