Remember your first business loan? Or, if you're like many entrepreneurs, you may have initially bootstrapped your startup by buying some stuff on your credit card. You were excited and apprehensive: Excited because now you had the cash to invest in your business, apprehensive because you had just taken on a debt you would have to repay.
But that was okay, because you were confident you could create more value than the interest you would pay. Even though you eventually have to pay off a financial debt, gaining access to the right resources now often marks the difference between success and failure.
That’s true for financial debt – but it’s almost never true for culture debt.
Culture debt happens when a business takes a shortcut and hires an employee with, say, the “right” the skills or experience… but who doesn't fit the culture. Just one bad hire can create a wave of negativity that washes over every other employee, present and future – and as a result, your entire business.
Unfortunately the interest on culture debt is extremely high: In some cases you will never pay off the debt you incur, even when a culture misfit is let go or leaves.
Here are five all-too-common ways you can create culture debt that can keep your startup from achieving its potential:
1. You see the ivy and miss the poison
The star developer who writes great code… but who also resists taking any direction and refuses to help others… won't instantly turn over a new interpersonal leaf just because you hire him.
The skilled salesperson who in the short-term always seems to outperform her peers… but who also maneuvers and manipulates and builds kerosene-soaked bridges just waiting to go up in flames… won’t turn into a relationship building, long-term focused ambassador for your company just because you hire her.
The interview process is a little like a honeymoon. You see the best the candidate has to offer. If a prospective employee doesn't look like a great fit for your culture before he is hired, he definitely won’t be after he’s hired.
Never risk making a deal with the culture-fit devil. The soul of your company is at stake. Seriously.
2. You discard the attitude and play the skill card
Skills and experience are worthless when not put to use. Knowledge is useless when not shared with others.
The smaller your company the more likely you are to be an expert in your field, so transferring those skills to new employees is relatively easy. But you can't train enthusiasm, a solid work ethic, and great interpersonal skills – and those traits can matter a lot more than any skills a candidate brings.
According to this study only 11% of the new hires that failed in the first 18 months failed due to deficiencies in technical skills. The majority failed due to lack of motivation, an unwillingness to be coached, or problems with temperament and emotional intelligence.
Think of it this way: The candidate who lacks certain hard skills might be a cause for concern, but the candidate who lacks the beliefs and values you need is a giant culture debt red flag.
3. You try to sell a used car
It’s tempting to over-sell a candidate on your company, especially when you desperately need to fill an open position and you've been recruiting for seemingly forever.
Don’t sell too hard. Great candidates come prepared. They've done their homework. They already know whether your company is a good fit for them based on what they've read about you online. The really great recruits might have been stalking your company for many weeks or months -- seeing what the company feels like.
Describe the position, describe your company, answer every question, be candid and forthright, let your natural enthusiasm show through… and let the candidate make an informed decision. But, don’t oversell.
The right candidates recognize the right opportunities – and the right cultural fit. If you have to try too hard to convince someone, and the love is unidirectional, it's not setup for long-term success.
4. You mistake the rumblings for hunger
Nothing beats a formal, thorough, comprehensive hiring process… except, sometimes, a dose of intuition and gut feel.
At my company HubSpot (grew from 0-500 employees in 6 years) there are five key attributes we value:
· Humble. They’re modest despite being awesome. They’re self-aware and respectful.
· Effective. They get (stuff) done. They measurably move the needle and immeasurably add value.
· Adaptable. They’re constantly changing, life-long learners.
· Remarkable. They have a super-power that makes them stand out: Remarkably smart, remarkably creative, remarkably resourceful…
· Transparent. They’re open and honest with others – and with themselves.
In short, we look for people with H-E-A-R-T, because they help us create a company we love. So we always weigh our impressions against more qualitative considerations. You should too. Think of it this way: The more experience you have – the more lumps you’ve taken and hard knocks you’ve received and mistakes you’ve made – the more “educated” your “gut.” While you should never go on intuition alone, if you have a funny feeling about a candidate… see that as a sign you need to look more closely.
And look more closely.
For a detailed insider’s peek into how we think about culture at HubSpot, check out our Culture Code slides (embedded below for your convenience).
Bottom line: Define the intangibles you want in your employees and never compromise by hiring a candidate who lacks those qualities.
5. You decide to double down
There are two basic kinds of risk you can take on a potential employee.
First the worthwhile risks: Taking a shot on a candidate you feel has more potential than her previous employer let her show; taking a shot on a candidate who is missing a few skills but has attitude in abundance; taking a chance on a candidate you feel certain brings the enthusiasm, drive, and spirit your team desperately needs. Those are good chances to take.
Now the foolish risks: Taking a shot on a candidate with a history of performance issues that you hope will somehow develop a strong work ethic; taking a chance on the candidate who left his last two jobs because "my bosses were jerks;" taking a shot on the candidate who has no experience yet only wants to talk about how quickly and often she will be promoted.
Why do you rationalize taking foolish risks? You're desperate. Or you're lazy. Or you have "other issues to focus on." Or you figure your culture is strong enough to withstand the impact of one ill-fitting employee.
Don't take foolish risks. They almost always turn out badly. Occasionally take potentially worthwhile risks, because they can turn out to be your most inspired hires and, eventually, your best employees.
And never, ever take a chance that creates high-interest culture debt.
The cost to your organization is just too high. And, life is short.
A variation of this article was also posted as part of my participation in the LinkedIn Influencers program.