Hiring Smart – Choosing culture AND intelligence


I am writing this piece today on a new laptop I purchased with both touch screen capability and Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system.  As I am typing and finger-swiping my screen, the story I want to share today has nothing to do with the technology, but the executive leadership responsible for it.

I have written before about the amazing transformation at Microsoft – and their struggles to overcome various ailments that accompany the maturation process in many organizations.

The NY Times reported recently on another interesting development in Redmond, Washington was the recent departure from Microsoft of software executive Steven Sinofsky.  He is heavily credited with leading the team that developed the firm’s bold new Windows 8 product and many saw him as the second most powerful person at the company after CEO Steven Ballmer.

His fall from grace is interesting (given the recent assessments of the unhealthy company culture that often pitted one department against another) and suggests to me the  Ballmer is seeking to rebuild the company into a more cohesive and collaborative entity.

No one I have read questions Sinofsky’s intelligence – the term “brilliant” is often connected with his name, but he is also consistently described as “abrasive,” “hypercompetitive,” and a “ruthless corporate schemer.”

One MSFT watcher, Ashlee Vance at Bloomberg Businessweek wrote:

“The big knock on Sinofsky was his often-prickly nature. He wasn’t seen as a team player within Microsoft and was instead known for protecting his fiefdom. That approach doesn’t go over well at today’s Microsoft, which needs to prove that Windows is just one piece of a larger collective that includes phone software, online services, and entertainment products delivered via the Xbox.” 

So this situation highlights a common dilemma among managers everywhere who are trying to balance intelligence and job skills, with culture fit among the people they hire and promote. We all want bright technically competent people.  I know many executives who value most highly someone who can get results and get them quickly.  Many of them are willing to overlook certain foibles so long as we succeed and win in the market place.  One told me recently, “Yes, some people can be a pain in the ___, but after the dust settles and our profits are up, people will calm down when they see their next bonus check or track their portfolio containing company stock.”

Isn’t that logic hard to fault?   Doesn’t success speak for itself?

Yet every one of us knows there is a cost associated with having people on board who do not share the values central to the company culture – and one person can wreak considerable havoc on their team and the company when they are so out of step (as perhaps Mr. Sinofsky was).

Why must it be either or?

What I want to ask is why so many of us have a bias that they are being asked to choose one OR the other (business skill vs culture fit)?  Why don’t we think it possible to have BOTH?   Maybe we just need to interview a few more candidates?

I think it is more likely that most interviews do not even focus on issues of character, values or culture fit.   We are too often so focused on solving the near-term challenge, that we focus on who we think can drive the greatest business success the fastest.   (I know I have made that mistake more than once in my career.)

So, let’s look at this problem as a marathon, not a 60m sprint.   Once you hire someone it is both hard and painful to get rid of them.  Your HR and legal people will want you to build documentation and demonstrate an effort to correct shortcomings.  Most managers I speak with say “the amount of energy needed to fulfill these requirements is just greater than I have time for.”  So, we all learn to accept the undesirable, look the other way, or (if we are lucky – to “promote” the problem employee to another job or department.)

Also, the longer we delay taking corrective action, the more legal risk you must accept when you finally conclude that “enough is enough.”

Learn from others

There are many companies like Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom’s, Zappos, and Google and Grand Circle Travel – to name a few – who see that compromising skills for culture is not a winning strategy.

The one you probably never heard of from this list is Grand Circle Travel; a $600 million travel services company who’s CEO reached this important conclusion:

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.”

Their solution – was to create a values-based hiring system – elements of which make a lot of sense.   Here is their advice:

1.      Don’t just ASK candidates to describe their values, make them SHOW you.

At Grand Circle, they do group interviews (bringing in several candidates together who are interviewing for the same position).  Then, they put the group of candidates into role play or simulation exercises where the interviewers can actually OBSERVE evidence of what values they project.  When candidates are off balance, and not sure what you are looking for, they will more likely be themselves and their inner-self will shine through.

2.     Be Crystal Clear about your core values.

Find some clear way to communicate your values system to prospective employees.  Quicken Loans does an impressive 5 min company overview video that I sometimes show in leadership classes I teach.   The videos show their sort of unusual, hip, informal and quirky culture through employee interviews and some behind the scenes clips.  What is interesting is that whenever I have shown it, the class is divided on the company.  To some, they would LOVE to work for this place, while others just roll their eyes and conclude “way too much chaos, this is not for me.”

Isn’t that the point?   To be so clear about who you are and what you stand for that people can decide for themselves UP FRONT whether they would be a good fit?  Wouldn’t it be a lot better to figure this out before you make a job offer?

3.     Interview for job skills and values SEPARATELY.  These are two completely different problems.   BOTH are important, and zeroing in on each one separately helps you ask better questions and go deeper.   Interviews should be designed to learn specific things about a candidate – designing questions to assess one aspect of a person will short change you on the other dimension.   Here is an example from Grand Circle CEO, Alan Lewis:

“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 Smart.  So go for it – Skills, Smarts, AND Culture Fit.  It is possible to have it all . . . you just have to look a little harder.

BTW – here is an example of the Quicken Loans culture in actions – the employee egg-drop machine building completion.   Not for everyone.

Other Resources:

8 Lessons from Microsoft’s Malaise, by Len Brzozowski

Ex-Windows Chief Seen as Smart but Abrasive, By Nick Wingfield, The New York Times

Bits Blog: Why Sinofsky Left: A Web Roundup, by the New York Times

How My Company Hires for Culture First, Skills Second, by Alan Lewis, Harvard Business Review Blog

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