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What Guatemala’s ‘Person Of The Year’ Wants You To Know About Hiring

Luis von Ahn, a native of Guatemala who was once named the country’s person of the year by a prominent Guatemalan newspaper, is the creator of reCAPTCHA, which made him a very wealthy man and a pioneer in crowdsourcing. And while he sold reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009 for an “undisclosed sum,” i.e. most likely more money than me or you will ever see in a lifetime, it didn’t go perfectly.

In a 2013 interview with Inc, Ahn was asked what he learned from running reCAPTCHA. Ahn said the biggest lesson he learned is that it isn’t all about hiring the most talented people, but competent people who can get along with others.

“In the past, I just looked at how competent people were, but it sometimes happens the most competent are the biggest (bleeps),” Ahn told Inc. “I used to think this does not matter, but I realized this is really important.”

In other words, culture matters. And just because an employee is good at their given task doesn’t make them a good employee, as they need to be able to work with their colleagues as well. Tony Heish, the CEO of Zappos, agrees.

“At Zappos, culture is the number one priority for the company,” Hsieh recently told Inc. “We’ve actually passed on a lot of smart and really talented people who we know could make an immediate impact on our top and bottom line. But if they are not good for our culture, we won’t hire them for that reason alone.”

So How Do You Find A Culture Fit?

Okay, so we agree that hiring people who match your company’s culture is important. The first question is, then, what is your company’s culture? Or, perhaps more accurately, what should it be?

Well, in the book Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras looked into 18 companies that had been in the top of their market for at least 50 years, and found that there was no one culture that won out.

Instead, what all 18 companies had in common was a solid grasp of exactly what the company culture was and hired people who fit into the model. The key is to not to try to be something you’re not, but instead to be honest with what the culture is and be it 100 percent.

How do you discover that culture? A lot of it is looking at the personality and the reward system set up by the leaders of the company. If the president prefers independent workers who are incentivized largely by money, than obviously you want to find people who are seeking independence and are driven by money. If the president is more hands-on, and is more likely to reward their employees with time off and recognition, than seek someone who seeks recognition and enjoys working on a team.

Then comes ascertaining if candidates have that culture or not, and that all begins and ends with behavioral interviewing. For example, if you ask a question about a candidate’s number one work accomplishment and they come back with something they did on their own, than they probably prefer a more independent work environment. Conversely, if a candidate comes back with a team effort, they probably are more collaborative in nature (click here for more great interview questions that reveal a candid...

All of this sounds simple, but the fact is many companies – particularly startups – miss this completely and it hurts them. And all it takes is one or two bad hires – or a couple of employees who don’t get along – to sink a startup.

The real message here is that just because someone is a great somewhere else doesn’t mean they are going to be great for you. Instead, the hiring process should be about finding the right fit for your organization, and for that culture matters just as much as expertise.

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Tags: Corporate Recruiting, Human Resources

Comment by Competency Toolkit on June 10, 2014 at 2:36pm

Great article Paul, and spot-on comments by Luis.  As Built to Last indicates, each company needs to define their own culture.  While some may focus on innovation (e.g., Google), others may focus on customer service (e.g., Zappos).  Once defined, this culture should be a core component of every interview guide.  Too often, companies focus on competence (i.e., functional/technical skills) and they quickly find out an employee doesn't mesh with the cultural values.  Our experience has shown that a mix of core competencies/cultural values, cross-functional competencies (e.g., communication, empathy, project manager) and technical competencies (e.g., C++ programming, accounting, performance management) is best practice.

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