Culture Club

The best executive for the job will have an impressive résumé, but should also possess the right skills to best maneuver the organization's culture

The ability to consistently marry compelling corporate leadership opportunities with the right executive is what distinguishes the best headhunters and employers. An individual's fit—or misalignment—with the organization's mission, culture, and workforce will quickly dictate how both the company and the executive perform.

Yet a well-documented decline in executive tenure, and the damage done by misfit leaders, suggest cultural compatibility remains a low priority when it comes to corporate management succession. That's especially unfortunate given the degree to which an organization's future depends on its selection of executive leaders today.

Cultural Matchmaking

One reason for a poor fit is that too often executives are hired based on where they're coming from without enough thought given to where they are going. A candidate who impresses the board or the boss with his or her credentials might get the nod because on paper he or she appears to have the right range of experience from a respected, market-leading company. Yet an impressive résumé doesn't guarantee an individual will be able to elevate a company's performance in a new environment and/or a new role.

The ability to effect real change in a new position or company hinges not just on the candidate's assets but also on institutional assets such as employee engagement, customer brand awareness, and talent magnetism. Any of these may or may not have been building blocks of organizational culture and higher financial returns in the executive's prior job.

"Cultural awareness is one of the most neglected and yet most powerful predictors of executive success and it's also one of the things executives know the least about," says Kenneth Siegel, a managerial psychologist with Beverly Hills-based Impact Group, who works with boards and executive teams to improve performance.

Just because someone worked with a high-performance organization in the past doesn't automatically mean they are the right person for an important management role elsewhere, Siegel points out. He suggests board members and others engaged in hiring senior management ask themselves a simple question before hiring their next executive: "Will this person enhance the culture we have here or be devoured by it?"

The answer is as important to the executive (and, by extension, to the recruiter who courted him or her) as it is to the hiring organization. A cultural mismatch, after all, could have a major impact on an executive's future career options and could disrupt organizational performance for years to come.

A Uniform Vision

One way to improve the likelihood of achieving a true cultural fit between an organization and a new executive leader is to understand that individual leaders aren't always the human personification of the market-leading brands for which they've worked in the past. That's not to say previous leadership experience is inconsequential. But it's critical to know that if executives don't fit from a cultural perspective with a new employer, they've never going to have the opportunity to demonstrate the value of their experience with their former employer.

A classic type of mismatch, according to Siegel, is when an executive's view of how customers should be treated differs from the organization's expressed mission for meeting customers' needs. Another reveals itself when a new executive begins to recruit other new management leaders who are more closely aligned with his or her distinct leadership style, even though they may conflict with the organization's screening criteria.

Those involved in the most senior executive selection decisions need to be confident the new leader brings cultural compatibility to his or her new role and isn't just a charismatic communicator who will attempt to convince customers, employees, and shareholders that his or her vision—however untested and perhaps lacking true organizational buy-in—should prevail.

If a new executive's mandate is to sharpen or reinforce a high performance culture, she will need to immerse herself in the current culture so that she might credibly challenge it, push it, promote it, and otherwise maintain its critical components, however opaque. However, if the executive was brought in to disrupt a dysfunctional or otherwise ineffectual organizational culture, he will need to earn the trust of the other change agents. One must understand the culture to change it.

Looking Within

Finding a way to build bridges and earn respect from constituent groups is the foundation from which change, momentum, trust, and higher performance emanate. That again points to why culture fit is so important a consideration when it comes to issues of management succession.

Siegel acknowledges dysfunctional organizations and cultures sometimes require an infusion of new executive talent, but he also doesn't buy the argument of recruiters that courting leaders from the outside is the best way to achieve that. Rather, he contends, there is a lot to be gained from developing culturally aligned leaders from within. "You can get fresh [talent] internally, as well."

That's another reason to groom leadership talent from within and a reminder to companies that they should think twice about going outside in search of executive talent. After all, headhunters will concede, their business has always been intended as a resource to hiring companies that—for some reason—can't fill a top leadership post on their own.

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