I often tell people that despite going to business school for six years, the best learning experiences have come from the school of hard knocks. There are few aspects of entrepreneurship more vital — and in the eyes of many, more difficult — than building the right team. When we launched our company in 2012, we understood the connection between a great corporate culture and attracting top talent, and successfully established a company deeply grounded in our values.
Our environment is unquestionably unique. We prefer shorts and flip-flops to suits and ties. We foster an atmosphere intended to empower each person in our organization to thrive free of bureaucratic shackles, and we have a lot of fun in the office. However, our dedication to corporate culture was recently put to the test and we failed. But we learned from our experience, and every entrepreneur, hiring manager and human resource professional can too.
We were filling an entry-level position, and to our great excitement, we received an application from a seemingly incredible candidate. She had a high GPA, a strong resume, and a degree from an elite institution. We immediately moved her to the front of the line and quickly brought her in for an interview.
In the interview, I was impressed with her intellectual capacity, but was concerned about her soft skills and ability to fit seamlessly into our culture. While I normally trust my gut, I didn’t want my gut alone out to get in the way of our hiring a potentially extraordinary candidate. Rather than nix her on the basis of my concerns about her cultural fit, I asked two members of our team to interview her before making a final decision. Both were strongly supportive of her hiring, emphasizing the value of adding a person of her intellect and potential. And so we did. She didn’t turn out to be the right fit for the role or the company. After one week, I gave her a very blunt performance review, highlighting the numerous areas of concern. After two weeks, we let her go.
In spite of our efforts creating a defining corporate culture, we lost sight of the importance of protecting that culture. This experience illustrated the adverse consequences of overvaluing credentials and overlooking the characteristics that are better predictors of whether or not a candidate will thrive in your organization. Having hired many people from all kinds of schools, including all of the top universities in the country over the years, I can confidently say that academic background is one variable that should be considered, but not at the top of the list. Instead, I focus our hiring on finding people who possess an Ivy League-caliber attitude, fit seamlessly into our culture and are willing to do whatever it takes to get things done.
This experience led us to change our hiring policies, as we were reminded of the need to focus on culture over credentials. We instituted a rule establishing that if at any point in the interview process any member of our team feels that a potential hire may not fit seamlessly into our office environment, we eliminate them from consideration. We nixed numerous students with otherwise sterling credentials who applied to our summer internship program for this reason. Company-wide, we recognized the importance of de-emphasizing “pedigree” and re-emphasizing work ethic and cultural fit.
The best way to maintain a strong company culture is by staying true to it and living the underlying values, not only when it is easy, but when it is difficult. One might argue that our culture is strengthened by our barbecues, by our popcorn and snow cone machines and by our love of joking around with each other. I believe our culture is strengthened with each new team member who truly reflects our values.
I strongly encourage anyone and everyone to recognize that no person — no matter how strong they may look on paper or how tempting it may be to slot them into a particular opening — is more important than your values. The next time you are considering a new hire, ask yourself and your team members whether or not that person will enhance or detract from your environment. Trust your gut and understand what really matters and why.