#41 Culture Trumps Skill: A Rule To Hire By

I’ve seen this single mistake repeated in so many businesses that I’ve stopped counting.

Kenny is a top performer in his department.
Kenny is also a walking, talking, violation of the company culture.
Kenny not only keeps his job, but is actively protected by management.

The department where I’ve seen this story play out most is sales. Kenny hits the numbers so Kenny could take a whiz on the CEO’s desk and no one would bat an eye.


I’m not just pointing fingers, I’ve been guilty of this sin. I was part of an initiative to “upgrade” a sales force. We had lots of reps with minimal large deal experience so we went out to hire folks with better rolodexes. People that had experience working with C level executives on large transactions.

The people we brought in were great people with terrific high level sales skills. But they didn't fit our culture. And a year or so later, after flushing well over a million dollars, they were almost all gone. 

The lesson I learned: In the long term, cultural FIT matters more than skills.

I'll repeat that last sentence because I know lots of people might take issue with it. 

In the long term, cultural FIT matters more than skills. 


Here’s a diagram of what I’m talking about. I can’t remember where I first saw it and I don’t recall the exact labels so I made up my own.

Let’s start in the top right corner with the green quadrant #1. These people FIT your culture and have relevant skills. That’s as good as it gets. ELEVATE them. 

In map terms, you should focus on enabling their continued growth - HELP GROWTH HAPPEN. Which means you should focus on FREEDOM AND FEEDBACK. Maybe that means a promotion into management or maybe not. Lots of great employees don’t want to be managers. Maybe they’d rather focus on subject matter expertise or some other direction. Get together and figure it out and make sure they have plenty of say in the matter.

Next let’s look at gray quadrant #3, in the bottom left corner of the diagram. These people lack the skills required to do the job and they’re a poor cultural FIT. This is an obvious call. ELIMINATE them from the team. Or, better yet, do yourself and them a favor and don’t hire them in the first place. Regardless, be polite and generous as you separate. After all, you’re the knucklehead that hired them, so you own just as much responsibility for the poor FIT as they do.


Now we get to the heart of the matter -  yellow quadrant #2 and red quadrant #4.

The folks in yellow quadrant #2, great cultural FIT with lesser skills, are too often marginalized or let go. HUGE MISTAKE. It’s so hard to find people that FIT that you can’t just ditch them because they lack a skill. Skills are trainable. Make the investment in time and dollars to EDUCATE them. Assuming you’re building your business for the long term, this is the single best ROI opportunity you have. These people have a real shot at developing the skills to move to green quadrant #1. And that’s the goal - a shop full of green quadrants #1’s.

The folks in red quadrant #4, on the other hand, are HELL NO’s. These are the Kenny’s I talked about in the opening, and keeping them on board is a HUGE MISTAKE. Poor cultural FIT must be a non-starter regardless of their skills. No amount of training can “fix” Kenny’s cultural misFIT. Culture is visceral, it’s not something you train.

Actually, I’ll walk that back just a tiny bit. I think you can sand the rough edges off of someone that doesn’t perfectly FIT your culture. If they’re in the ballpark you can make it work. But too many companies have folks with great skills who aren’t even close to fitting the culture. And management spends way too much time kissing their butts and making excuses for them.

This won’t work long term. And I think this article from The New Yorker does a good job of explaining why. They quote psychologist Alicia Grandey of Penn State who says…

“When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self.”

Meaning you can’t fake culture or FIT. And there’s more…

“More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking - memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The results is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business.”

This is what’s happening when a highly skilled misFIT - red quadrant #4 - is trying to shoehorn themselves into your culture. It might work for a while, but over time and under stress the real them will shine through. And everyone in the organization will see it as you sink deeper into denial. Avoiding the hard but necessary separation. Sacrificing your management credibility all along the way.


Recall this quote from Judith Harris that I shared last time

“A child is better off living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.”

A good neighborhood really, really, really matters when you’re trying to raise people up. Trying to help them do their best work. Well, building your business is you building an amazing neighborhood. One that raises up all the members. An idyllic tree-lined place with a strong shared core.  

waltler methArtboard 1@300x.png

Unfortunately, Kenny of red quadrant #4 is the meth dealer on the corner. A quick high with a nasty finish that can destroy the place long term. He might start out harmless enough, but eventually he’ll corrupt others. And before you know it your best neighbors will be looking for another home. TURNOVER!

It sucks having to defend your culture by moving someone out the door - no one likes conflict. And it’s especially hard when they have solid skills. And when you know their spouse and kids. And when you regularly cross paths with them in your community. These are all very real challenges you’ll have to face. But, bottom line, if they don’t FIT, for the well being of the neighborhood, they have to go.

Kenny must die! (Only click the link if you can handle South Park humor.)

One last point on the HELL NO quadrant. I’ve used strong language like HELL NO and die to get your attention, but these aren’t bad people. They’re just people that don’t FIT your culture. If you recall this post, I was a HELL NO in the Oracle culture. Oh well, stuff happens. Keep moving and keep searching for your right FIT. 


Here are a couple points to bear in mind as you think about the DEAMND FIT image.

Caveat #1. I’ve made the analysis overly simple by ignoring the border areas. The fact that someone in the bottom left corner of the green #1 quadrant is very similar to someone at the top right of the gray #3 quadrant.

The blue dashed oval on the diagram shows the area in question. Yep, that’s a tough call. These things are never simple. My only advice is to error on the side of protecting your culture. If you have a feeling that someone “might” be a cultural misFIT, then they are. This is not an area where you should practice tolerance. 

Caveat #2. When I talk about being intolerant I’m speaking only in regards to your company culture. I'm NOT talking about being intolerant on other grounds. In fact, I believe you should have amazing tolerance in all other aspects.  Skilled cultural FITS can come from all different races, religions, sexual preferences, etc. If you shut these folks out, it's to your own disadvantage. Plus it makes you a bigoted dick.


(This site is all about building a Map that will help me do work and life better. So at the end of each post I check in to see if any changes / insights come to mind.)

If you’re following along with my map building adventure, this post falls under the topic of DEMAND FIT. Which I covered in detail in post #38 - Please Fire Me.

I believe this topic is the big daddy of great culture. It’s the difference between great and suck. But, it’s not the foundation. It can’t come first. That honor belongs to the topic BE YOURSELF which I covered in post #37 - Be Yourself. Where I talked about starting by nailing down the WHY ME IF CAN of your SELF map. Then nailing the WHY ME IF CAN of your work map. And, in the process, making sure these two maps are closely aligned. Making sure that your business is a reflection of your true self.

If you’re not willing to do the BE YOURSELF foundational work first, then I would strongly suggest you ignore the information in this post. A poorly anchored, inconsistent, half-hearted cultural initiative will cause more problems than it’s worth.

On the other hand, if you’ve done the BE YOURSELF work, then you should dive into this post with gusto. 

ELEVATE your highly skilled cultural FITS. 
EDUCATE your less skilled cultural FITS. 
ELIMINATE your less skilled cultural misFITS. 
HELL NO to your highly skilled cultural misFITS like Kenny the crack dealer - he must go!

This is the path to greater energy and growth for your entire business neighborhood. More peace, more profits.

That’s all for today. Stay tuned for next time when I talk about my cultural “man crush”.

***Note: This site works best when you read the posts in order. So please head to the ARCHIVE to get started.