Hiring & Firing Change Cultures

January 28, 2008

In any company or organization, a new member can create tremendous waves. These waves, or changes, may be obvious in small organizations or in large companies, particularly when a new member of management comes aboard. Despite the size of the company or position filled, however, a new team member’s presence inevitably can change culture.

You may be thinking: “Of course a new member creates change! What would be the point, otherwise?” These changes, however, are not those resulting from the new individual’s unique skill set, knowledge, or pedigree. Instead, the changes I refer to are the those that change culture.

Every organization with two or more members is a system. According to Merriam-Webster, a system consists of a “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items” (e.g., individuals) “forming a unified whole” (e.g., organization). Within a system, each individual is connected, directly or indirectly, to every other individual. As the number of members increases, the web of connections becomes more and more complex. Because of the systemic nature of a company or organization, any new individual necessarily impacts every other individual.

With this in mind, those charged with changing an organization’s membership – by firing, hiring, or transferring – have a serious responsibility! Their decisions must be goal-oriented, purposeful, and wise. An employer hires someone new, because the company has some gap that must be filled.

As a coach, I find many leaders focus on filling gaps with skills and knowledge, rather than with people. “We need someone who can sell!” “We need a tax accountant!” “We need a Ph.D. for this research!” Posted positions describe necessary skills and degrees. On resumes, skills and degrees are highlighted. Interview questions aim at discovering details about these skills and degrees.

What leaders often forget is that an employee is much more than the sum of his or her skills and knowledge. I recently had lunch with a friend, who owns a sizeable consulting firm. Two years ago, he hired two new partners, each with exceptional skills in investment banking. My friend was sure these two would soon become major rainmakers for his company! What he did not consider was their cultural “fit.” His company had been built upon the values of trust, honesty, and above all, teamwork. The two new hires had two different values; one was self-interest, the other, personal gain. Their arrival was like adding a match to gasoline! Within one year, the two employees nearly destroyed the firm — not because they lacked skills or knowledge, but because they disrupted a once stable culture. It quickly changed from one of trust and concern, to one of distrust, cynicism, and triangulating conversations. A year passed before my friend recognized the crashing waves and turned to action, firing the two employees. Once they were gone, the company – like most systems – returned to its resting state.

One of the most powerful tools a leader has is the ability to influence an organization’s culture. When a leader fires an employee, or hires a new one, a message is sent regarding both the leader’s values and the organization’s standards. In the case of my friend’s consulting firm, employees did not speak up, mainly because they thought their leader had made a deliberate choice. It was only when tensions reached boiling points that they began to show concern.

When coaching leaders, I encourage them to work with teams in conducting final interviews. Doing so helps insure the current culture will remain consistent, and the organization will remain purpose-driven. This hiring method stems directly from my “Ask, don’t tell” leadership philosophy. By asking for input during the hiring process – rather than telling the team about their new member — a leader reflects his or her desire to lead, not command and control.

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