Understanding Corporate Culture and New Hire Fit

Boy Wearing Men's Dress Shoes and Suit

A senior executive friend of mine recently changed companies after 19 years with the same firm.  After that long it is easy to understand how he had become a part of the corporate culture, and a staunch spokesperson for the values and practices of the firm. While he was headed to the same role at one of the three other major players in his field, he was concerned about the culture he was joining.  Questions such as, “Will I fit?  Will I be able to maintain my professional practices and continue to build long-term client relationships at the new company?  Will I find the people open and welcoming or closed and defensive?”

These and many similar questions and concerns occupy the minds of new hires the world over?  And the biggest concern is “fit” with the new culture?

“Strong corporate cultures have an automatic rejection mechanism of those who don’t fit the culture.”

Recently, the major global executive search firms have all begun to assess cultural fit, in addition to determining business competencies and conducting psychological profiles, when recommending candidates during a search assignment.  There is a commonly held view in the search industry that most hiring failures are due to lack of cultural fit as opposed to poor job fit.

Acculturation and The Need to Fit In

However, for those new hires who succeed in a new company the reason may not be just because they were a good fit with the culture from the start.  I believe there is another, even more powerful corporate culture process at work here. The human need to “fit in” with the group and a conscious/unconscious acculturation process.

First of all, I suggest it is pretty difficult to dial in on whether or not a person is a “good fit for the culture”.  Culture is notoriously difficult to define and measure (see LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture) and to think that an executive search firm can fully understand the corporate culture of the client company is a big stretch.  And in most large companies the culture is made up of multiple strong subcultures and not one overall “corporate culture”.

They may do a culture assessment, survey or profile, but there is no real way of knowing if that culture assessment identifies the key cultural behaviours and ways of working that really define the company, or just a generic set of values and “culture words”.  Most executive search firms are just now beginning to develop internal expertise around company culture.

Talking to my friend recently provided me with some key insight into the process of “cultural fit” when it comes to hiring outsiders.  I believe the human need and conscious/subconscious desire to “fit in” and be accepted by the group is a strong, and previously unrecognised, factor in new hire success.

In the case of my friend, he had a strong personal motivation to succeed in this new company, which created a strong desire to fit in.  As such, he became highly attuned to the “stories” told by peers and colleagues about the firm’s history, its executive heroes and villains, stories of client successes and failures.  All of which helped him quickly understand the real culture of the firm (what was accepted and what was not) and to adjust his own behaviour accordingly.  He self-assimilated very quickly and since the core values of the new company mostly matched his own professional core values, he was able to quickly adapt his work behaviours to fit into the new company.

He wasn’t hired for fit, but chose to acculturate quickly in order to fit.

The process of the human acculturation and the desire to “fit in” with the group needs to be better understood if we are to help build strong leadership teams and executives who can help build sustainable growth businesses.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:  novels.johnrchildress.com


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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