Mark Company Culture Blog

I’ve never been a big culture guy. Not because I don’t believe in the importance of company culture, because I do. What I don’t believe in is putting one’s values up on the wall or posting a mission statement on the website. These public displays and declarations are meaningless unless every employee—from CEO to the most junior hire—acts on it daily.

A while back HG Data’s CEO, Craig Harris, published 11 Characteristics of an Awesome Company Culture, because of this post I felt compelled to pick up where he left off and share the rest of the story. This is the how to complement Craig’s what and why. Because your culture is only as good as your weakest link, implementing your values starts with how you hire.

HIRING RIGHT MATTERS

Although I’ve long sensed the link between culture and hiring, a recent Deloitte study confirms my intuition. As part of Deloitte’s ongoing examination of company culture, its 2014 Core Beliefs & Culture Survey examines the link between a “culture of purpose” and long-term growth.

What strikes me is the disparity of confidence in a company’s potential for long-term success between employees in companies that have a strong culture of purpose and those that do not. Across the board—whether asking about their company’s ability to build the brand, outperform the competition, stay ahead of disruptions and stand out as industry leaders—employees and management in companies with a culture of purpose are almost twice as likely to believe in their success.

What this tells me is that strong cultural values are not imposed from the top but embraced across the ranks. Hiring people that can act on the culture makes the difference.

IT’S TOUGH TO WALK THE WALK

Be honest. It’s difficult to walk the walk even on our most deeply held convictions. I see it in my own life; probably you do as well. My family and I are champions of the environment. We recycle. Turn off lights. We refuse both paper and plastic at the supermarket. Whenever possible, we opt for digital over paper and other materials destined for landfill. Most days I telecommute to work.

And yet our carbon footprint is solid upper middle class. We haven’t left our comfortable, roomy home, complete with swimming pool, for a 500 sq. ft. living space. And my wife Julia—a stalwart steward for climate change—must drive several 100 miles each week going back and forth to her job.

We’re far from perfect. But we do the best we can and strive to do more.

Now translate our efforts to corporate culture. If on a daily basis every employee comes up short and fails to act on their company’s values, can you really say you have a culture? That’s my conundrum, and the only solution I can see is to hire people that will embody your culture. And for the record, I think Craig hires really, really well!

Here are my six essential hiring strategies:

1) Understand (and Be) What You Value
In his blog post, Craig wrote, “Founders don’t sit down and say, ‘We’re going to create a company, what do we want our culture to be?’” While true, succeeding requires thought, introspection and self-awareness. Culture, to Craig, is serious business, it’s his the essence. He thinks about it; more importantly he strives to live his value system. It’s also the only way any of us can hire people that will embody our culture. Being what you value is where the rubber hits the road.

2) Consciously Fill the Gaps
It’s appealing to hire people just like us. On a certain level, it even makes sense: If we embody the culture, then we need to hire others who share a similar vision. Ultimately, however, It’s a major speed bump on the road to hiring the right people. To be effective, you need to balance the characteristics you look for with the needs of the company. You want people that fill in the gaps—in you and the company. It takes honesty and self-awareness to create a diverse and holistic workforce that together stands as a comprehensive embodiment of your values—without unleashing a team of rivals.

3) Know Your Organizational Strategy
Why you are here and where you are trying to take the company are the foundational elements that drive culture and, in turn, hiring. You can be true to your long-term vision only when the day-to-day actions (even the most trivial) fall along the long-term arc of where you’re trying to go.

In practice, you need to do more than know your values and strategy; you have to live, communicate and reinforce them. I know for a fact that Craig is looking at every action, every idea and thinking, how to link it to the greater whole and good.

4) Choose Aptitude Over Experience
This may surprise you, but at HG Data we hire for the characteristics or traits of people rather than pedigree or resume. It’s a bit like Billy Beane’s Moneyball approach to building the Oakland A’s into a winning team.

It’s also the reality HG Data confronts simply because we’re traveling through uncharted waters. When you’re breaking new ground, it’s nearly impossible to hire for specific expertise. Craig solves this challenge by figuring out the attributes and skills that work together and thrive in this environment.

We’re not titans of industry or publicly renown. We didn’t all graduate from the Ivies or get snatched away from Google. But individually and collectively, we are the embodiment of the characteristics that Craig believes contribute to awesomeness. To build the future we envision, we hire for confidence, curiosity, a can-do attitude and a modicum of malleability and transformability.

5) Ensure Role Alignment
I introduce this point as a warning as much as an objective. An awesome culture can overshadow day-to-day responsibilities. As a result, you risk that job candidates will fall in love with your company’s coolness factor and awesome vibes and overlook the realities of the job they are hired to do.

Similarly, when you are intent on hiring for characteristics rather than resumes, you risk overlooking the ability of a candidate you love to do a specific job. In the end, employees suffer most when they end up in a company they love but a job they hate.

Thus it’s incumbent on management to provide role alignment: Be clear about what a candidate is expected to do for 50 hours a week. Articulate the role and make sure every hire is ready to commit. And avoid pre-emptive hiring for a role that you’re not quite ready to fill. You can’t look ahead to where you’re going to be and bring someone on board when the company is not mature enough or lacks the systems to support a position.

6) Be Opportunistic
Of course, every rule is made to be broken. So when a bluebird candidate falls in your lap—someone who is a perfect fit across cultural characteristics, skillset, and role—you sometimes have to go off script and hire anyway. Early-stage companies especially need to act on opportunity.

I was that person at HG Data. When Craig found out I was available, his immediate response was, “When can you come to Santa Barbara? We’ve got to talk.” It worked because he tempered his opportunism with honesty. When you level with people so they know what they’re walking into, you can act on your long-term objectives.

TRUST

I’ll leave you with one more characteristic that brings Craig’s list to an even dozen. Trust. In my opinion, trust is the most essential component—especially when you’re an early-stage company.

When you don’t have enough money to fill all the positions you would like…when your people are geographically dispersed and all working way too hard…and when management is lean, you have to trust one another that the job gets done.

It’s a trust that goes both ways—managers trusting their reports and employees trusting their bosses. It’s the trust companies demonstrate as vendors, as suppliers, as clients, as partners and as the keepers of investors’ funds. Trust transcends every relationship we have and the interconnectivity of how we exist as a corporation.

Although Craig omitted trust from his list, he embraces it in his actions. I was HG Data’s first senior hire who was not a founder. It was intimidating to join a group that had worked together for five years. They trusted one another, but had they not willingly embraced me and cultivated our relationship, I would have failed. Building trust with that team and extending that out to the people I brought on board, has been critical to our success.

Ultimately, when you hire people that embody your values and trust them to act on those values, that’s when corporate culture matters.

This was first published on the HG Data Blog.