What’s The Best Way To Evaluate Cultural Fit?

When I use the term “culture” I mean a set of shared values and beliefs that form the basis for: 1) what we actually do, and 2) what we believe we ought to do. As I’ve said before, I think culture has more impact than strategy on the long-term success of an organization. That’s why it’s so important to select people who fit, whose natural values, beliefs and behaviors align with those of the culture. That’s what this post is about.

The challenge here is that culture is always in flux. Some elements of culture are more malleable than others. Some are deeply entrenched and extremely difficult to change. Furthermore, the description of an organization culture depends on where you’re standing. It depends on your perspective. That makes the endeavor of describing a culture a lot more complex than we typically acknowledge.

First let’s think about perspective. If you ask a wealthy New Yorker who lives on Park Avenue to describe the culture of New York City, we’ll get a very different description than the one given by the person who lives in a poor, dangerous section of that same city. If we ask the C-suite executives to describe the culture of their organization, we might well get a very different description than the one given by a rank and file employee.

Now let’s think about flux. (By the way, when was the last time someone asked you to think about flux?) The culture of any organization, any community is continuously evolving due to influences from both internal and external sources. Whatever a person’s perspective, their description of the culture is a snapshot in time. To further complicate matters, different parts of the culture are evolving at different rates of speed.

So when you say that you want a candidate to fit the culture, what culture are you talking about? The culture of a specific division or department? The present culture or the culture the CEO envisions for the future? This is immensely complex. It can make your head hurt. But there’s an easier way to determine cultural fit.

In my opinion, the endeavor of determining who’s a good fit for the existing culture is in some respects easier than describing the culture. Even if we’re not sure we can describe the culture, we can identify existing employees who are a good fit. These are individuals who thrive in the culture and who are widely regarded as exemplifying the desired cultural values and behaviors. We can create profiles of these people and hire to those profiles. This can be done for an envisioned culture as well. We can identify existing employees who exemplify the values and behaviors of the desired future culture, create profiles of those people and hire to those profiles.

Objectively and properly describing an evolving culture from multiple perspectives is a daunting task. But we don’t need to do that in order to answer the question, “What kinds of candidates would be a good fit?” Whether we’re focusing on an existing culture or a desired culture, we simply need to study existing employees who are a good fit and hire more people like that.

Thanks for reading. And, as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Who Should Have 51% Of The Vote?

The question in the title of this post can be expressed as follows: Who should make what decisions? We see this question constantly in government. For instance, all disputes about states rights vs. federal rights fall into this category. In business, all questions about empowerment fall into this category. What decisions are people in role x empowered to make? I love this question. To see one of my previous posts about empowerment, click here.

In this post I want to discuss the title question from a different perspective: effective collaboration. In today’s world effective collaboration is essential. Lack of clarity about who gets to decide what has detrimental effects on collaboration. Disputes about this question slow down progress, damage relationships and undermine the group’s ability to achieve excellence. I’m sure you’ve seen this happen.

In many cases a group can find clarity on its own. Sometimes an informal leader emerges organically because group members appreciate this person’s leadership. This leader helps the group reach consensus about decisions, which maintains forward momentum. That’s one possibility.

Also, groups can understand that not all decisions have to be made by the entire group. The group can “deputize” a person to make certain decisions on behalf of the group. The group is saying, “We trust you. We have confidence in you.” For instance, suppose a project requires a Web page. Instead of having every aspect of the Web page approved by the group (consensus approach), the group can deputize one person to make decisions about the look and feel, and another person to be in charge of how the site will function. A third person can be deputized to write copy, and so on. The other group members can critique prototypes and drafts, but at the end of the day the deputized individuals have 51% of the vote in their areas. Forward momentum is maintained.

This deputizing strategy is underutilized, by the way, because it requires people to relinquish control.

There will be situations where individuals in the group are competing for control. They cannot agree about certain decisions, and they are making mutually exclusive claims for 51% of the vote about those decisions. When they cannot resolve these issues internally, progress will stop and relationships will be damaged. In this case, a leader external to the group must step in to do what the group cannot do for itself: decide who gets 51% of the vote about what decisions. Individuals in the group will then be able to focus their energies on achieving the mission rather than fighting about who can decide what.

Thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Self Development — What’s In It for Me?

I stand for the point of view that human development is best nurtured through the right kind of relationships. Parenting, mentoring and coaching exemplify the kinds of relationships that can help shape a person and can lead to significant growth. So how does self-development fit in?

Each of us matures at his or her own pace. But whatever the pace, as we mature we assume more and more responsibility for the outcomes in our lives. By the time you’re an adult, you should assume some responsibility for your own development. Mentors and others should help you with this, but you must be an active participant in the process. For example:

A mentor can get you involved with a variety of activities and assignments to help you discover your aptitudes and interests. But you must enthusiastically engage.

A mentor can ask what you’re passionate about and can help you pursue those passions in ways that contribute to your growth. But your passions must arise from your heart. Your mentor is not responsible for installing them.

A mentor can help you ideate about various career arcs, but you must own your goals and your path.

Mentors exert a great influence on their mentees. But influence is not ownership. At some point in your journey you should assume the responsibility for your development. You should articulate a vision for your future. You should be clear about your values and goals. Mentors and others can help, but you have to own it. The final decisions are ultimately yours.

So with regard to self-development, what’s in it for you? Nothing more or less than taking charge of your future.

Using self-development tools you can gain a more profound understanding about how to align your strengths, your passions and your aspirations. After creating your own plan, you can ask your mentor or supervisor, “Will you support this plan? How can we improve it? Is there anything else I need to think about?” Then you’ll be leading your own development.

I hope you’re fortunate to have people in your life who are excited to invest in your development. In my opinion, self-development tools should not be viewed as a substitute for that sort of investment. But such tools can empower you to create more value in the relationship, not only for you, but also for your mentor.

Thanks to Beth Bruss for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Expense Or Investment? How Do You See Your Employees?

Recently Rick Newman wrote a very interesting article entitled, “Why most employers aren’t like Starbucks or Costco”. To read it click here. Newman states that employers who view their employees as expenses typically compete on cost (e.g., Walmart) whereas most companies who view their employees as investments typically compete on quality (e.g., Starbucks).

He points out that many companies whose business model is premised on keeping labor costs low could actually afford to pay people more, but doing so would risk the ire of investors and Wall Street analysts — despite the fact that numerous studies have established that the investment approach can pay for itself. There are lots of way to make money. I prefer to work with companies that take the investment approach, so in this post I want to address the how. How do you make the investment approach pay for itself?

Properly implemented the investment approach — which includes a focus on the quality of products and services — delivers several important outcomes:

  • Increased repeat business
  • Increased per transaction spend
  • Improved word-of-mouth
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced employee turnover

As Newman points out, this approach begins with the recruitment of highly talented employees, which requires a sophisticated selection process. Conduct a proper study to understand the profile of top performers in the organization. These are employees who not only perform their tasks with excellence, but also they thrive in your unique culture. Then, recruit and select to this profile. In any job, top performers are way more productive than others, they make fewer errors (reducing costly re-work), and they miss fewer days of work. If you select highly talented people who fit your culture, you can have fewer employees, each making more — and your overall labor costs go down while quality goes up.

In addition, if you also select highly talented supervisors, your employee turnover will go down which not only saves the money associated with turnover (a VERY large number), but also improves your quality because a) more of your new hire training budget can be re-purposed, and b) employees who stay experience more practice, which helps them improve performance. Cost go down, quality goes up.

So how do you make the investment approach pay for itself? Select highly talent employees who fit your culture, pay them well, invest in training and development, and give each employee a supervisor who truly cares, who cultivates close, positive relationships. You’ll earn a handsome return on these investments.

But I have to be honest with you. I do care about the business case, but that’s not why I take the investment approach. I want it for its own sake. I want the employees in my culture to have no doubt that they are our most important competitive advantage, that I care deeply about each and every person who works with me, that I take great joy in facilitating both their professional and personal development, and that I will extend myself to meet their needs. A business case has no soul.

