Cooking Up a Hiring Strategy? Focus on ‘Culture Add’ Candidates.

Candidates who bring new perspectives to a team can expand the possibilities for a great existing culture.

Written by Brigid Hogan
Published on Jun. 30, 2022
 Cooking Up a Hiring Strategy? Focus on ‘Culture Add’ Candidates.
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Balancing the five flavors is crucial to cooking a delicious dish.

Sweetness can cut down on heat, while salt can balance bitterness or make other flavors shine. Bitterness breaks through richness, and an acidic burst of citrus can make a whole dish pop. Illusive umami can also transform a dish. The savory flavor’s complex depth complements the flavors in an otherwise balanced dish to turn it into something transcendent.

When a company focuses on hiring for “culture fit,” the proverbial five flavors focus on compatibility with the dishes that already exist. But when “culture add” is the focus, it’s about finding someone who carries that umami capable of transcending a team.

“Culture add” hires take into consideration the many facets a candidate offers — visible and invisible diversity, past experience, new perspectives — to introduce different flavors and ideas to a team.

“We look for ‘culture adds,’ not ‘culture fits,’” Sana Raheem, head of employee experience and diversity, equity and inclusion at The Farmer’s Dog, told Built In NYC. “While we expect our values to endure for some time, we also regularly revisit and pressure-test them to ensure they’re still relevant to the company we are and want to be.”

Alana Silva, senior recruiter at Skillshare, agreed with Raheem’s focus on values. “When building our team, it is important to us that we make the distinction between ‘culture fit’ and ‘values fit,’” she said. “Using our values as a guide, allows us to find teammates that share how we think, not what we think.”

Determining those values defines how recruiters respond in their hiring practices. “The need to protect your culture becomes irrelevant if you already have one that promotes diversity,” Shantae Coffey, lead recruiter at MaestroQA, said.

While a chef might look to different sources of salt in a dish and choose between cheese, capers or soy sauce, different candidates offer unique ways to expand company culture within established values. Built In NYC spoke with Coffey, Raheem and Silva along with three other hiring experts about how their teams focus on “culture add” hires to create a stand-out mix on their teams.

 

Rent the Runway team photo
Rent the Runway

 

Andrea Andrea Alexander
Chief People Officer • Rent the Runway

 

Rent the Runway changes the way their customers get dressed by allowing them to rent, subscribe to and purchase second-hand clothing.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

At our core, we’re disruptors. RTR was founded on the idea that we could reimagine what it means to “experience fashion,” and to do that successfully means we need to have a team of people who think differently, debate often and acknowledge that the best idea wins. 

One of our core values is to “Dream big and go after it!” That culture is alive and well at RTR. We know that good ideas can come from anywhere and that collaboration often leads to better ideas, so we’ve made that an essential way of working at RTR. 

To successfully protect a culture and to be inclusive requires intentionality baked into company systems and procedures.”

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

The foundation of how we show up, how we learn and how we grow is anchored in our core values and built on competencies. RTR has identified four leadership competencies that guide how we recruit, develop and engage our employees and are critical for achieving success, which are “influential communicator,” “fosters innovation,” “drives continuous results” and “embraces diverse strengths.” These competencies were born out of observations, discussions and data on what it takes to be successful at RTR, and we use them as a common language when talking about growth and development of our people. When we talk about leadership competencies, we think both about the vision for leadership at RTR in the big picture and what these competencies look like in practice, day to day.

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

To successfully protect a culture and to be inclusive requires intentionality baked into company systems and procedures. We have rituals at RTR to highlight and celebrate what makes us unique, like our core value awards, and we also build in structures to our schedule to encourage idea generation and share feedback. That looks like getting the right people together for a project kickoff and retrospective, but it also means asking the right questions to encourage participation and facilitating discussions in a way that makes everyone feel comfortable sharing their creative ideas without fear of retribution.

To ensure that we’re getting the right people on the team in the first place, we conduct structured behavioral interviews that involve multiple stakeholders across the organization and train our interviewers on what to look for in a candidate and how to mitigate bias in the hiring process. 

 

 

Order team photo outside by a trolley car
Order

 

Alli Coppola
Director of Talent Acquisition • Order.co

 

Order provides a unified platform for business owners to track purchasing across vendors.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked in a number of organizations, from small hypergrowth startups to the U.S. government and large companies alike, and the number one thing that is different at Order than anywhere else I have worked is transparency. Leadership makes an enormous effort to communicate the good, the bad and everything in between with the entire team. We operate from a place of seeking understanding, echoed by our core value, “listen then take action,” and our goal is to approach all communication with empathy and an understanding of each other’s needs and perspectives. 

We also recently hired a director of talent enablement to focus on developing the talent that we’ve worked so hard to attract. This is a rare early hire for most young companies, but we feel it will be critically important in our ability to equip each team member with the tools they need to be successful in their roles, and to grow both personally and professionally.

