Why Selecting Leaders is So Difficult in Practice – Reason #5: Companies Misunderstand Corporate Culture

Organizations hire executives to either fit into their corporate culture or to help change it.

Corporate culture is among a constellation of ‘fit’ considerations. Tasks and responsibilities are ‘what’ organizations want undertaken which drives the requisite experience and skills for a given role. Performance measures are what organizations need delivered in order for an executive to be considered successful in a role. Motivation is the degree, duration and intensity with which employees ‘will’, or won’t, pursue those performance measures. And finally, corporate culture is ‘how’ all this will be carried out, how priorities will be established, decisions will be made, and how people will work together collectively. Unfortunately, for many organizations, articulating ‘how things work around here’ is a constant work-in-progress, a mishmash of how things are and how they should or could be. It is a particularly challenging issue for organizations whose leaders struggle to understand the impact of their own behaviors.

Many companies skirt the challenges of culture fit by hiring instead for the textbook culture to which they aspire. They assign themselves a mix of positively-charged cultural attributes such as dynamic, participative, collegial, non-political, action-biased, passionate, values-driven and team-based and then proceed to select candidates who they believe are best aligned. The ensuring selection process, generally friendly and ‘best-foot-forward’ in spirit, masks any underlying discrepancies between the talk and the actual walk.

Once the newly hired executives arrive on the job however, they are often taken aback by the actual corporate cultures into which they are immersed. The relaxed and charming CEO, so attentive during the interview process, proves to be a decidedly more volatile, directive micro-manager who rationalizes his outbursts by pointing to the inadequacies of those around him. And the non-political ‘straight-talking’ culture turns out to be code for one where emotional control is in short supply and whoever screams the loudest prevails. As the new executives quickly learn, the employees who survive are those least unlikely to push for change. While the company’s cultural aspirations may be genuine, the new executives are often ill-suited to the current culture. They were also unlikely to have been selected for their track record as an agent of change.

While corporate culture is misunderstood by some firms it is subordinated by others. These firms become infatuated with market leaders whose success they covet. Seeking the cachet of hiring from ‘successful’ firms they focus on industry and product knowledge, customer relationships and sophistication. Unfortunately, the corporate cultures of the firms they target cannot be assumed or ignored. An executive forged by the fire of a take-no-prisoners corporate culture promises to be unsettled by and unsettling to the inhabitants of a land of milk and honey, and vice versa. Problems of fit invariably follow and the ability to adapt cannot be assumed.

Corporate culture is an important yet oft misunderstood variable in hiring. It is also one of, if not the most common causes of hiring mistakes. It merits discussion and care to get it right.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.


Contact Robert by email at [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.

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