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Getting Culture Right is Key Lessons Learned on What’s Key to a Successful Hire

By J. James O’Malley, Andersen Alumnus and Managing Director and Executive Search Practice Leader at Felix Global

Culture is defined as shared values that drive behavior. It is so powerful that Peter Drucker wrote “culture eats strategy and vision for breakfast”. As a headhunter, job number one for me is getting the right person hired. My clients count on it and my candidates place their trust in me. So why do so many companies, candidates and headhunters fail in getting that right person in the right seat at the right company? It’s pretty simple: we don’t spend enough time on culture!

Culture really matters - and in an environment where demand outstrips supply for many jobs - culture exerts an increasingly enormous impact on your ability to hire and retain people. But most companies do a lousy job building authentically engaging cultures. The evidence is everywhere. In a recent Forbes article, Deloitte shares research showing that culture, engagement, and employee retention are now the top talent challenges facing business leaders. The same article also cites data from Gallup showing that that 51% of us are disengaged at work while 17.5% are actively disengaged.

Few of us are fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work within great cultures. For me, working for Arthur Andersen’s business consulting practice taught me a lot about what makes a culture great. In fact, at an alumni retreat a few years back it connected me with dozens of colleagues who shared that experience. What prompted 70 former colleagues, 13-plus years later to give up a precious weekend? Culture.

Using my experience as a lens, I’ve come to two conclusions about great workplace cultures. First, great cultures really do stand out - the culture is tangible, and you can feel it. Secondly, I firmly believe that culture must be real, actionable and honest. Closing the gap between what you say and what you do at Andersen was called “Think straight, Talk straight”. Hypocrisy kills culture.

So, what does all of this have to do with recruiting and assessing for the right culture? Well, a few things:

  • Companies need to begin to openly share their values and live by them. Additionally, consider another dimension of corporate culture: it’s often aspirational, rather than a reflection of current reality. Need objective proof? Pick a large corporation and take a look at the way culture is described on the website’s pages devoted to HR. Then, ask a friend who works there what it’s really like. Every culture has positives and negatives. That’s why employers need to stop speaking aspirationally about culture when hiring, so as not to confuse the candidate and/or themselves.
  • Look in the mirror objectively to see how others perceive your culture. Monitor postings about your company on sites such as glassdoor.com or vault.com to understand what employees and job applicants are saying about your culture and why. Granted, a portion of these may be generated by disgruntled employees but, nonetheless, we all know that perceptions count.
  • Make sure everyone on your leadership team walks the talk on culture. Culture starts at the top and, too often, we hear executives make comments to the effect that “HR owns culture”. Wrong - everyone shapes the culture in your organization,
  • Companies need to devote time and training to make sure that those doing the hiring are truly assessing the job candidate’s values - rather than some other characteristics - and that those values are consistent with the values of the company.
  • If your company decides to hire an individual whose values are not aligned with those of the company, you must be prepared to lose them. Turnover is so often grounded in cultural mismatches.

An interesting thing about a good culture is that it can be difficult to quantify but you can feel it when it’s there. There are a few special occasions in life - family events or class reunions, for example - where you can enter a room and immediately feel a connection to others at the gathering. There is a sense of community and, even if years have passed, a strong camaraderie that allows you to pick up a conversation if you’d just seen the other person a few days ago. That, in a nutshell, pretty much summarizes the atmosphere at the Andersen retreat I attended and makes the best case, in my opinion, for developing and nurturing a strong culture that lives on long after the company is gone.

About J. James O’Malley

O’Malley leads Felix Global’s Executive Search Practice and brings with him 30 years of talent acquisition solutions. In 2018, he co-founded a retained search firm focused on recruitment in the private equity, professional services and financial services sectors. Previously, he was a partner and executive search practice leader at TalentRISE, a recruitment solutions firm in Chicago. Prior to that, he was senior vice president in the human resource function of Fifth Third Bancorp. O’Malley has also worked for several professional service firms, including Arthur Andersen, Deloitte, Huron Consulting and Lante. He can be reached at jomalley@felixglobal.com