This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review
When my company was young, we worked with two contractors who played key roles in client services. As we grew and defined our core values — singling out accountability as our top priority — it became clear that these contractors did not meet our newly defined standards. They were often difficult to catch on the phone, noncommittal about deadlines, and understandably had more of an individual, not team-based, approach to their work.
Because they were such strong performers and clients liked working with them, I tolerated their behavior. However, when other team members pointed out the double standard in expectations, I realized that I had let the situation go on for too long, inadvertently placing our managers in a no-win situation. Ultimately, we decided to cut ties with the contractors — not because their work wasn’t strong, but because they weren’t aligned with our values.
When companies evolve at a rapid pace, often people cannot keep up. Some individuals who fit our company in its infancy became a weaker fit over time. They may have had difficulty keeping up with our company’s growth rate and the requirements of their evolving roles.
Often, I doubled down on an untenable position to keep an employee on because I didn’t understand how much harm the wrong fit could cause — especially when a person had been with us for so long.
How We Define “Fit”
Companies turn down talented people every day when the fit isn’t right. According to the Jobvite Recruiter Nation Report 2016, 60% of recruiters say culture fit is of utmost importance in hiring decisions. The wrong fit can be disastrous, but when the employee fits the role perfectly, the whole team benefits.
Much of the dialogue around company fit assumes that it’s a concrete concept: Round pegs go in round holes and, once they’ve found the right spot, stay there. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. What if a round peg develops sharp corners, or a round hole expands over time?
People and the needs they fulfill evolve constantly, especially in small companies that grow very quickly. A good fit isn’t just about putting the right person in the right seat, but about putting them there at the right time.
One of the things that separates good leaders from great ones is the ability to recognize when those three factors are out of alignment and to act upon that information, particularly in the case of a loyal, long-term employee.
How to Take Control of Fit
You don’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch your company’s culture evolve away from your best employees. With the right processes in place to hire and develop talent, you can retain your high performers without sacrificing your culture.
These three strategies can help you create a positive environment and develop employees who prosper within it.
Implement personality tests to discover purpose. No test reveals everything about a person, but learning about what drives someone can help you see where they would fit best in your company.
One of the tests we use at Acceleration Partners is designed to find a person’s “why” — their primary purpose in business and life. When we first started giving these personality tests, we discovered one manager had hired an entire team of people with purposes identical to her own. Unintentional bias in the hiring process had created a team with overlapping strengths and weaknesses, and at the root of this was a reliance on trust over a holistic view of the person’s ability to execute in a specific role.
To avoid this situation, we now exercise caution when teammates advocate for candidates who score alike on personality tests. While there are no right or wrong types, having too many people with similar personalities tends to lead to problems and groupthink. Distributing different personality types across hiring committees is a good way to glean more-accurate assessments of candidates and limit the influence of personal bias.
Rethink employee development and exits. Losing an employee is rarely positive, but the exit process can be respectful and open. Rather than feeling personally slighted by a departure, recognize that the best employees are not uniquely capable individuals — just the right people in the right seats at the right time.
This situation occurs frequently in professional sports. The structure of a team shifts, and a longtime player no longer fits the mold of the new organization or the system of a new coach. Both the player and the coaches recognize the change in fit, the player leaves for a new team, the organization moves in a different direction, and everyone is amicable about the changes.
Instead of treating employee departures as taboo, we embrace a concept we call mindful transition. We encourage employees to discuss their goals and plans for the future openly with their managers, even if those plans don’t mesh with their current roles or don’t involve staying with the company. Most employees leave because they feel their opportunities for growth are limited, according to iCIMS. So encouraging honest conversations helps us identify areas of opportunity we would have otherwise missed and plan for the future if an employee doesn’t intend to stay over the long term.
Dealing with departures using our mindful transition process also spreads our company’s influence to other industries. When a longtime employee wanted to take on a role we didn’t have at the time, we helped him transition to a different company that we knew could use his skills. If we had tried to force him to continue with us, he would have been bored and unmotivated. Facilitating his departure not only left everyone feeling positive but also set up an ambassador for our culture at another company and added to a strong pool of alumni advocating for us in the marketplace.
Recognize that experience doesn’t equal fit. According to Mark Murphy, founder and CEO of Leadership IQ, 89% of new hire failures are due to attitude, while just 11% are due to a lack of skill. All candidates need a baseline of technical skills to succeed, but the best candidates are well-rounded people whose intrinsic characteristics align organically with your company’s values.
One of our core values is “excel and improve,” so we seek out candidates who embrace continual improvement and have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning. If they are self-aware and can demonstrate that they love learning new things, we can train them tactically on the ins and outs of the job.
Many companies want to hire candidates who can come in and immediately do the job. The appeal is understandable: Experienced hires come in with the relevant knowledge and experience for the position you need filled now. But although they typically start in their positions with the necessary skills, they don’t have much growth potential. Eventually, as the company and demands grow, the needs of the positions overtake them. In contrast, less-experienced but high-aptitude hires may need more training feel and may be a bit overwhelmed in the beginning, but they have the raw ability and desire to grow with your company and adapt to the needs of the position.
In my experience, the people who personify our core values outperform the ones who possess more experience but lack the right raw ability or makeup. Moreover, candidates who align with our core values actually have a higher ceiling when it comes to professional growth. Although other candidates may show up with strong experience in our industry, they don’t necessarily share our values.
Leaving interviews solely up to managers who may feel pressure to get positions filled fast doesn’t always produce good results. In our organization, we take this responsibility out of their hands with a cross-functional hiring committee that helps decide what’s best for the company rather than the specific department or manager.
We assign people who are comfortable challenging each other’s assumptions to hiring committees, and we always include someone who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome. Interviews revolve around the specific job requirements, in addition to the candidate’s personality. Focus too heavily on one or the other, and you may end up with someone who you really like but who can’t do the job, or someone who executes tasks well but doesn’t contribute to your culture or develop as time goes on.
Fit between employee and company is not a one-time check on a list of hiring criteria; it’s a constantly evolving relationship that changes to meet the needs of the time. Don’t leave your company culture and employee fit to chance. Embrace the challenge: Seek out candidates who embody your values, and learn to let go when a fit that once was good begins to create problems.