In Hiring to Scale, Culture Always Trumps Competency

When you look back on all the people you’ve hired, who have been some of your biggest problem people? Or, when you look back at any of the organizations you’ve worked for or been a part of, who have been some of the biggest pains?

My guess is that in virtually every case, the biggest problem wasn’t a lack of skill set or competency, it was a misfit of culture. Why? Because it’s relatively easy to improve someone’s skill set, but their character and values—those are hard to change. Once they’re ingrained it’s hard to change them. Not impossible, just rare.

For example, one of the classic mistakes a lot of business owners and entrepreneurs make is that when they’re looking for, let’s say,  a “top producer” to ratchet up sales they’ll often overlook some of the values and behaviors of that “top producer” because, well, they believe they’ll produce big numbers.

But is that wise? Let’s say you’ve worked hard to build a culture of service and collaboration. Everyone else on your team pitches in and helps everyone else … except Mr. Top Producer. Everyone else thinks that everyone else is just as valuable to the team as anyone else … except Mr. Top Producer. Everyone else volunteers to serve on committees or to serve in a local non-profit once a month … except Mr. Top Producer.

What do you think happens to your culture. Exactly. Everyone quickly realizes that the culture you’ve been trying to build is bogus. It’s a nice slogan on a wall but what really matters to you is money. All of a sudden other people stop volunteering and helping other people out. Other people on the team get jealous of the two tiers. Politics rears its ugly head. People start choosing sides. You end up having to be the referee and results go down across your company.

Why? Because of a mismatch in culture.

On the other hand, when you hire and recruit based on culture fit, that’s when everything gets easier. Why? Because culture is a 24/7 manager. If you hire someone who already believes and bleeds service and collaboration (or whatever your cultural values are), you don’t have to waste a moment of time training them to be of service and to work in a collaborative way. It’s already hard-wired in to them.

All you have to do now is fit them into your system and train them in the skill sets or competencies that they’re currently missing—all of which are very doable. That’s why culture fit matters so much. It’s hard to change someone’s wiring. Not impossible. Just difficult. Which is why I say that culture trumps competency all day long.

So, when you’re getting ready to hire someone, do you focus more on culture or competency?

If you’re like most of the  business owners and entrepreneurs I know, chances are you focus on the competency (“Can you complete the tasks that I want to hire you for?”) vs. the culture (“Do you fit the culture of our company?”).

To help you turn that around, here are three key reasons why you need to reverse your current practice.

I. Culture Makes Managing Your Business Infinitely Easier

When I say that culture is a 24/7 manager, that’s exactly what I mean. It’s there even when you’re not. It’s the way you beat the old maxim, “When the cat is away, the mice do play.” The only way you can avoid that is by making sure the culture is so strong that even when you’re not present, people will do what you want them to do.

For example, back in my former career, when we would send a missions team to a foreign country we’d always get back the same report. “Your people were amazing. We’ve never seen a group of people work that hard and that long. They’d show up before our people got there. They’d stay when our people were ready to go home. Most missions teams want to go sight seeing. Your team didn’t. They wanted to work the whole time. We’ve never seen a team like this.”

I love that story because these weren’t people who were paid. And they weren’t even in the country. They simply caught the culture of hard work, of service, of excellence, of staying until the job was done, etc. They caught the culture of we’re not here for us, we’re here for others. And they lived that out. Oh, and one other piece of information I left out … I never went on a missions trip. I didn’t have to.

The same thing applies to your business. If you hire people who value excellence, you don’t have to stand over their shoulders and inspect their work all the time. If you hire people who are respectful, you don’t have to wonder what they’re doing on a service call with an irate customer. If you hire someone who owns personal responsibility you don’t have to wonder if they’re going to get their work done.

Culture trumps competency. When someone owns the culture that you want to create ahead of time, then you know exactly the kinds of choices and decisions they’ll make even when you’re not present.

II. Culture Avoids Creating Tiers

As I alluded to above, when you have a stated culture and someone or a group of someones are allowed to act differently, it creates a two or three-tier system that undercuts everything.

I remember years ago consulting for a company where I was interviewing their top team. In the boardroom, on the conference table there was a glass pyramid with the company’s values on it. During those interviews, three of the top team members literally grabbed the pyramid and said, “This is bunk!” When I asked why, they each said, “Because we don’t believe it.” I asked why. They said, “Because we treat different people differently around here. There are those who have to abide by the ‘rules’ and others who, because of their revenue numbers, don’t.” And you thought I was making up that example in my introduction 🙂

This really happens. When you have a set of people (or a person) who can get away with not living in congruence with your culture, it automatically sets up a two-tier (or more) system—whether you want it to happen or not. And once a tier system enters a business, it begins to create factions, politics and all kinds of conflict.

On the other hand, when you focus on hiring people who fit your culture, you, by definition, avoid creating tiers (and tears).

III. When You Get Your Systems Right, Competency Is Less Critical

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you know I’m a systems guy and that every business needs to be systematized in order to scale.

However, I disagree with the assessment that when you create systems, you can hire anyone to work the system. I think you should always hire the best talent you can at a good value for you and them.

That said, the beauty of systems is that competency becomes even less critical than in an “unsystematized” business which depends on the skill set/competency of the person hired to know how to do the job. This leads to having to pay more for more skilled labor and, at the same time, creating more risk for your business if they leave.

When you systematize your business it’s infinitely easier to get someone up to speed to make a greater impact even if they have less competency than someone in an “unsystematized” business.

This is where culture fit shows itself proud. If you hire someone who has a set of values around issues like personal responsibility, excellence, hard work, resourcefulness, perseverance, etc, you can take and put them into a great system and they’ll flourish fast.

On the other hand, if you hire someone who is an excuse maker, or someone with a negative attitude, or someone who is critical, or someone who is egotistical, or someone with a poor work ethic, it doesn’t matter how skilled they are, they’re going to fight with your system and want to do it, “their way.”

Trust me, I’ve watched this with clients for decades. Avoid it at your own peril.

So are you sold?  Do you believe that culture always trumps competency? If so, your next question ought to be, “What should I do now?” Well, here are five simple suggestions for today.

  1. If you haven’t already, create a list of core values that will drive the kind of culture you want (try to limit to five or less)
  2. Once you have that list, expand each value with some practical examples. For example, excellence could mean doing a spelling and grammar check before sending anything out, paying attention to current design trends, doing the best you can with what you have in the amount of time you have to do it, etc.
  3. Add culture to your hiring ads (e.g. “We’re looking for someone who loves working with a team, who’s open to new ideas, who has a positive mental attitude …”)
  4. Develop a list of questions that will help you discern if someone owns your core values (e.g. “Can you give me an example of when you persevered on a project you were working on when everyone else had given up?”)
  5. Never ever hire someone just because they’re “good” at a task IF they’re not a good fit for your culture

Why? Because culture always trumps competency!

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you like topics like this and want to scale your team and business, make sure you check out the Wired To Grow Coaching Club today.

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