Hire For Cultural Fit Over Competence

This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series last week under the title Cultural Fit Trumps Competence. Also, I’m going to be doing online office hours with the WSJ on Friday 12/21 at 3pm ET – join and ask questions!

The first people you hire in your startup are critical to your company’s success. So it’s easy to say that you need to hire the “absolute best people you can find.” But what does this actually mean?

Take two different spectrums – (1) competence and (2) cultural fit. Imagine that you have a spectrum for each person – from low to high.

Now, you obviously will not hire someone who is low on both competence and cultural fit. And you obviously will hire someone who is high on both competence and culture fit. But what about the other two cases?

Many people default into choosing people who have high competence but a low cultural fit. This is a deadly mistake in a startup, as this is exactly the wrong person to hire. While they may have great skills for the role you are looking for, the overhead of managing and integrating this person into your young team will be extremely difficult. This is especially true if they are in a leadership position, as they will hire other people who have a cultural fit with them, rather than with the organization, creating even more polarization within your young company.

In contrast, people with low competence but a high culture fit are also not great hires. But if they are “medium” competence, or high competence on in a related role, or early in the career and ambitious about learning new skills, they may be worth taking a risk on.

While you always want to shoot for high competence, high cultural fit people when you are hiring early in your company’s life, it’s always better to chose cultural fit over competence when you have to make a choice.

If you are interested in working with a company that is an expert at figuring this out, go take a look at RoundPegg.