MBA Mondays: Culture And Fit

Kicking off our series on People, I am going to talk about the importance of culture and fit in the hiring process. What I have to say on this topic is mostly aimed at companies that are going from five employees to five hundred employees, but I do believe it is applicable to companies of all sizes.

I want to start with something I wrote in another MBA Mondays post, on the management team:

Companies are not people. But they are comprised of people. And the people side of the business is harder and way more complicated than building a product is. You have to start with culture, values, and a committment to creating a fantastic workplace. You can't fake these things. They have to come from the top. They are not bullshit. They are everything. There will be things that happen in the course of building a business that will challenge the belief in the leadership and the future of the company. If everyone is a mercenary and there is no shared culture and values, the team will blow apart. But if there is a meaningful culture that the entire team buys into, the team will stick together, double down, and get through those challenging situations.

So this is what you want to create in your hiring process. Some entrepreneurs and CEOs buy into "hire the best talent available" mantra. That can work if everything goes swimmingly well. But as I said, it often does not, and then that approach is fraught with problems. The other approach is hire for culture and fit. That is the approach I advocate.

Hiring for culture and fit does not and should not mean "hire a bunch of white guys in their late 20s and early 30s." Diversity should be a core value of the team building process. There are many reasons for this but most importantly you want a diversity of thought, experience, mindset, and angle of attack.

Don't hire a token woman. Hire as many women as you can. Don't hire a token person from another country. Hire from all around the world (and become an expert in our bullshit immigration system). Don't hire a token "gray haired" type. Hire up and down the age and experience spectrum.

But most importantly, hire people who will enjoy working together, who fit well together, who will make each other better. This is what hiring for cultural fit means. You start with the founding team and build on top of that. If your engineering team is serious and likes to work until midnight every day, you want to consider that when hiring new engineers. A new engineering team member who wants to go out drinking after work every night is not going to be a good fit on that team.

You also don't want to create silos in your organization. I see companies where the engineers sit on one side of the office and the sales people sit on the other side of the office. And it is like two different companies. That can create issues and cultural divides. It is tempting to set things up like this because sales teams are loud and animated and engineering teams tend to be quiet and serious. But try to connect these different parts of the organizations in as many ways as you can. Make sure everyone is on the same team and enjoys working together.

So when hiring, you must start with what you already have. Take measure of the vibe of the company, the work habits of the company, the strengths and weaknesses of the current team. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that is only half built. You are looking for the next piece that will fit nicely into what is already there.

This jigsaw puzzle analogy is why it is hard and a bit dangerous to hire up super fast. You can fit one new puzzle piece into an existing puzzle fairly easily. But if the puzzle is a moving target because so many pieces are coming in at once, it gets a lot harder. And it is likely you will make a bunch of bad hires who don't fit well into the organization. And when they leave the company, it will be your fault, not theirs.

It helps a lot to have a one pager that outlines the core values of the company. I just saw our portfolio company Twilio's version of that. They call it "Our 9 Things." I wish I could publish it here but I don't have permission from Jeff and so I will resist the urge. It has things like "think at scale" and "be frugal" on it. You get the idea I hope. This "guiding light" is a framework for the culture and values of the organization and each new hire should be assessed against the framework to make sure the fit is good.

You, as the founder and CEO, can drive this for a bit. Maybe up to the first twenty or thirty hires. But you are going to need help as the company grows because this is hard, really hard. So getting a person hired onto the team who is totally focused on the team and team building is critical. And make sure they are a good cultural fit when you make that hire. Because they are going to be the torch carrier for your culture along with you. It will be among the most important hire you will make in you startup. More on that to come as this series develops.