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Optimizing For Performance, One Hire at a Time: Part 3

Written by

Kathryn Kun

February 25, 2021

Kathryn Kun is a Senior Director of Information Security at Akamai Technologies.

Having previously decided we need to make a new hire onto our team, part 1 of this series examined how to meet the needs of our team going into the future, instead of just adding surface visible technical skills.  In part 2, we designed and built an interviewing sensor platform to identify the best candidates from our pool for our needs. In this final piece, we're looking at a particular tempting pitfall in examining the results from our sensors, "cultural fit." 

Your previous work has helped you identify a small pool of candidates with most of the technical chops you need now, with the ability to learn the remaining skills on the job. You've had your interviews and the interviewers are telling you their opinions to support you making a decision in hiring. One of your trusted advisors says, "Well, they have what we said we were looking for, but I don't know if they're a culture fit..."

You, being the astute and careful manager you are, sensitive to team dynamics and wanting to build a productive space for everyone, have been given a useful warning. But that warning isn't all that useful, yet. "Culture fit" or its many cousins can mean a host of things, some of which can be very dangerous, some are ignorable.

Ask "What do you mean?" to try to help get to specific judgments, connected to specific observations. Try to make sure that the words you are using mean what you think they mean.  Judgment depends on interpretation of signal. I want to see the whole chain of observation - analysis - judgment that led to this call. Did they see a mismatch on productivity - like a reliance on phone calls over chat that would cause a new hire to alienate working partners and a reason to believe they'd be stubborn about it? Or a mismatch in priorities or what productivity looks like - extremely solid people can just not match to the way of working you have available. If your team needs to be fast-paced and flexible, someone who is most productive being able to rely on doing the same thing every day is going to be unhappy and lose their productivity. This goes both ways, a team with very structured procedures and clear working times is not a place for a staff member who is most productive doing experimental process development at 2 am. These kinds of "culture fit" really matter to how a team operates and can be worth listening to, even for otherwise skilled candidates.

Sometimes "culture fit" can mean things you don't want to take into consideration in hiring like "I'm uncomfortable hiring the first woman onto the team." or "I've gotten used to doing important work communication at the bar and this candidate doesn't drink." The first example is around a protected class, and in the US, you aren't legally allowed to take some characteristics into consideration when hiring. The second example, of a team who has a bar centric working culture, isn't illegal, but also isn't about productivity. You, as a manager, get to think about the culture of your team and what actually serves productivity and what doesn't. Go back to your vision of success here, and what capabilities you need to have on your team to support it. Bar visits are usually optional, in ways pace and structure may not be. If you have identified your team's needs, eliminating an otherwise skilled candidate for non productivity reasons will end up with a less productive team. 

You should be doing the work to identify what parts of your team culture are happenstance and what parts are vital to productivity anyway, but hiring is the perfect time to really dig deep into what your team should aspire to. Eliminating solid candidates because the non-productivity based parts of your culture will change is not optimizing your team for productivity, it's prioritizing something else instead. All teams change. Every hire affects the team's culture. With every hire, you are choosing what continues, what grows and what dies out in terms of the skills, approach and culture of your team. 

Your job as a manager is not to build a static team, but a dynamic team that grows and changes to meet the demands put upon it. If you are focused on optimizing your team for productivity, you should put the work in to hire well. You define a vision of success and analyze the skills you need on your team to get there. You build sensors to identify those skills in candidates. And you avoid eliminating candidates for reasons other than productivity. Then your team will have what it needs to meet what you ask of it tomorrow and the day after, not just what your boss asked you for yesterday.

Thank you for reading this series, based on my experience as a leader. I believe that hiring is one of the most powerful and expensive investments in a highly productive team that a manager has available. I hope you found this glimpse into my hiring philosophy helpful in your own work. 



Written by

Kathryn Kun

February 25, 2021

Kathryn Kun is a Senior Director of Information Security at Akamai Technologies.