A Contrarian Perspective on Hiring for ‘Fit’

Many industries today are accelerating their focus on innovation to capture opportunities in ever-changing markets. CHROs and recruitment leaders are being tasked, as recently noted in a Deloitte study on innovation in the fast moving consumer goods, to “figure out new ways to incorporate non-traditional employees into their resource model to import the skills they lack.” Finding these non-traditional innovators often means abandoning conventional thinking about recruitment and sourcing outside of one’s competitors, or even outside of the industry, to find fresh talent.

Theoretically, this makes perfect sense. In practice, it’s very challenging. In-house recruiters often have limited experience working outside of their own industry’s comfort zone. Employment brands and messaging may not resonate with industry outsiders. Assessments used in one industry can be inadequate or misleading when vetting candidates’ professed accomplishments in another. By far, however, the greatest obstacle in hiring innovators is an overreliance — intentional or not — on “cultural fit” as a hiring criteria.

Cultural fit has been described as “the glue that holds an organization together.” It’s a useful concept to communicate the cultural norms of the organization to employees, both present and future. There is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of “cultural fit … except when it’s used as a screening criteria that perpetuates a “groupthink” mentality and inhibits the hiring of innovators. Within the recruitment process, cultural fit can slam the door on many viable candidates ready and able to offer exactly the type of disruptive innovation that the business needs in order to survive.

That’s not to say that every innovator hired from the outside is a wild-eyed non-conformist, intent on (metaphorically speaking) upsetting the corporate apple cart. It’s wrong to assume that all of these mavericks will be a poor cultural fit. They may not be an exact fit, at least not to the same extent as someone hired from within the same industry or from your competitors. This is why talent acquisition leaders and hiring managers looking for fresh perspectives and innovative skillsets need to rethink “fit.” Most hires from outside of the industry will do just fine and adapt really well to working within your culture if you set the stage for their success during the hiring process by:

Looking inward. What are your strengths and weaknesses as an employer for someone making the leap to a new business/a new industry? What will attract the talent you want to join your organization and to stay for the long run? Then, set internal expectations for the caliber of talent you want to add to the bench. If, for example, you run operations at a $50 million regional coffee distributor but want to hire a VP of logistics from Amazon, you may want to think twice about the likelihood of successfully recruiting that person. And, once you’ve decided who your class is, target your recruitment message appropriately to attract those individuals.

Adjusting your process to better support an external recruiting strategy. If your job requisition process or internal application policy includes standard requests about specific industry requirements or overly uses industry jargon and acronyms, the most desirable candidates may be dissuaded from expressing interest. Instead, describe open positions with less emphasis on requirements and more on experience and accomplishments by painting what we call a “success profile.” A high performer in another industry needs to easily make the connections between their strengths or interests and your job opening so they will take that important first step in your process.

Focusing on competencies and behaviors rather than a standard career track. If “fit” in your organization has, in the past, meant a specific educational or career progression, rethink that. Or make room for a different track. When you are talking to people outside of your industry, you can’t jump to quick conclusions. You have to prepare, probe, truly listen, and seek to understand. What were the circumstances under which they achieved the accomplishment? Have they done it again under different circumstances? Did they apply what they learned in a new situation and achieve new or different results? All too often, good candidates from other industries are overlooked or discounted because of breakdowns in the interview process or a lack of interviewer preparation.

Setting appropriate expectations. Overselling the job, or your culture, can backfire with any new hire but even more so when making the leap from one industry to another. Apply integrity to your recruitment messaging and distinguish between what’s aspirational and what’s real and you will be more likely to retain the new talent you acquire.

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Providing critical onboarding and assimilation. Proper assimilation — with coaching and ongoing support to help new executives navigate the norms of your organization — is even more critical when you are hiring outside of your industry. A nominal investment of time and money will offer a return in multiple ways.

Innovation is a business imperative for so many organizations. The dilemma is that while ostensibly looking for candidates who can provide fresh and innovative ideas, many organizations still cling to what is familiar within their current culture and end up hiring candidates whose resume looks like their own, and that of the rest of the team’s. If you want to attract new types of employees, you need to change how you recruit and retain these newcomers. That often means rethinking how you hire for “cultural fit.”

Allicia Hahn

Allicia Hahn, of TalentRISE, is a managing director with responsibility for developing and managing client relationships across a broad range of industries in the delivery of retained search, on-demand contract recruitment, and talent acquisition consulting engagements. An authentic relationship builder with strong process orientation, rigorous attention to detail, and a unique ability to assess competency, potential, motivation, and cultural fit, she brings more than 20 years of experience from Fortune 500 corporate and global search firms in full-lifecycle, senior-level recruitment and talent management.

Prior to joining TalentRISE, she was an executive vice president with the Jobplex division of DHR International, a Top 10 global search firm serving clients in FMCG and Industrial sectors. Before that, she spent 10 years with PepsiAmericas. During her tenure there, her roles included talent acquisition operations, management recruiting, performance management and succession planning having been recognized with multiple awards for excellence during her career at PepsiAmericas.