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Hiring product managers — or anyone  — for “culture fit” is nothing new.

Historically, employers would screen applicants for such modern day no-no’s as socio-economic background, ethnicity, and alma mater, in order to ensure that similar folks were brought into their ranks.

More recently, anti-discrimination law requires that employers don’t primarily (or explicitly) look for demographic fit, but companies continue to screen for personality — “Do they have the right vibe?’” — and extracurricular interest alignment. Plenty of startups and tech titans feel their corporate culture is so unique and specific that it doesn’t make sense to hire someone who won’t fit in. Of course, this kind of “culture fit” screening can, in reality, often lend itself to a certain amount of homogeneity.

There is, of course, some reasoning to this kind of careful selection. As Wharton School management professor Nancy Rothbard points out:

“When people don’t fit the organization, they don’t feel comfortable…They often don’t get selected, and if they do, they don’t enjoy their experience and they leave.”

There is soundness to this argument, as a bad product management hire can easily gobble up scant resources and send hiring managers back to square one after investing six months in a new employee who didn’t work out. But while it’s important for companies to add employees they believe will be successful, basing this pre-hire assessment on how similar a candidate is to the current workforce can be very shortsighted.

“Fit can only give you more of the same without really adding anything new. There will be a temporary boost in motivation and solidarity when new workers join, but that boost quickly dissipates,” says Derek Irvine of Globoforce. “In its place is the danger that the organization will be susceptible to group think and ill-equipped to adapt to future changes.”

Not only can cultural fit lead to a monoculture where new ideas and challenges are seldom seen, it can lead to a truly homogenous workplace.

“Cultural fit has morphed into a far more nebulous and potentially dangerous concept,” says Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University. “It has shifted from systematic analysis of who will thrive in a given workplace to snap judgments by managers about who they’d rather hang out with. In the process, fit has become a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.”

The benefits of hiring “others”

New people bring new ideas, new opinions and shake up the status quo. This disruption should be embraced by any company … think about how many tech startups are trying to “disrupt” a particular industry. Wouldn’t you want that same infusion of new solutions to old problems in your own firm? That’s what thoughtfully orienting yourself toward “culture add” can encourage.

“When a newcomer comes in, it interrupts the group. It changes the flow of the process and makes people stop and pay attention to the person,” says Katherine Phillips of Northwestern University. “We know though that not all new ideas come from newcomers. Sometimes new ideas are sitting in the group already, just waiting for the right moment to come up.”

This is why it’s so important that new people aren’t just new to the team, but that each one brings something particular to the table, forcing people with varied backgrounds and experience to solve problems collaboratively.

“The beauty of diversity is to have different, unique people come together to work on a common project,” says Celia de Anca of IE Business School. “And, because putting together different people tends to produce conflict, diversity needs to be managed, to turn a potential area of conflict into an opportunity.”

Diversity comes in many shapes and sizes, and adding team members to the mix that work and think differently is critical to infusing your company with energy and new ideas.

“The more diverse the people in your organization, the more points of inspiration it will contain,” says Diego Rodriguez of IDEO. “I try to choose candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of our culture, even if they don’t feel like today’s mainstream employee. I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.”

When you’re putting together a team, you want the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. Just like a football team wouldn’t put 11 quarterbacks on the field at once, companies should be hiring for new and complementary individuals.

“Team environments thrive when there’s a nice mix of several working styles: logical or analytical types, organized and detail-oriented team members, the emotional and supportive sort, and creative, idea people,” says Matt Straz of Namely. “You can build a strong company culture while cultivating diversity on your team. In fact, it might be your company’s secret weapon. It’s important to find the balance and allow your team—made of various different types of working styles and personalities—to utilize company values and succeed in fulfilling a vision for your business.”

So, what’s GOOD about hiring product managers for culture fit?

Not hiring exclusively for cultural fit doesn’t mean you should ignore culture during the hiring process. Quite the opposite, you should be extremely open with candidates about what the company culture is like. You don’t want people walking into a situation they’re not interested in or is fundamentally not a good match for them.

“Sometimes, interviewers don’t sufficiently stress the role of culture (and ‘cultural fit’) when they’re hiring,” says Sam Knuth of RedHat. “If you’re a hiring manager, you should offer candidates concrete and specific stories that illustrate what your working environment is really like (and offer as many as you can).”

For example, it’s important to make sure they know what hours people tend to be in the office, what level of information sharing takes place and how decisions are typically made in the company. If you’re a late-night crew that has no secrets and takes a company-wide vote on every feature, that may not work for someone who wants to be home for dinner and prefers a top-down management style. Or an early-bird who enjoys collaboration.

“When you have a culture that’s truly unique, there’s good reason to be upfront with people about what it’s like to work in your organization and to look for candidates who are going to thrive in that culture,” says Jason Hibbets of RedHat, adding that that “a healthy culture has room for diverse groups of people to find different ways of being successful.”

