Friday, August 17, 2007

Hiring the "right fit"

In my MBA course reading, I've been struck by how successful 3M has been in overlaying its corporate culture on top of national cultures.

Maybe it has to do with the philosophy of the people in charge and the company culture that says ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. The culture respects other cultures, and in so doing, seems to include them. People see themselves as part of 3M, and really proud of it - seems they identify more as that than anything else, at least in the context of the company. It doesn't seem like there is any conflict, though. I don't get the impression that they're being asked to give up any part of who they are. It's more that they're being asked to tap into parts of themselves and their identities that match the 3M culture. And there are people who can't do that and so don't make it in the company. The toughness of the 3M culture is that it doesn't tolerate people who don't fit in.

I think that national cultures also reject people who don't fit in, but in different ways (obviously they can't fire someone!). Yet there is room in a national culture for many different kinds of people, and for regional and community and neighborhood differences. And of course, people are made up of many different attributes, capacities, talents, abilities, preferences and tendencies.

So even in a national culture that has certain attributes, there will be people who are more suited for a 3M culture. The trick is to find them, and that starts with a very rigorous hiring process that is based on the company vision.

I remember being taught long ago in a marketing class that "marketing was everything" and that meant that our brand needed to permeate everything and everyone so there was consistency throughout the organization. Every encounter an outsider had with the personnel and structures of our organization conveyed the same brand values. Another course on "Creating a Visionary Organization" talks about alignment of vision and values throughout the organization, which is much the same principle.

It makes sense to screen for people who are most likely to be successful in your environment. It's important that applicants are told about the vision during the interview process and asked some questions to determine whether they understand and share the vision and values. People can always learn specific skills and tools/machines, but you can't teach them values. They have to have those in the first place, and that then provides fertile ground for them to learn and internalize the company culture.

So I believe that anyone who works for the organization has to understand and embrace the vision and values. We used to do very extensive screening and interviewing before hiring anyone at the non-profit I led. It took us a couple of years to put a really good system in place, after some trial and error.

I advocate comprehensive communication, and to me, that includes telling prospective employees about the company vision and values and how they will be expected to behave and think within that context. That includes all levels and types of employees.

Line workers are the ones who are day to day responsible for meeting production quotas and ensuring quality, so it seems important that they understand the values and importance of living those values. So, for example, at City Harvest, we spent a lot of time and energy on hiring new drivers, who were our front-line staff. Drivers who just saw it as a job didn't last very long. Drivers who saw it as a mission ended up staying a lot longer as well as becoming contributors to the problem-solving culture we fostered.

The system involved setting out our mission and values right in the job posting and ads, so people knew that it wasn't just any job or organization. Other aspects included reviewing cover letters to see if someone reiterated any of our mission language and/or had spent any time on our website; making sure the basic requirements for the job were met; and having several people review the potential candidates to come to consensus about who should be contacted for an initial phone interview.

On the phone interview (conducted by our HR people), candidates were "grilled" about their own values and behaviors, asked to respond to our vision and values, and talk about what it would mean to them to work at City Harvest. We only wanted people who really wanted to work at the organization, who believed in our mission, and who understood and believed in working in teams, cooperating with other people, going the extra mile to get the job done, pursuing excellence, and going for smart, simple solutions to any kind of problem.

By the time someone got to the in-person interview, they already knew enough to be excited about the interview or had already taken themselves out of the running (usually, though, we eliminated people who weren't a fit during the phone interview). In-person interviews were done by at least two people, generally from different departments, because our work was interdepartmental, with everyone dependent on everyone else. And of course, we checked references. Even though it's getting more difficult to get qualitative references from people, we did try to talk to at least two people who would have something substantive to say about the candidate.

Usually, I met with the final one or two candidates for mid-level and up positions, and of course was heavily involved in hiring people who reported directly to me. For those senior people, I always involved members of the Board of Directors, because the person would inevitably interact with the Board, and should understand the Board culture (which was slightly different from the organization's, unfortunately).

The process was time- and resource-intensive. And well worth every bit of energy! We had very little turnover in the lower ranks of the organization, and even senior people stayed for many years when the industry norm was two years.

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