Cultural Intelligence

Form follows function, but to hire for the best fit, function follows culture

You have a key open position in your company and three candidates as finalists. You closely evaluate their experience, education and professional associations, check their references and scan their LinkedIn profiles.

But there’s a critical factor that will determine if the candidate will be wildly successful — or dissatisfied, perhaps disruptive and make an untimely exit, leaving you right back where you started.

It’s a question with an answer that you won’t find on even the most detailed resume.

Will the candidate be a good fit for your company’s culture?

“The cultural fit is more important than the functional fit,” asserts Amy Langer, cofounder of Salo, an agency that provides finance, accounting & HR staffing in the Twin Cities and Chicago. “So often the focus is the skill set. Skills can be taught. Culture cannot.”

With unemployment in Minnesota at historic lows, employers are locked in a high-pressure hunt to locate and lure the right prospects from the shrinking talent pool.

In their eagerness to fill open slots, it can be tempting to be wowed by a candidate’s qualifications and not look beyond them.

“Both the company and the candidate can be too eager about filling the job,” says Langer. “Sometimes one party or the other is desperate, and then transparency goes out the window.”

But when a mismatch results, it comes at a high price.

“A rule of thumb is that it costs two times what the salary is when an employee doesn’t work out and the position turns over. And that doesn’t account for the lack of productivity or emotional impact on the team while the position is open,” says Brian Carlson, president of Ambrion.


So what is ‘company culture,’ anyway? In the past, conversations about culture centered around anthropology, high art or yogurt.

Today culture is a telling reflection of a business.

“The notion is getting more respect,” says Mary Meehan, CEO of Panoramix Global, a Minneapolis-based consumer and culture consulting firm. “Every company has a culture, whether by intention or default. It is what sets the tone.”

To check a company’s culture, look first for a well-stated mission statement that spells out its values, goals and expectations for its board, shareholders and employees.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Meehan says. “If a company says it’s committed to gender equity but has only one female board member, that’s telling.”

Company culture reveals itself in other aspects of its operations, including public statements from executives, external events, employee benefits, even its dress code.

“There’s what’s stated and what’s implied. Does the office have a foosball table and free cereal or offer six weeks parental leave? The environment reflects the culture,” Meehan says.

She notes that it’s easier than ever for prospective employees and customers to check out a company’s culture by perusing its website, reading employee reviews on sites like GlassDoor or using contacts on LinkedIn to seek unofficial feedback.

“Managers better keep an eye on this stuff,” she warns. “Employees can assess a company’s culture like never before when deciding where to work, and bad news still travels faster than good news.”

The agency makes 150 placements per year from its pool of accounting and finance analysts and executives.

He’s seen what happens when the functional fit of the job trumps the ability of the candidate to find a comfortable home within an organization.

“I’ve had clients who fall in love with a skill set and hire, even though they know at the core that person is not the right fit. It never works out,” Carlson says. “It’s like falling in love. You can’t fake it.”


A fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in water, as the old saying goes.

Identifying the elements of a company’s culture while immersed in it can be a tricky exercise.

Just as individuals are often myopic about their personal assets and flaws, so organizations can also harbor blind spots about who and what they are.

“Companies find success when they hire to their culture, but you can’t hire to what you don’t know,” says Marni Hockenberg, president of Hockenberg Search, a Minnetonka-based career transition and outplacement firm that specializes in staffing for the manufacturing industry.

“Every company has a culture, it develops. You have to be able to describe it, define it and benchmark it,” she adds.

Hockenberg has seen leaders who lack the skills to articulate the values and the subtle internal machinations that make their company unique, and others who are too removed from their team’s day-to-day rules and roles to have a handle on its nuances.

Today there are consultants who specialize in assessing internal culture. Hockenberg finds the process of gauging a business’s personality always begins with questions.

