Cultural fit is not only hard to define it's impossible to objectively assess. A better approach is to avoid hiring people who don't fit anywhere. The others will likely then fit perfectly in your company.

I was with about 400 recruiters and talent leaders last week in San Francisco. Among other things, they were all looking for some way to measure and predict cultural fit. I contended you have to define it first before you can measure it. Not surprising, no one had the same definition. I then suggested their company's culture isn't theirs to define which aggravated them all until I proved it.

I contend that a company's culture is a result of a number of factors beyond its control. The biggest one: the rate of change of underlying growth of the company. Start-ups have a culture of their own given limited resources and the need to make quick decisions. Bureaucracies are at the other end of the spectrum with too many resources and decisions never being made. On top of this add the hiring manager's leadership style (or lack thereof) and the company's financial condition as the prime determinants of a company's true style. Other than the CEO's leadership style everything else is just window dressing.

Based on this somewhat fluid definition I suggested the lowest common denominator approach might be a better way to figure out if someone fits a company's culture: just avoid hiring misfits.

As a guideline for avoiding these misfits I introduced The Hiring Formula for Successshown below. In words: Ability in relationship to fit drives motivation and ultimately performance.

In the formula ability consists of talent, team skills, management skills and problem-solving and thinking skills. Fit represents fit with the job, fit with the manager and fit with the culture. Fit is the big variable in the equation. Without it motivation is low and with it motivation can soar. Since motivation impacts both quality and quantity, it's squared. As we've all seen, the ability to do the work without the right fit will demotivate a person pretty quickly and cause underperformance.

In his book, The End of Average, Harvard Professor Todd Rose considers fit the driver of personal excellence. He refers to fit as the context of the job and without fully considering it for hiring purposes individual success is problematic.

You can use the most important significant accomplishment question below to measure all of the factors in the formula including fit:

What would you consider to be your most significant career accomplishment to date?

The best way to get the full value of this question is to answer it for yourself using these fact-finding prompts to guide your answers.

  • Please give me a two-minute overview of the project. Be very specific including dates and how long it took to complete. What was the big deliverable?
  • Did someone assign you to the project or did you volunteer for it? Why?
  • Describe the single biggest challenge or problem you faced on this project and walk me through how you resolved it.
  • Describe who was on the team, their roles and your role. Who did you influence the most? Who did you coach? Who coached you? Who did you have the most conflict with and how did you deal with that?
  • What was the culture like in terms of pace, resources available, organizational structure, sophistication, decision-making and values and ethics? What did you like most? Least?
  • Give me some examples in which you took the initiative or did more than you were required to do. Did you ever take the initiative doing things that weren't particularly motivating? If so, why?
  • What was your manager like in terms of coaching, delegating and supporting you? What did you like most and least about your manager? Who was your best manager? Who was your worst? Collectively how would you describe your ideal manager?
  • I assume you put a plan together for this project. Can you please describe it and how you managed it? Did you achieve the plan? If you didn't have a plan how did you manage your daily activities and prioritize your work?
  • What kind of recognition for this work, formal or otherwise, did you receive? This could be in the form of a promotion, getting assigned to another bigger program or a bonus.

It takes about 15-20 minutes of fact-finding like this to fully understand the accomplishment. If you ask a similar question for a few other accomplishments you'll be able to observe the candidate's trend of performance over time plus gain enough information to determine whether the person is a misfit. The person is not a misfit if he/she continues to be assigned to important teams, can deal with all types of managers, is comfortable with your company's underlying pace and finds the open job intrinsically motivating.

When it comes to assessing fit it's better to avoid problems rather than seek perfection. The first is easy to assess, the latter impossible.