Jun 12 2017

Go For Culture Add, Not Culture Fit

I’ve come to despise the phrase “culture fit.”

I don’t remember when I first heard it, but it was many years ago. Over time, it became woven into the world of entrepreneurship, as companies used it as a primary frame of reference for hiring. VCs turned it into a cliche, espousing the importance of culture fit during the entire spectrum of company creation, from the functioning of the very earliest teams through scaling a business.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to use the phrase “cultural norms” instead of culture whenever the concept of culture fit was mentioned. At first, this felt a little ponderous as I had to regularly explain what I meant by cultural norms and why I didn’t just say the word culture instead. I eventually learned that if I stated that culture meant nothing and was shorthand for saying “I don’t want to think hard about what is going on here,” I usually stimulated enough of a conversation that it ultimately became a useful one.

About a year ago, I was in a conversation (I can’t remember who it was with) and they mentioned the phrase “culture add.” I immediately loved it. Since then, I’ve used it as a direct contrast to culture fit and let it evolve to the phrase “go for culture add, not culture fit” as part of a longer rant on diversity on all dimensions (beyond just gender and race) and the evolution of culture norms in a company.

I felt confident in my understanding of this concept. I’d cite the Rooney Rule as an element of how to hire for culture add. If you aren’t familiar with the Rooney Rule, a relatively recent article in 538 titled Rethinking The NFL’s Rooney Rule For More Diversity At The Top has a short and clear description of it.

“In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. The rule, however, has two fatal flaws: the temptation to substitute sham interviews in place of a search for real diversity, and coordinator-level positions, a crucial step to head-coaching jobs, are not under the umbrella.”

As with many things in life, I marched forward, spreading the gospel of the Rooney Rule once I had internalized it as part of the idea of culture add. And then, in February, I ran into a brick wall during a Boulder roundtable on diversity organized by Andrea Guendelman of BeVisible. I was sitting in a big circle in the room, listening carefully, but also feeling like I was contributing my perspective and expertise to the group (which, when I reflect on this, means I was probably feeling smug, self-important, and casually tossing around things like the Rooney Rule) when I heard something referenced from Stefanie Johnson, a CU professor that made me pull out my iPhone and type a few notes to myself.

“Stefanie Johnson just wrote an article that the Rooney Rule doesn’t work. If you have only one female candidate in the finalist pool, it doesn’t increase that probability that you’ll hire a female candidate. The same is true for a non-white candidate. If you want to increase the probability, you have to have at least two female candidates in the finalist pool.”

I may have said something like “can you say that again?” If I didn’t, I should have. Regardless, it was seared into my brain. A few days later, I got an email from Stefanie (who had heard about the conversation) with a link to her recent HBR article titled. If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be HiredThe article is clear and has the appropriate statistical support for Stefanie’s assertion. If you don’t feel like reading the article, the chart below summarizes it.

There’s a lot in the article, including this gem:

“Why does being the only woman in a pool of finalists matter? For one thing, it highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.”

and this punchline:

“And the evidence simply does not support concerns surrounding the myth of reverse racism. It is difficult to find studies that show subtle preferences for women over men, and for minorities over whites. But the data does support one idea: When it is apparent that an individual is female or nonwhite, they are rated worse than when their sex or race is obscured.”

As I finish up this ramble, let’s cycle all the way back to the notion of culture add. By using this phrase, one of the things I’m trying to do is break the notion of hiring people like everyone else in the company as a default to supporting the idea of culture. Instead, you are looking for people who add to your culture. This does not invalidate the idea of adding people like you, but it doesn’t let this be the default. It’s more subtle than mechanisms like the Rooney Rule, but hopefully, it will be effective long-term.

More importantly, at a discussion earlier this year, I realized once again how little I know about something I’ve been immersed in for many years. Or, if I’m optimistic, how much I can regularly learn just by paying attention, listening, and participating in a discussion, even when I think I’m one of the experts, advocates, or some other word that makes me feel good about myself. And, most of all thank you, Andrea, for staying after me, and for creating a forum for a major new insight for me that I might have otherwise missed.


Also published on Medium.