In short, when you’re thinking about cultural fit, it’s about big picture items, not whether or not they prefer Star Trek to Star Wars or rowed crew in college.

“Hiring for culture fit doesn’t necessarily mean hiring people who all look the same,” says Matt Charney of Recruiting Daily. “The most important thing is that they share the same values and similar attitudes or expectations around work as their coworkers, teammates and direct supervisors.”

Start Thinking Cultural Alignment vs. Cultural Fit
interviewing product manager for culture add

Your company works a certain way, but with every new hire there’s an opportunity to make the company a little bit better, not just a little bit bigger. That’s why the best hires add something new to the mix without standing out so much it’s a complete distraction.

“The interview process should reveal how a candidate works and what they value,” says Kathryn Moody of HR Drive. “If those things align with how the company works and what it values, a candidate will likely be culturally aligned, even if they differ from current employees in other ways.”

Building a diverse staff is a real challenge for hiring managers, as it means going outside of comfort zones and norms you may not even have realized existed.

“Hiring is the moment when these American ideals about team diversity collide with the reality of building a cohesive, practical staff,” says Logan Hill in Bloomberg. “For the manager, it’s also the time when abstract notions about corporate culture collide with instinct and bias. We may aspire to model our workplaces after the Starship Enterprise but in reality they often look more like the Borg Cube.”

At the end of the day, that means you have to force yourself to augment your team with fresh faces that don’t fit the current corporate mold.

“You want a diversity of thought, experience, mindset, and angle of attack,” says venture capitalist Fred Wilson. “Hiring for culture and fit does not and should not mean ‘hire a bunch of white guys in their late 20s and early 30s’.”

4 Steps to Addition vs. Multiplication or Subtraction
culture fit vs. culture add when hiring product managers

OK, so you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and are ready to move outside the box with your next hire. You don’t want to just multiply your workforce with a clone, but you also don’t want to subtract from what’s working already by forcing a square peg into a round hole. How do you add new ingredients to the corporate machine that make the recipe better (and not just bigger)? This is the question of how to cook up “culture add.”

1. Figure out what you’ve got in your team

Put the titles and pedigrees aside and focus on what each team member is already delivering and how they’re delivering it. Are they thoughtful or aggressive? Are they doers or deciders? Are they inspirational or pragmatic?

Once you know what you’ve got, think about what might be nice to have. Do you wish you had someone who would challenge the status quo, or would it be nice to have someone that would reign in the dreamers a bit and focus on the details? Do you need someone who likes process and might help contain the current chaos?

Assessing your current inventory gives you clues about what might be nice to add to the mix.

2. Who isn’t at the table?

Beyond the obvious demographic checkboxes of ethnicity, gender and age, what viewpoints aren’t being represented today? Do you have anyone who’s worked at a startup before? Or maybe you’re lacking someone with big company experience.

It’s also a great opportunity to find people with relevant industry experience. Do you have people that can actually relate to your clients on an experiential level? Do they understand the regulations, customs, and business practices of the industry in ways your well-meaning team hasn’t experienced first-hand themselves? Even though they’re a little different from the current team, they could be a great add.

3. Script your interviews

Our prejudices and preconceptions can easily leak into open-ended interviews, with conversations heading into very different directions based on the individual. Level the playing field by asking everyone the same questions in the same order.

This doesn’t mean you can have a robot do the interview for you, you can obviously ask follow-up questions and go down a few ratholes during these sessions, but by asking every candidate the same five or ten questions, you’ll be able to assess their whole selves far more objectively.

These questions should include topics about the culture at their current company, what they liked and didn’t like about it, how they dealt with a problem and solved it, etc. You might discover that the candidate who worked at the cufflinks and collars consulting firm prefers working in cargo pantsevery day and wished there were more paintball teambuilding events.

4. Remember what you’re hiring product managers for

You are not hiring your new best friend. You’re not hiring someone you’ll enjoy having lunch with. This isn’t about whether or not you’ll get along if you get stuck in an airport during a snowstorm of if they’re the missing piece for your Startup Softball League team.

You’re trying to add someone to the team that will make your products better. They’re going to have to play well with others to be effective, but it’s fine if they spend their free time doing CrossFit or birdwatching while the rest of the team is throwing down on FIFA.

As your team adds member, you’re not going to scale exponentially; roles and responsibilities will shift with each addition to the team. This is why you’re not trying to clone what you’ve got, but grow in a way that positions you for greater success. That’s why a complementary “culture add” can be far more valuable than simply bringing in “another” person who fits right in.


For more on what to look for when hiring Product Managers, check out our interview with Ellen Chisa, VP of Product at Lola Travel.

Sara Aboulafia

About Sara Aboulafia

Sara Aboulafia is a Content Marketing Specialist at UserVoice with a background in freelance writing, content marketing, and journalism. Outside of work, Sara writes and performs music, binge-watches comedy, and spends an unhealthy amount of time futzing with technology before happily retreating to the woods.