Competitive Disadvantage of Fit

Steve Pruneau

“My main question is about fit.” he said as we started our call. I was giving a reference for someone who had worked on my team. “I want to be sure he fits with the team we already have.” My emotions sank. I’m thinking, “Here we go.” Out of the starting gate, fit has trumped potential for work results, it trumped skills and potential value to the team.

Fit. Is he like us? Will he fit in?

Let’s complete that question.

  • Will he or she fit in the corporate family.
  • Will he or she fit in our family.
  • Will he or she fit in our club / fraternity / sorority?

group identical 123RF-18075128_mAs a collective corporate culture, we still interview for sameness. Hopefully not racial, religious or gender sameness. But certainly sameness in communication style, mannerisms, how much or how little we share about ourselves (not too extroverted and not too shy), political points of view, hobbies (sports fan or not, golfer or not), overall choice of clothing and hair style. There is intense scrutiny over days of phone calls, meetings, personality tests, review of our posts on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. And finally, references. We interview like it is forever even though both candidate and employer know it is temporary, even when we call it a permanent full-time job. We interview as though the happiness and harmony of the entire corporate family forever after is dependent on our choice for the next member of our family.

Interviewing for fit is a lot about intolerance of the company culture… intolerance for uniqueness, creativity, different points of view, alternate approaches, thinking outside the box. By themselves, those traits sound great. In a company culture where careers are stalled by “mistakes”, “fit” ensures the nail which stands out, gets hammered in.

Emphasis on fit speaks volumes, not only about the company culture but also about insecurities of the hiring manager. We can replace “Will s/he fit in?” with these questions:

  • “Will I be embarrassed in front of my boss?”
  • “Will this person say something or do something that is viewed as a mistake in front of my peers?”
  • “Will this person enhance my stature in the company or lower it?”

Pursuit of fit in the organization is a pursuit of perfection and harmony that we rarely achieve. “We will have it right if we can just make a one or two more changes in team members.” People move on. Organizations change. Replacements arrive. The business changes and we need people with different skills.

Interviewing for fit is like a sailor waiting for the right weather conditions before leaving the harbor. If we wait for the right conditions, we will not get much racing time. A truly skilled sailor can win in nearly any sailing condition.

And so it is in business with teams. A skilled leader knows how to win with the team s/he has: oddballs, weirdos and all. A skilled leader goes for the value that each member brings and manages the inevitable trade-offs, oddities, idiosyncrasies that comes in every person. It is inevitable that each team member, including the leader, will do something disruptive and it is the leader’s responsibility to sort it out. It’s the leader’s job to minimize disruption and amplify the value that each person brings. Orchestrate harmony with the players that we have.

Which reminds me of a favorite movie, The Commitments. A guy in Dublin decides to put together an American-style soul band. He ends up with a hilarious group of dysfunctional players. Early rehearsals are a mess. And then they nail it with “Mustang Sally“.

In a straight-up match between two traditional companies battling for dominance, I’m betting on the company whose leaders can create winning teams from nearly any group of people. This was true in the 20th century when we really did hire for the long term. Fast-forward to the present, even more important. Our business cycles are oscillating with more frequent ups and downs. We have much more uncertainty. We can’t see nearly as far into the future. If we hold out for perfection in our teams, we may as well sit and watch the yacht race from the dock. If we hold out for perfection, forget about your night on stage, even though you have all around you players who could make the band.

“Don’t take my word for it.” I said, closing our reference conversation. “You can see his work for yourself if you give him access to your development environment. Ask him to sign a non-disclosure agreement if you need to, and give him some problems that need to be solved. I’m sure he’d be glad to work on the side for a couple of weeks until you see what he can do.” We exchanged “thank-you”s and ended the call.

group diverse 123RF-39899638_mOur project-based economy will drive us to engage consultants in larger numbers. This means, not only will consultants represent a much larger proportion of the total workforce, we will hire, separate and re-hire members of our workforce more frequently. There won’t be time for 10 rounds of interviews and hours of agonizing over fit. Rewards belong to the Adventurer Executive who hires for potential value and makes it his/her job to manage oddities and weirdness inherent in all of us. You will have multiple solutions to problems from diversity of perspectives. Teams become fountains of creativity and innovation. Accumulate enough teams like that in one company and you will have competitive advantage.

Pity the company whose executives continue to obsess over fit. More agile competitors are coming for their customers.

Steve Pruneau leads executives and business owners to solve the gap between variable revenue and a fixed workforce. He is the first consultant at Free Agent Source. As a founder, Steve engages the broader community of corporate clients, entrepreneurs, startups and consultants. He manages company operations and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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