Focus on Core Values, Not Culture, for Successful Hiring


BLOG VIEW: Every organization has a culture. We all integrate some component of that culture into the interview and hiring process. We focus on how a candidate will fit into that culture and do not hire people who feel would not fit. 

But most of us could probably not define the company’s culture. If we asked members of an organization, we would get radically different answers. Why? We do not really understand what a culture is or how it develops. 

With that in mind, how are we supposed to determine if a candidate is a proper fit when the culture is not clearly defined?

At the Core of Culture 

Culture is a byproduct of something far more important and far more indicative of what motivates people. We should not be hiring for culture; we should hire for core values. These values define the personality and motivation of people, in and outside of work. 

Shared core values shape the culture of every group of people no matter how large or small. Within a work environment these core values shape the way we interact with our co-workers, clients, leaders and people we lead. When we are intentionally hiring for the core values that define the company, our people become the company. Their passions are the company’s passions and their actions align with the company’s vision. 

A company cannot force people to change, it can only restrict or reward certain actions. Therefore, people get concerned with the hiring process because they do not want the culture to change. We form questions to see if they fit the company. That is not the correct. We focus on the behaviors when the guardrails of looking at core values are in place. 

We want to ask questions to discover who someone is so that we may uncover the values that drive and motivate them to truly understand them. When we align with the company values, then the culture that develops will be the one everyone in the company wants. 

The culture will change over time because new people will influence the culture. We want that change because It is a good thing. We want our culture to develop from our shared core values – it makes a better company. 

While this concept is really that simple, we often find that the values listed on the website or in the employee handbook are not the ones that are rewarded or embraced by the leadership. 

Consider a mortgage software company looking to build a top tier engineering team. Most of the questions in an interview will be focused on advanced concepts, cutting edge technology, what languages they have experience with, and of course, how they fit into the culture of the organization. But, these are not the most important questions. The resulting team might be talented, but they may not be what we expected. 

Go Deeper by Asking the Right Questions

Consider a mortgage software engineer that heavily documents their code. Is it because it is written in a complex way that is difficult to understand? Is it because they did not want the junior engineers to bother them? Or what about a scrum master who increased velocity of the team – was more value delivered or did we increase the story points to artificially change velocity? 

We can also ask questions like what they do in their free time or how they handle stress or a challenge they overcame at work. While these are not bad questions, they do not delve deep enough. We should ask questions around what truly matters for the company. Questions that pose real scenarios and elicit authentic responses. 

  • What would you do if you see a team member falling behind on commitments? 
  • You believe your leader is wrong on a decision, what action would you take?
  • What makes you feel like you are doing a good job? 
  • If you were hired, what would make you leave?

When I ask a question about someone being a leader, I am looking for the values of servant leadership: compassion and humility. I am also looking for mental strength, accountability, ownership and team commitment. These values make for great leaders and the type of people we want to work with our company. 

The goal of asking the right questions in an interview is to understand the candidate on a personal level. Multiple rounds of interviews should weave in questions and activities in each session specifically designed to understanding the core values of the candidate. When you do, it will become obvious whether they will have a positive impact on the company and help build the culture and environment desired.

Paul Weakley is Partner at PhoenixTeam.

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