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

We took all of the attributes that have the strongest correlation to success, and translated them into our company values. We use the Hawaiian term “mahalo” to represent the importance of leading with gratitude and humility; be a good neighbor and do the right thing. This is our North Star! It informs how we run our business, assess talent and manage performance. We take this value incredibly seriously because we care about surrounding ourselves with other kind people who care deeply about each other and the problems we’re solving.

We also encourage a mindset of competing against yourself. We work tirelessly toward self-improvement by applying feedback, seeking knowledge from experts, learning new skills and staying curious.

We ask teams to “manage to the task” and to “listen, then take action.” We are not afraid to take ownership, regardless of domain and task size, with exceptional execution, communication and accountability. When we receive feedback or are faced with a problem, we seek first to understand, then to act. 

And we remember that winning is fun. We are resilient, we put everything we have into what we do and we are passionate about celebrating our successes along the way.

Our culture has only gotten richer and more diverse as the team has grown.”

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

We often hear about culture dilution when a company grows. As more people join, the culture wanes and changes, not always for the better. By screening for our core values in the interview process, we’ve been able to bring on team members from immensely diverse backgrounds who all share the same set of core principles. As a result, our culture has only gotten richer and more diverse as the team has grown. 

As it relates to promoting inclusion of new ideas internally, our first instinct is to assume positive intent and seek understanding. You just never know where the best idea will come from, so we are always excited to hear from folks across the organization.

 

 

MaestroQA team photo outside
MaestroQA

 

Shantae Coffey
Lead Recruiter • MaestroQA

 

MaestroQA builds software to support customer service managers and their teams.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

At MaestroQA, we encourage freedom of thought. Truly. We ask questions, have healthy debates and welcome diversity of opinions. You will find this across the board at Maestro, from the leadership team to the individual contributor level. Ultimately, we know we are united and the goal is the same, so a difference in opinion is not seen as an attack but rather an attempt to get to the best outcome that will benefit the whole. Our people are our strongest force. We hire each and every one because they are specialists in their fields, and as such, we expect them to have an opinion and to share those opinions every chance they get. For us, it is a requirement to be comfortable being uncomfortable and having strong opinions loosely held because no one ever knows it all. There is bravery in vulnerability and in saying: “I don’t know the answer to that,” or “I was wrong, you were right.” This is what differentiates us. If you ask anyone at Maestro they will tell you that this stems from us being a quality assurance company. We know the importance of feedback and constructive criticism, so we have baked this into every inch of our culture.

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

It all starts with the hiring process. This evolves as our team does. What we needed to be successful as a 50-person team looks different as we get closer to 100. That being said, some of the indicators of success are initiative, pace, structured problem solving and inquisitiveness.

People who like to raise their hands, learn by doing and take others along with them will stand out. If you are a doer, a volunteer, a leader, a mentor, a builder of processes, not afraid of being scrappy or if you enjoy autonomy to make decisions and own meaningful work, you’ll succeed here.

Additionally, one of our core values is exercising speed as a habit. We hire people who hit the ground running and function at a high pace. We respond to our customers quickly and introduce new features that put us at an advantage over our competitors. Sometimes that requires us to fail fast, but we also learn fast as a result.

We are faced with exciting challenges that require us to be innovative and ask tons of questions to get to that deeper “why.” If you are a naturally curious person and enjoy brainstorming ways to tackle complex issues that may have no existing frameworks, we want you on our team!

Some of the indicators of success are initiative, pace, structured problem solving and inquisitiveness.”

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

When we hire, we look for that inquisitive nature in potential teammates, for they are the ones who ask “why” and challenge the status quo. They are the ones that break through barriers and ceilings. We look for team members who use data and metrics to guide decisions, for they are the ones that test and retest instead of sticking to an original plan that is not working. They are the ones that debunk outdated traditions. We have been lucky to find these people, so when we do, we treat them well and promote them! It is understood and expected at all levels within the company that these movers and shakers come from different backgrounds. We won’t all speak the same language, and we won’t all look the same. We won’t even live in the same country most of the time. But what we do is unite around a common goal. And that, above anything else, is worth protecting.

 

 

Alex Candee
Director of Talent Acquisition and Development • EquityZen

 

EquityZen Inc. is a technology-driven platform that can help provide liquidity for pre-IPO shares and open access to pre-IPO investments.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

We have a “no room for ego” work environment. When we interview candidates, we measure them against our core company values, including “be humble” and “be an inspiring team player.”  Our team lives by these values everyday, and we are held accountable to them throughout our time here.  The embodiment of our values is considered just as important a part of performance as productivity results. As a fin tech, we hire a number of candidates from the financial services industry, and many of them are looking to get away from colleagues with sharp elbows. EquityZen is a place where collaborative people can thrive, and we celebrate wins as a team.

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

Collaboration and curiosity are two qualities that set EquityZenners apart. People who are curious about how each element of the business operates and how the pieces of the puzzle fit together are helping themselves be set up for success. Throughout the interview process, we look for candidates who are ready to teach and learn. Because of our niche business, candidates who have taken the time to review our FAQ page, understand how our business operates and are passionate about our mission and learning about the venture capital space have the upper hand. 

