Hiring for culture-fit: How can asset managers get this right?

In her latest column, Phryne Williams examines how to find the right candidates to either fit or change a corporate culture.

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Organisational culture was once widely accepted as abstract, intangible and indefinable – akin to a person’s charisma. You can’t exactly say what this ethereal ‘thing’ is, but you can still articulate what you experience as bad or good about it.

These days, however, company culture carries much more substance. It is now commonly thought of in weighty terms as a strategic resource and a competitive asset.

Many companies are making efforts to articulate their culture by showing in practice that it is what they say it is. And as company culture becomes more tangible through these efforts, it also becomes more malleable and, therefore, more useful.

If it can be defined, it can be changed and improved. It can also be used to enhance company performance and deliver greater value, as well as to compete for and retain top talent.

How to hire for it

In the past, hiring for culture-fit was something of a knee-jerk reaction. Managers didn’t have to think about it or have to want to do it because it was pretty much instinctive.

In simpler, bygone times, recruiting from the old-boy network, finding talent on the golf course and hiring ‘someone like me’ reflected the blinkered belief that there was strength and competitive advantage in homogeneity. Hiring for organisational culture-fit was once a powerful argument used to limit the workplace opportunities of women, people of colour, differently abled people and anyone else who didn’t ‘fit’ the culture made in the mould of the white straight man.

Now we know how badly a homogenous workplace limits organisational problem-solving, stifles innovation and constrains knowledge, effectively knee-capping competitiveness. Today’s organisational cultural strength lies in diversity and the competence to manage it.

Hiring for culture-fit is now undeniably nuanced, imbued with far more complexity.

The starting point is to have an accurate, precise view of your organisational culture. Asset management firms with strong, winning cultures hire for culture-fit. But for those in the midst of transforming to an improved workplace culture, the focus should be on finding the new hires that can help foster the defined culture change.

There’s groundwork to be done to get this right, and the roots are your understanding of your authentic company culture versus the aspirational. Firms define this in different ways and use different tools to understand it better.

It can encapsulate the organisation’s mission, purpose and broader socio-economic commitments as well as values, not just stated but lived. Obviously, people – employees, customers and organisational leaders – are indivisible from culture. So how does the company think about, act towards and communicate with these stakeholders?

Knowing what you want

Proof points are important. For instance, it’s one thing to craft a narrative of your firm’s commitment to gender inclusivity as part of your culture, and another to back that up by publishing your latest gender pay gap report on your website. Norms and behaviours are strong indicators of company culture, with some culture-change models focused on these more than anything else. This includes communications – does your company culture consider gossiping, blaming and disrespect inevitable and therefore tolerable?

In the end, interrogating your company culture and understanding it will highlight whether you need to be hiring for culture-fit or culture change. When you know this, there are practical ways to enhance your interviewing and hiring process.

One example is using behavioural interviewing questions rather than theoretical ones – in other words, eliciting a real-life narrative from a candidate that you can assess.

Asking candidates to relate their actual experiences opens windows to their culture-fit. We saw this recently with one of our clients who invited a candidate to tell her about their experience with their ‘best boss’ – a simple behavioural question. As the interviewee related their unique story, it became clear to our client that the way this candidate thrived under management was too different from the way she led her high-performance team.

It was a quick and effective way for her to determine that this well-qualified person was not, in fact, fit for her company’s culture, avoiding pain on all sides and the considerable costs to the company of an unsuitable hire.

Holistic approach

In all conversations about hiring for culture-fit, it must be noted this is important but still not the be-all and end-all of finding and retaining talent. The recruitment process for the financial services industry must be holistic, balancing the requirements for specialised skills and experience with over-arching organisational goals such as reaching diversity targets and building a company culture that is a competitive advantage.

Today’s popular maxim ‘hire for attitude, train for skills’ comes up often in discussions about culture-fit, but it doesn’t take into consideration the need financial services has for people with specific knowledge and well-developed skill sets who can hit the ground running.

Perhaps when we consider optimising hiring in asset management firms, we need to be thinking in terms of how companies can better support new hires and improve talent retention by not just hiring for culture-fit but also immersing new hires in the company by coaching for culture-fit.

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