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Skill vs culture – what’s more important?

Nick Martindale

Talent vs culture

When you’re looking for your next senior manager, is it more important to recruit someone who fits with your culture or has all the skills you need? Nick Martindale investigates

As the economy starts to pick up, so too are many organisations’ hiring intentions. Yet few companies are in a position to make the wrong choice, whether that’s bringing in someone without the right skills or simply hiring the wrong “fit” in terms of the culture of the organisation.

Jerry Gray, managing director of executive search and interim management at management consultancy Veredus, says that while skills should sometimes remain the key factor in whether someone is right for the job, increasingly organisations are putting a greater emphasis on cultural elements. “An individual with a preference for a disciplined, formal environment is likely to struggle in a creative, less-structured workplace,” he points out. “Offices filled with slides and bean bags and a relatively casual environment may work for more creative types, but they won’t be suitable for everyone.”

Mark Glinwood is managing director of Capital Insight HR. He agrees the pendulum is swinging away from skills – with the belief that these can be taught or acquired – and towards getting the right fit. “Often the drive to gain a more holistic view of prospective employees is driven by wider organisation development initiatives that seek to effect culture change more broadly,” he says. “One way to do this is to bring in new talent that embodies the new values, behaviours and attitudes to which the organisation is seeking to move.”

Insurance firm Cornish Mutual is one business which openly places cultural fit ahead of proven skills. “We’re at the stage now where we put attitude first and foremost when we’re recruiting people,” says managing director Alan Goddard. “If it came down to choosing between an excellently qualified candidate with a relatively poor attitude and someone who we felt could acquire those skills but had a better attitude, we would go for the person with the better attitude and the better cultural fit.”

Customer facing roles

Getting the culture right is particularly important for its call centre roles, where the mutual seeks to differentiate itself from competitors with its customer service. “When we talk to people about deliverables, we tend not to talk about selling X number of policies; it’s about wanting them to service our members and part of that will be ensuring they have the right insurance policies,” he says. Employees of all levels, meanwhile, go through the same induction course, and all member-serving and customer-facing staff must obtain a baseline qualification within a year of joining as part of their contractual arrangements, to ensure they have the right skills.

Incentive and motivation firm AYMTM has also put more of an emphasis on getting the right fit, doing away with job descriptions altogether and instructing recruitment agencies to fit the job around the people. “This allows us to focus on our work habits, work ethic and how the person will fit into the team,” says managing director Natalie Gunson. “Some of our rising stars have never had any previous experience in what we do; they just had the right attitude. We can invest in training and development; what we can’t change is personalities.”

In the longer-term, a greater emphasis on finding the right match could significantly improve staff retention rates, suggests Ali Shalfrooshan, senior consultant, product development, at a&dc, as well as making staff more likely to go the extra mile. “If an employee doesn’t feel their values are in line with the organisation, they’re likely to leave and find somewhere they’re better suited to,” she warns. “If you have a workforce which understands and agrees with the company culture, it’s more likely to buy into the overall vision of the organisation and cope during potentially challenging times.”

Yet identifying a company culture is not easy, and often organisations have to do a bit of soul-searching, warns Melody Moore, a talent consultant at Hay Group, around both the current and desired cultures. “If they only recruit to the current culture they will never change,” she says. “If they recruit to the future culture, then the new members of staff are likely to be rejected by the organisation for being too different. Ideally they need to be similar enough to be accepted, and different enough to be an agent of change.”

Recruitment agencies can help here, suggests Louisa Harrison-Walker, director of generalist recruiter Benchmark Recruit, by providing a more objective assessment than employers themselves can. Her firm has even developed a diagnostic tool to help with this, in the belief that getting the right cultural fit will lead to longer-term retention. “It can be tricky sometimes for business owners to remain objective about their culture; some don’t even think they have one,” she says.

Cultural fit – and softer skills – become even more important for leadership and management roles, suggests Simon Moore, executive director at BIE Executive. “These roles tend to be less about technical know-how and more about making the work come alive by inspiring, motivating and mentoring,” he says. “The higher up into an organisation you are recruiting, the more important it is to focus on style, personality and cultural fit, and not to take any unnecessary risks.”

Yet for all the emphasis on culture, ideally the right candidate will be able to tick both boxes or at least demonstrate an ability and willingness to acquire new skills. Executive search firm Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting uses its own “spectrum of develop-ability”, says Steve Newhall, managing partner, allowing clients to make informed decisions on how likely candidates are to acquire the necessary knowledge. “As a wise man once said, “You can train a donkey to climb a tree but you’re better off hiring a squirrel”,” he says. “It’s better to know the extent of the change you are looking to make before you make the offer.”

Sometimes a lack of skills can be a deal-breaker, no matter how good the cultural fit. “If the skill required is team management and the person is simply not experienced in this, then it can be taught,” says John McLachlan, co-managing director at Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy. “But if one of the key skills needed is excellent numeracy and the candidate has failed every maths exam they’ve ever taken, no amount of training will help that.”

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