Hiring for Fit . . . to What?  Strategic Interviewing

and Organizational Culture

Mark Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Plymouth, MN

As organizations strive to improve their overall effectiveness, sooner or later they’ll need to take a look at their operating culture – the way things really get done.  Where organizational leaders discover that their operating culture is getting in the way of achieving business success, I find they usually ask themselves questions like these:

  • What type of culture do we need to truly maximize the efficiency of our operations?
  • How do we change the work environment to get creative solutions to issues?
  • What behaviors should we expect from our staff to support achieving our business objectives, enhancing customer service, and dealing with one another effectively?

In my consulting work around organizational culture, I find that a critical question often remains unasked:

  • How do we hire and promote to help us achieve the culture we say we need to have?

Selection of new hires and placement of current employees into key positions in the organization are critical considerations for a company considering or in the midst of culture change.  Unless their current culture truly enhances effectiveness, I advise clients to aim their hiring at individuals who will help the company move towards its desired culture target as opposed to hiring for, or placing existing employees in, key roles that will reinforce and continue the current culture.  In other words – hire for fit to what you want, not what you have if what you have isn’t working for you.  As an example, how do you select a new senior executive from two or more candidates with equally impressive resumes?  The strategic, behavior-based interview process can help you hedge your bet and research has shown this approach to be 4 times more effective than traditional interviews in producing successful hires (The Tax Adviser, Sept 1996).  Although my focus in this article will be on new hires, the remarks apply just as well to considering internal candidates.

The traditional interviewing processes I’ve experienced over the years generally involved meeting with a few members of the staff who reviewed my resume (sometimes just minutes before I arrived) and asked the same questions about my background over and over.  When I’ve been the hiring manager, I’ve usually been asked to compare my notes on the candidate with the other interviewers to look for similarities and discrepancies and often we were free to ask whatever we wanted.  Unfortunately, considering the responses to questions like, “What was the best job you had and why?” or “What was your biggest success?” drives hiring decisions based on guesswork and intuitive feel for the person.  Many of us have had personal experience or heard horror stories about hiring someone who looks good on paper and interviews well but never lives up to their billing (or causes disasters) after hiring on.  Selling oneself does not necessarily equate with effective performance on the job.  Experience doesn’t guarantee competence.

The strategic interviewing process takes a very structured approach to preparing for and conducting the interview.  It requires you and anyone else conducting the interviews to consider and agree to the answers to some tough questions listed below well in advance.  A good approach is for the interviewing team to develop samples of effective and ineffective candidate responses for discussion so they are prepared when they conduct the interview.

  1. What are the goals of the job?

Not just the job functions or a job description but rather what is someone in that position supposed to accomplish?

  1. What are the barriers that exist for the person to overcome to be an effective performer in the job?

No job is without hurdles or barriers to clear.  These might be ethical in nature, or could involve customer, personnel, technical, competitive, economic, and legal issues in some combination.  What are these barriers facing the person hired to do this job?  People may perform well under ideal conditions with everything going smoothly so this sets the stage for evaluating a candidate’s abilities to overcome typical or specific problems that come with the job.

  1. What are the competency requirements of the job?

These are the combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes, behaviors, and values as applied to different situations.  Don’t just focus on results.  Expecting someone to be “good” at handling customer complaints doesn’t explain how you want them to go about it.

  1. What are your expectations of successful performance in the new position?

What would you expect to see from someone performing well in this job 6-12 months down the road?  What would a good performer do vs. a poor performer?  In addition to task skill and competency items, consider those behaviors that would support your desired operating culture

  1. What are the “right answers” to the questions you will ask in the interview?

Yes, there are right answers because you set the standards.  It’s your business and your desired operating culture you’re trying to find a fit for.  Plan your questions for behavioral-specific and actionable answers.

Tip: If using multiple interviewers or conducting a team interview, take a unified approach.  Practice the interview questions and discuss expected answers.  To eliminate redundancy and maximize useful information, decide who’s going to ask which questions.  Also, make sure the company’s values are consistently projected in the interview to eliminate mixed messages.  The way you come across in the interview sends messages to candidates about your performance standards.

Now that the interview is prepared, keep these items in mind when conducting it.

  1. Connect the candidates’ past behaviors to your performance expectations

Since past performance is the best indicator of future performance, ask the candidates how their work experience qualifies them for the job you’re hiring for.  Most people won’t offer a realistic portrayal of their strengths or weaknesses.  Get specific examples and inquire further: What did you do and why?  What resulted from your actions?  How did the organization benefit?  Looking back on the situation, would you do anything differently and why?

  1. How have they behaved in dealing with a barrier?

Ask the candidates to describe how they would deal with or have dealt with a barrier similar to one they would face on the job you’re hiring for.  Pose questions to surface their behaviors, what behaviors they expected from others, how they made decisions, and how they use data.  Refer to the questions asked in item 1 above.  If your gut tells you something’s missing in their response, you’ll need to probe deeper to get at the underlying issues.

  1. Let the candidate do most of the talking

The interview isn’t a dialog; it’s an evaluation of their fit to the business needs and job position you specify.

In evaluating the candidates, consider these items

1.  You set the standards, not the candidate

Don’t compare the candidates’ answers with each other and select the “best” answer.  The “best” answer may not be the effective answer for your business.  Have an objective standard to go by.

2.  Use a structured approach

Document the information you collect in the interview that shows how the candidate demonstrated behaviors relevant to the performance expectations.  Using a form will help here.  Describe their key actions and behaviors rather than say, “He/she was a strong candidate for the position.”  If you hire the candidate, you can later refer to this document to identify development areas for them.

3. Predict how they’ll do if you hire them

Given what the interview surfaced, how would each candidate fare in the job 6-12 months down the road?  What impact would they have on the organization, given what you want done and how you want your culture to be?  Use job-related data to help decide this.  Personal data is insightful but job-related data is the key.  A person may have the skills or knowledge to do the job, but that doesn’t mean they have the inclination to do the work once they get in the door.

This brief overview of the strategic interview process should help you make hiring decisions based on key criteria that strategically drive the success of the company.  Use this process where it will make the most impact, especially with those candidates who are being considered for positions that directly drive or affect the culture of your company.


Camp, Richaurd R., Mary E. Vielhaber, Jack L. Simonetti.  Strategic Interviewing: How to Hire Good People.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Denton, D. Keith. “Reengineering the employee recruitment: retain the best that remains.” Business Forum. Spring-Fall 1997: 13-17.

Hirschman, Caroline.  “Playing the high-stakes hiring game.” HRMagazine March 1998: 80-83.

“Lifetime Hire.”  Chief Executive (U.S.) July-Aug 1999:10-17.

Starcke, Alice.  “Tailor interviews to predict performance.” HRMagazine July 1996: 49-53.

Zack, Jay and Mark Van Beusekom.  “Making the right hire: behavioral interviewing.” The Tax Adviser. Sep 1996: 57-60.

This article was published in excerpt form in the Dec 2001 issue of Tips from the Top (Vol. 20, No. 12) – a publication of The Alternative Board, Denver, CO.

© 2001.  Mark Komen and Kodyne, Inc.  All rights reserved.