Thanks to my wife, Salli Sternberg, for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?

Jane Williams, Editor, Knowledge Arabia, recently wrote an article entitled, “Can A Team Have Too Much Talent?”  That article was based on the following research paper: Swaab, R. I., Schaerer, M., Anicich, E. M., Ronay, R., & Galinsky, A. D. “The too-much-talent effect: Team interdependence determines when more talent is too much versus not enough.”

The abstract of their paper states:

“Five studies examined the relationship between talent and team performance. Two survey studies found that people believe there is a linear and nearly monotonic relationship between talent and performance: participants expected that more talent increases performance and that this relationship would never turn negative. However, building off research on status conflicts, we predicted that talent facilitates performance… but only up to a point, after which the benefits of more talent will decrease and eventually turn negative as intra-team coordination suffers. We also predicted that the level of task interdependence would be a key determinant of when more talent would be detrimental versus beneficial. Three archival studies revealed that the too-much-talent effect only emerged when in tasks where team members were interdependent  (football and basketball) but not independent (baseball). Our basketball analysis established the mediating role of team coordination. When teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart.” To download a PDF of the study click here.

Most teams in non-sports organizations require high degrees of interdependence, so that’s my focus for this post. As the authors acknowledge, we’re dealing with the age-old dilemma of competition for individual status versus cooperating in service of team success. The authors of the study firmly establish that too much internal competition for dominance and status will undermine team performance. But they don’t address the fact that this behavior is not remotely confined to high talent individuals. I’m sure every reader of this post has witnessed the detrimental effect of mediocre performers striving for status by undermining colleagues and associates. Sadly, this behavior is commonplace.

So I think the most important finding from their research is this: the desire and ability to work with others in service of team success is a key factor in team performance, no matter the level of individual talent. It’s not the intensity of the talent, it’s the desire and ability to value team success over individual status.

I’d like to bring into this conversation a book by Warren Bennis: “Organizing Genius, The Secrets of Creative Collaboration”. In this book Bennis studied seven non-sports groups that achieved extraordinary results. He calls them “Great Groups”. Each of these seven groups was a team comprised of greatly gifted people who managed to cooperate and collaborate rather than to compete for status. So we know it can be done. Here are a few quotations from Bennis:

Leaders of Great Groups are recruiters who have a “keen eye for talent”.
“Recruiting the right genius for the job is the first step in building many great collaborations.”
“Such recruiters look for two things: excellence and the ability to work with others.”

In today’s world, interdependence is not optional. If you want a high performance team, each team member must have more than the ability to perform individual tasks with excellence. The ability to collaborate synergistically should not be in the “nice to have” category. It should be a ticket to admission. As Bennis has established, you can have high talent and a great ability to work with others. Let’s find more people like that.

Thanks to Chantel Taylor for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I value your thoughts on this topic.

Larry Sternberg

Why Should You Care About The Why?

We tend to focus on the what. What are your goals?  What products and services do we offer? What are your expectations? What’s your plan? That’s great, but it’s not enough. The why is about meaning and motive. Understanding the why changes the way we think about the what.

Let’s talk about meaning first. Much has been written about the relationship between meaning and engagement. There’s a dramatic difference in engagement between A) employees who see their jobs merely as a set of tasks, and B) employees who perform exactly the same job, but understand the meaning of those tasks. Am I just laying bricks or am I building a school? More and more, employees want answers to the following types of questions:

  • How do I make a difference in the lives of others through my work?
  • How is my role important to the team?
  • How does our organization contribute to a better world?

The demands of any job can create a lot of pressure to focus on the tasks at hand, to focus on the what. Tasks must be accomplished. Things must get done. Much of life involves unglamorously soldiering on. Leaders should frequently remind people about the why. To coin a variation on an old saying, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s important to remember why you decided to drain the swamp.”

I saw a terrific example of this at the headquarters of the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona. All around the offices were posters of children getting their wishes granted. Wherever you were, whatever your job, you were constantly reminded about the meaning of your work. Very powerful.