“Are you entrepreneurial, with go-getters encouraged to color outside the lines, or is it top-down, command and control, here are the rules to follow?” asks Hockenberg. “Is the pace of the company fast and chaotic or steady and methodical? Is there a spirit of collaboration, team-oriented, versus a company with individual contributors who prefer to work alone?”

Ambrion often turns to personality assessments to better understand the current executive profiles and to test the candidate to make a cultural fit.

“Our clients look to us to add value to the hiring process by bringing the right person,” says Carlson. “We can see things that they can’t.”

But corporate culture is always in a state of flux, depending on its projects, profits and people.

In the influential bestseller Good to Great, author Jim Collins got traction with his metaphor that compares running a business to driving a bus. Collins stresses that leaders must have the right people on their bus, and must also be sure those people are in the right seats.

His metaphor acknowledges that successfully building a team requires a bit of clairvoyance, the ability to anticipate how a new employee can grow in the direction the company is headed.

“Candidates and companies should look beyond the position that is before them, that they are interviewing for,” maintains Carlson. “Take a look up the next step of the ladder and see if there’s a going to be a good fit there, too,”


There’s another layer of a company’s culture that must be addressed when it comes to successfully wooing — and welcoming — people of color.

“Inclusion in an organization comes from thought, being intentional and having a solid strategy” says Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, founder of the People of Color Career Fair, and President and CEO of the rae mackenzie group, a firm that focuses on recruiting and retaining professionals of color in Minnesota.

Leaders must be conscious of the tone they set, stresses Smith-Akinsanya, not just with work assignments but by being inclusive in off-hours social connections.

“They need to think about who are their golfing buddies, they need to be intentional about who’s coming to their home for dinner parties, who they invite to their cabin,” she says. “Word travels. If companies are elevating professionals of color, people should know about it. Don’t keep it a secret.”

She reminds HR professionals and hiring managers that the job is just beginning when they hire a top candidate from out of town.

“We invest time and treasure to recruit professionals of color who add value to our workplace. We must also make sure they are appropriately connected so they can fall in love with our community. If we can’t help the recruit find quality of life, why would he or she stay here?”


It was a different game just a few years ago, when the recession made employees cautious about jumping ship and when those without jobs were willing to settle for less.

In today’s tight labor market, the resumes that employers are reviewing likely belong to people who are already working.

Those promising candidates may be looking for a new gig because they’re dissatisfied with the culture of their current workplace.

Expect them to be picky.

“Right now the market is so hot that talented people are getting offers when they’re not even looking,” says Nicole Armstrong, Director of Marketing and Talent at True Talent Group, which specializes in placing marketing and creative professionals.

Even a minor shift in a company’s culture can be an indicator that the culture is changing. Armstrong warns that managers need to pounce if they see even a small exodus from their workforce.

“That’s when leaders need to find out what’s going on, a time to think about bringing in an HR partner or an independent third party,” she says. “Do an anonymous survey to get a read on the culture, what has pivoted that has caused people to decide to move on. Give your team an opportunity to be candid and you’ll get the right feedback.”

A company’s culture can become embattled during a merger or acquisition. Armstrong says that once again, being proactive can minimize disruptions as the new the business entity is forming.

“In addition to negotiating the best purchase price, management must think about retaining their best talent. To do that, they have to proactively merge two cultures and bridge the differences,” Armstrong says. “They have to recognize that these events create stress, so they must be frank with their employees. People can live with ambiguity and can be patient if they feel informed.”

Armstrong suggests that a financial incentive can tide anxious employees over as the new culture emerges.

“This might be a time for retention bonuses. It can make employees more willing to stay through a period of transition and it’s often less costly than replacing them if they depart the organization.”

Difficult as it may be, companies need to be honest and transparent about their culture, including the parts of it that need attention.

“Companies can be aspirational about their culture, they talk about what they want it to be,” says Salo’s Amy Langer. “To be effective, you need to know the good and the bad of it, how it exists today. The companies that are aligned with the truth of what they are will get it right more often.”