Also, we design our interview processes to ensure that the panel includes potential collaborators from multiple teams allowing us to assess the candidate from a cross-functional perspective. We’re specifically looking for candidates to communicate clearly and concisely.

Candidates can present themselves authentically at each step and allow their skills and individuality to shine.”

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

One thing that I’ve noticed throughout my time here at EquityZen is that we hire candidates from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences. It’s very unlikely that candidates have already worked within the pre-IPO investment industry, so we have to look outside of our own business for talent. From the start, our hiring managers are looking for people who can bring a diverse set of skills to the table that may be different from other members of the team. Managers are also aware that a diverse team inspires innovation by bringing new ways of thinking to the table which is something we embrace.

We protect our culture by ensuring consistency throughout the interview process. Everyone on our interview panels is trained to be open to the value of transferable skills and attributes, while also assessing a candidate’s ability to meet the needs of the job and live the company’s core values. Additionally, we are as transparent as possible with candidates throughout the process so that they know exactly what to expect and how to prepare. This way, candidates can present themselves authentically at each step and allow their skills and individuality to shine. 

 

 

Sana Raheem
Head of Employee Experience and DE&I • The Farmer's Dog

 

The Farmer’s Dog is reimagining what pet food can be in order to deliver freshly-made dog food directly to customers and their canine companions.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

At The Farmer’s Dog, we are united by our deep, genuine care for dogs — and for the people who love them. Our culture is an extension of our mission, grounded in our admiration for dogs’ authenticity and the urgency, empathy and passion required to give their humans true peace of mind. It is this combination of qualities that makes our culture so special. Like a dog who can’t hide their wagging tail, we encourage our team to show up as they are, celebrate their differences and apply them in service of our big, hairy — often literally! — and audacious goal to reimagine how we feed and care for our pets.

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

Over the years, we’ve reflected on the attitudes and behaviors that have made us most successful, and have codified them into five values that have become the foundation of our culture: deliver joy, be authentic, seek better, act boldly and play team. The important thing about these values is that they are linked to specific behaviors and anti-behaviors and that they do not exist in isolation from each other. For example, I love our “deliver joy” value, which encourages celebrating wins big and small as well as being kind for no reason. But it’s kept in balance by our “be authentic” value to make sure we aren’t avoiding healthy conflict and direct feedback for the sake of temporary joy. I think internalizing these values, practicing and referring back to them in day-to-day interactions, and making sure they’re kept in balance has been critical to creating the caring, effective environment we have today.

We believe having clear values can and should be a catalyst for diversity and inclusion.”

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

We believe having clear values can and should be a catalyst for diversity and inclusion, not a barrier. Our values act as a foundational roadmap and compass for what it means to be successful at The Farmer’s Dog, but we specifically seek out people who have charted unique paths in their lives and careers, and who bring a range of perspectives, experiences and skill sets to the problems we are solving. Beyond seeing candidates as culture adds over culture fits, one thing will never be negotiable, though — sacrificing culture for competence. We know we can have both!

 

 

Alana Silva
Senior Recruiter • Skillshare

 

Skillshare is an online learning platform catering to creatives.

 

What one element of your company culture stands out to you as different from others in your industry or tech in general?

As a company, we know that a strong collective culture doesn’t just happen. It is built from the ground up and upheld by everyone in it. The intention with which we approach culture sets Skillshare apart from other companies. How we recruit, how we communicate and how we connect every day is done with purpose and thoughtfulness shared by all of our employees. We leave room to iterate and evolve as a culture and a company, but we view everything through the lens of our values of community, curiosity, impact and transparency. We ensure that how we function as a company is always tied back to these foundational principles, keeping us connected to our mission and to each other.

We know that a strong collective culture doesn’t just happen.”

 

How do you identify the attributes and specific behaviors that tend to translate to success at your company?

As a startup, we have a small team and for a company of our stage and size, our output is quite high. So with a limited headcount, it makes it even more important that we bring on the right people. Making sure that the work we do and our approach to it is anchored to our values is a huge part of what makes us successful as individuals and as a company.

These values are central to our recruiting process and help us evaluate potential teammates to truly understand how they would work in our environment and how to set them up for success. For example, in an effort to model how important transparency is for us, we share a “Candidate 101” guide at the first touch point in the recruiting process, which outlines exactly what all potential interview steps entail. Additionally, we communicate our no negotiations policy which allows all candidates to be fully prepared and aware of what their potential offer would be before heading into an onsite.

 

How do you protect your distinct company culture while still being inclusive of new ideas and people?

As culture fit can often lead to subjective thinking and unconscious bias, what we aim to do is assess potential hires based on a set of values in order to understand whether or not candidates share the same core principles and approach. In addition to our values-fit approach, we’ve established inclusivity from the first stage of our recruitment process in an effort to continue to engage a diverse set of perspectives and ideas. When we look to open a role, we focus on sourcing from underrepresented groups for two weeks before opening the position up externally. This helps us create an inclusive team that can contribute different points of view all centered around our collective values.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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