Let’s talk about motive. Whether it’s conscious or not, we’re always attributing motive to another person’s behavior. The motives you attribute often depend on your relationship with that person. Do you know them? Do you trust them? For instance, if a close friend and ally excludes you from an important meeting at work, you respond very differently than if your “enemy” at work excludes you from that same meeting. You automatically attribute very different motives to each person.

When you encounter undesired behavior remember that you’re making assumptions about that person’s motives, but … you don’t really know. You’ll respond more constructively if you ask yourself, “How would I respond if a good friend did that?” Then (and this is not easy) respond that way whether you feel like it or not. In every case, asking why might well completely change how you judge the behavior.

There’s great power in the why. Understanding the why really does change the way we think about the what.

Thanks for reading. And, as always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg

How Do You Respond To Bad Behavior In The Workplace?

This might look like a very straightforward topic at first. “Larry, this isn’t even worthy of discussion.  Bad behavior should be punished. End of story.” It turns out to be a much more challenging topic than it might appear. That’s because you, as a leader, have to answer two questions:

  1. Was the behavior undesirable (bad)?
  2. What should the consequences be?

First, it’s important to understand that what counts as bad behavior in one culture might well be characterized as perfectly acceptable in another. For instance, in some organizations being late to meetings is considered disrespectful toward the other participants, and therefore bad. But in other organizations not being on time to meetings is routinely tolerated.

It’s vitally important to understand that the stated values of the organization are not the actual values. One learns the actual values of an organization by observation. What behaviors are rewarded? What behaviors are condemned and punished? What behaviors are ignored? Ultimately leaders, through their power, determine the organization’s official answers to these questions.

To further complicate matters, it’s also important to understand that the all of this is a moving target. The answers to these questions evolve over time. In every community of people, there’s frequent discussion — judgmental discussion — about the behavior of others. This is how a community confirms and adjusts its written and unwritten code of behavior. Right now, for instance, our standards for the use of mobile devices and computers in meetings is in flux. Is it rude to check emails and texts during a meeting? Is it OK in some meetings, but not in others? In situations where it’s not OK, how should the organization respond?

As a leader, you’re accountable to determine the final answers to these questions. I stand for struggling to arrive at the answer that’s appropriate for each individual situation. This is difficult. I’d certainly tolerate my number one salesperson being late to meetings even if our culture labeled that behavior as disrespectful. But I wouldn’t tolerate disrespect in the form of racial slurs. Somewhere between those two situations there’s a line, but I can’t tell you exactly where it is.

No matter where the line is, there are some behaviors that should be treated with zero tolerance. Recently we’ve seen situations in which egregious behaviors have become institutionalized. Here are some examples. In certain organizations rapes are not properly investigated nor are the rapists held accountable. Known product defects causing injury, illness and death are covered up. Corners are cut on safety practices in order to reduce costs. Child abuse is tolerated and known abusers are not held accountable. Bribery is tolerated in order to achieve business goals.

Those kinds of institutionalized, intolerable behaviors can only occur in a culture where the leader has somehow established that those behaviors are OK. If unacceptable behaviors are routinely occurring under your watch, it’s your fault. Even if you’re not aware of the actual behaviors, you’ve somehow communicated that they’re OK. It has become part of your culture.

More oversight is not the answer to reducing bad behavior. As a leader, you should be proactive. You should make honesty and integrity absolute tickets to admission for all employees and especially for leaders. You should make strong and clear statements about the organization’s commitment to doing the right things right. You should walk your talk. When someone exhibits zero tolerance behaviors you should take swift and unequivocal action to hold them accountable. You should make it easy and safe for people to blow the whistle and you should reward them.

In order to minimize bad behavior, select people with impeccable honesty and integrity. Clarify what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. Tailor the consequences of unacceptable behavior to the person and the situation. Clarify what behaviors are in the zero tolerance zone and act rapidly to punish people who behave in those ways. And finally, reward those who bring bad behavior to light. If you do this effectively, bad behavior will occur occasionally, but it won’t become institutionalized.

Thanks to Jessica McMullen for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg