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Level 5 founder and CEo David Kincaid outside his office in downtown Toronto (Deborah Baic/DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Level 5 founder and CEo David Kincaid outside his office in downtown Toronto (Deborah Baic/DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Challenge

How to hire the perfect fit Add to ...

Every week, we will seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue it is facing in its business

When David Kincaid hires new staff, he’s not looking just for the best people for the job. He wants hires to be a good fit with the rest of his employees, too.

That hasn’t been as easy as it might sound for the founder and chief executive officer of Level 5 Strategy Group, a Toronto-based branding company.

While the firm has about 20 employees at any given time, it has seen too much turnover, Mr. Kincaid says. Two or three people leave every year, either on their own or by request, many not having lasted much beyond a year, he says.

The main culprit: Not being a fit with the corporate culture.

The problem is most acute with senior employees, who make up just less than half of staff, Mr. Kincaid says. In the last seven years, about 10 have left the firm.

Mr. Kincaid has found senior employees tend to come from more bureaucratic environments than what he’s tried to create at Level 5. He calls his company’s culture open, collaborative and flat. Newcomers, he says, “have to have the confidence to come in and be willing to contribute on Day 1.”

He tries to ensure he hires that kind of person. First, candidates usually sit with one of five senior partners for hour-long interviews. Then they meet the rest of the partners, either one-on-one or as a group. Then they meet with half of the rest of staff, often two or three at a time; these staffers then report their impressions back to the partners.

Corporate culture is always part of the conversation, Mr. Kincaid says. He’s come to believe that some hires just tell him what they believe he wants to hear, but once they come on board, he finds many of those who haven’t worked out have tended to be guarded, unwilling to share ideas, unable to communicate as well as he had hoped, and reluctant to socialize with colleagues or participate in informal events, such as team dinners.

“It’s a family,” he says.

“It’s impossible to know if someone’s a fit until they’re in the environment,” says Mr. Kincaid of his company, which generates about $8-million in annual revenue. “And in a small business, when we add a person, that can have a huge impact on the rest of the team.”

Mr. Kincaid thought he was doing a good job of articulating the company culture, but, with so many new hires not fitting in, he’s concerned he’s doing something wrong.

“I don’t think we’re either asking the right questions or putting candidates through a process that tests enough for fit,” he says.

The Challenge: How can Level 5 do a better job of hiring for corporate culture fit?


David Russell, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Success With People, and co- author of The Company Culture Challenge .

To hire for company fit, an organization needs to have clear, measurable goals of where they’re going. And the vast majority of times, businesses don’t have those goals. You might have company objectives, but you need measurable targets. If he can define his values, then he’ll be able to hold people and their behaviours accountable to those values. That then helps define company culture.

Also consider hiring an outside person to do the final interview. You need to find someone who understands the culture and industry, but an outside person has no emotion in the decision. The job is to protect the client. About 60 per cent of all hiring decisions are made in the first three minutes of the first interview, because people are busy and they like the person they’re talking to. An outside opinion can be more objective.

David Mudd, Toronto-based principal of human capital at Mercer

There is something new that companies are trying: The individual is presented with real-life scenarios in a 15-minute video. It’s a scenario of what the person might face at work and then they’re given options of how they’d handle that situation. That gives the evaluator an opportunity to assess how this person would react to a situation as an actual employee. If the candidate can’t handle a less bureaucratic culture, that will come through.

It’s also possible that they’re having problems because they don’t have a real finger on the pulse of their culture. Every small firm thinks it knows how it operates. But it may be worth getting a second opinion. Invite someone from the outside to look at the company and see what they pick up. What’s the culture and attributes that really make people successful in the organization?

Gayle Robin, president and founder of Toronto-based StrategicAmpersand Inc.

He’s making a mistake by introducing candidates to half the staff. We limit the number of interviews to two or three people at most. Candidates get very good at the pitch. They repeat the same thing to everyone. So it may be hard for the rest of the staff to gauge what a person is really like.

We have an excellent indoctrination process, which is also an important part of this process. When someone starts, I give a presentation about who we are and where we came from and our philosophy. If they can’t drink our Kool-Aid, they can’t play at the party. Then there’s an intense training period in the first week, where we give an overview of our clients. We don’t just hope people will figure it out – we spend a lot of time teaching our systems.


Hire someone to do the final interview

Emotions can cloud hiring decisions, so get someone from outside the organization to have a final talk with candidate. The outsider, who should know a lot about the company and its culture, is able to offer a more objective view.

Present real scenarios

Present candidates with real-life scenarios, through a video or other means, and ask how they would handle situations. Make sure they are representative of your company’s corporate culture.

Get fewer opinions

Cut the number of people in the organization who are involved in the interview process. People end up saying the same thing to everyone, so it can be hard to know if someone really is a good fit, or they’re just saying what people want to hear.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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