Hiring for Culture Fit

Hiring for culture fit is one of the most impactful things you will ever do as a leader.

The ultimate question I ask myself when interviewing a candidate is, will they be able to look me in the eye when their career is over and tell me that the least important thing they ever got from Chick-fil-A was a paycheck? Consider this: wherever a candidate ends up, they will receive a paycheck. And if it becomes a battle of the size of paychecks it really is just like a commodity- it’s something bought based on price. We always felt at Chick-fil-A that we wanted to be valued by employees not primarily for the money we gave but for the mission that we were on. So, what we wanted to do in terms of hiring was compete on things other than a paycheck – which I believe is the most effective way to compete for the candidates that will best fit your culture.

That’s because essentially everything beyond a paycheck is culture related. Therefore, the foremost hiring strategy is to create a strong culture that becomes a magnet to attract the right candidates. Building a strong culture starts with creating clarity about your culture’s unique identity that is compelling to those candidates, because not all cultures are the same and different cultures will attract different people.

It’s not like there is a good culture and a bad culture – it’s kind of like ice cream. There are lots of flavors of cultures and it’s what flavor are you attracted to – are you attracted to mint chocolate chip? Do you prefer pistachio or are you attracted to fudge ripple? You have to first be clear on what flavor you are and then you need to work on attracting people that prefer that flavor. Culture is so important because it becomes the incentive to work somewhere beyond the paycheck. A paycheck will make you competitive but a culture will give you a competitive advantage. But, it only gives you a competitive advantage if it’s a culture that’s attractive to the candidate that is a culture fit. And the more clear you are on your unique culture, the more clear you will be on the unique candidate you need. The fundamental issue is: what do you have to offer this person beyond the paycheck? And that, loosely speaking, is your culture.

Hiring for culture fit begins before you ever bring a candidate in to interview. First, be clear on what is your culture, what are the values associated with your culture, what are the behaviors associated with your culture, and what is truly valued by your culture. Then, translate that into a track record to look for in candidates. So for instance, as you look at their resumé and LinkedIn page, what are the clues you’re searching for? If making a difference in the world over making money is part of your culture, what do you see in their resumé that shows that they’ve gravitated to things in life that make a difference? What are the volunteer opportunities they pursued? What are the things they participate in that would lead you to believe that they might value what you have to offer? Through things like the candidate’s resume, LinkedIn profile, and social media, you can get a window into what’s valuable to them and look for a match between that and what’s valuable to you as an organization. Look for that kind of alignment in the candidates you choose to bring in for interviews.

People often ask how to use the interview to determine culture fit. One thing we did at Chick-fil-A was assign different cultural values to different interviewers. So, one team member might go deep on a particular value like Better Together (that we believe in the power of collaboration) and determine if that’s something the candidate values. I’ve always felt that the stronger indications are not in interviewee’s answers to your questions but in the behaviors they exhibit. I’m going to steal a great example from Ginger Hardage of Southwest Airlines.

At Southwest, they sometimes put all the people interviewing for a particular job, say a flight attendant position, in the lobby together while they are waiting for their interview. At least they think they’re waiting. What they’re actually doing is having their behavior observed! A behavior that Southwest looks for in their flight attendants is a natural proclivity to engage people. So, those candidates that sit in the lobby the whole time on their phone, ignoring everyone else in the room, reveals a behavior inconsistent with the values of the role they are interviewing for. But those that instantly start to talk to the person next them – that are naturally inclined to engage people – those are the people Southwest wants to hire. So actually, the interview starts before any questions are asked by watching the candidates’ behavior in the lobby. That’s why when you go on a Southwest Airlines flight you see all these flight attendants that aren’t pretending to be engaging – it’s who they are! If you ask in an interview, “do you enjoy engaging with people?”, you likely know what answer you’re going to get. Instead, see who naturally exhibits that behavior. The question you should be asking yourself is, what are the behaviors that would illustrate the desired values and how can you create a situation where those behaviors would reveal themselves?

Culture is ultimately the natural outflow of what we really are. When you’re trying to force people to be things they’re not, you’re creating problems in your culture. What we really want to do in the interview process is not say “yes or no” or “good or bad,” we want to surface who that person really is and determine if it aligns with what we have to offer. We want to put the candidate in a position to be themselves. But the interview process generally does the opposite! It often forces them to conform in order to be successful in the interview versus allows them to be who they are.

Astute organizations create questions and processes that enable the candidate to show who they are. Because if what we have to offer is not who they are, we’re setting them up to not be successful – we’re setting them up for failure. The best organizations have the best process of letting people show them who they are and then knowing clearly if that’s a good fit to set them up for success.

Chick-fil-A is notorious for its unique hiring process. Perhaps first and foremost, for the length of it! It’s always interesting to me when I hear about a company that plans to fill a particular job by a particular date. To me, saying you will fill a job by November 30th, for example, is like saying you’re going to get married by November 30th when you’re not even engaged yet! You may laugh at that because you know it’s not a good idea to set an arbitrary deadline, hoping you’re going to meet the right person to spend the rest of your life with between now and November 30th. Ironically, that’s the way most companies hire people – which is why most companies have turnover issues. How successful do you think most marriages would be given a 2-month window to find one another? My thoughts exactly. Yet that’s the way companies hire.

At Chick-fil-A, we say we’re going to fill a role when the right person shows up. And if that takes us 12 months it takes us 12 months. That seems scary to a lot of people because they’re like, “wow, if it takes 12 months to find the right candidate, what do we do in those 12 months?” But the problem is, if they fill the role with the wrong person, guess what they’re going to be doing 12 months from now? Filling it again. And guess what they’re going to be doing another 12 months after that? In the end, it’s much more problematic to fill the role with whoever happens to appear in the arbitrary 2-month window you set than allow the time necessary to find the right fit. We have a 97% retention rate at Chick-fil-A and one of the reasons is we wait to find the right person to fill the role. It’s all about having a long-term view of finding the right person for the role so you have success in the long term versus a short term view that I need a warm body in here, so I’ll set a date and choose the best from who is available in that window.

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>> Extended website-only content on the unique Chick-fil-A hiring process:

Here’s the other thing: if the process takes a long time you will probably lose a few people on the way. Some people won’t be able to wait, won’t want to wait, etc.. But, for people that see the uniqueness of your culture, it’s kind of like finding that right husband or wife. You’re willing to wait when you find the right one. What I found at Chick-fil-A is that the candidates who really love the culture and saw a fit were willing to wait for it – others will walk away. So it becomes kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy; the ones who really don’t value what you have to offer will walk away and you want them to.

Let me give you another example from Zappos, who will be sending a coach to the Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship this year. One of the things they’re famous for, and which their parent company Amazon now mimics, is they offer new employees $1,000 to quit within their first few weeks. If an employee is willing to walk away for $1,000 that early on, they’re not going to stay for the long haul anyway. It’s the ones not willing to walk away for that money that see and value what you have to offer. It’s amazing! By having that kind of an offer, it forces the organization to shore up your hiring systems so they don’t bring too many people in that are willing to take you up on that offer. It means your culture has to be so strong, and your systems have to be so good, that you could offer that and nobody takes you up on it. If you’re doing a good job of screening people it means once they get in, they see something far more valuable than money that they want to be part of.

Here’s another little tip for hiring in general: one of the things that that I used to do once we were getting serious about a field marketing candidate is take that candidate on a trip with me. You would be amazed what you can learn in 24 hours on a trip with somebody. It’s everything from the way they treat the rental car shuttle driver, to what their energy is like throughout the day, to when they get in a room full of Operators that they don’t know, how comfortable are they with mixing and mingling? I would literally take them to a Chick-fil-A location and ask them what they saw in order to gauge their instincts. It was amazing how well some people would assess the situation and how poorly others would.

That is so much more behavioral than sitting in an office. I’m trying to answer the question, are they natural at what we’re going to ask them to do? Because I’m trying to set them up for success. And if they’re not natural and I hire them, they’re going to struggle the whole time. It’s similar to scouting athletes; I’m not expecting perfection, but I’m looking for instinct and natural ability. So, how can you incorporate something similar in to your interview process when you’re getting serious about a candidate?

Here’s the other thing that I think is really unique about Chick-fil-A: interviews are never a one-way decision. It’s not me deciding about your future – it’s you deciding about your future as well. So, if I don’t take you on that trip you’re having to make a decision about something you’ve never seen. Part of it is an investment on Chick-fil-A’s part to help you make a good decision. One of the things we are always very conscious of is that the hiring process is a two-way decision much like marriage would be a two-way decision. It’s not one person deciding – it’s two people deciding. So, how do we put the candidate in a position to make a great decision? Because it’s going to impact them as much or more than us in a sense- their whole future is on the line. So, are we giving them ample opportunity to see us (warts and all) – do they really know what they’re getting into? Because the ultimate litmus test for us to know if we’ve done a good job interviewing a candidate is their answer to this question a few week into the job: “Any surprises?” The surprise you don’t want is for them to get into the job and it’s very different than what they were thinking. To avoid that, we tried to give them plenty of opportunity to make their own assessment of whether this was right for them at the same time we were making an assessment of whether they were right for us and the position.

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Wayne Gretzky was famous for a quote: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.” I think the same is true of hiring – I never hired somebody because they could do the immediate job I needed done. I always tried to hire someone who could do jobs several levels beyond that. If I don’t see them capable of moving up several levels beyond that, then they’re going to at some point feel trapped. I think a lot of companies just hire somebody for the basic job they need done and then people get stuck because they’re not really capable of going beyond that. If you’re part of a growing organization you will have growing needs that you need people growing into. So, hire people not for what they can do today but what you feel like they can do 10 and 20 years from now. Sure enough, a lot of the current senior leaders at Chick-fil-A I actually hired when they were 21 years old, straight out of college. And it’s because I was looking for a track record that would speak to potential to grow with the company and into what the company will need them to be down the road. There are hundreds of people that can do the immediate job but there’s a small portion that could do the job several levels up. That’s a very different way of thinking about hiring – hiring not for what you need today but instead, hiring for what you’re going to need down the road.

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>> Extended website-only content on Hiring for Culture fit:

If you put it in athletic terms, I think about Alabama or the University of Georgia football. When they look for new players, they’re recruiting guys who could play in the NFL. They’re not saying, “I just need somebody who can play college ball.” They’re recruiting people capable of going into the NFL. And the reason that they’ve got players that are so good at college ball is because people who are going to the NFL know they need to go to Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, etc. – those top football schools. Those schools are able to attract the top talent not just because those players’ goal is to play for that school, but also because their ultimate goal is to get in the NFL. And they know that’s the best way to get there. It’s an elite group that is attracted to the best teams and they build a culture of sending players to the next level and therefore they’re able to attract the people that will be best at the college level. It’s the same thing with companies. If you build a culture of opportunity to rise up in the company and be a future leader, you start with a better set of talent.

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Bottom line: you don’t get a 97% retention rate by setting a deadline to make a hire, by having a bunch of surprises after that hire, or by hiring simply for today’s greatest needs. Hire for the future by hiring for culture fit. 

 


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Together, we can Spark a Revolution of brands more defined by meaning than money, brands that achieve success in a manner that redefines it.

David Salyers
Founder, Spark A Revolution


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