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Leerom Segal, co-founder of Klick Heath, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency, became obsessed with creating a talent-centric culture where one could attract the best people and ensure that their environment enabled them to thrive and work well together focused on craft.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

In 1997, when Leerom Segal co-founded Klick Heath, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency for the health sector, he already knew the kind of company culture he wanted to build.

As chief technology officer for a big public company by 16, the tech prodigy felt stifled and depressed, "managed by accountants" who put PowerPoint presentations for financiers ahead of doing good work.

As he watched the best people leaving, he came to realize that others were frustrated with that model, too. So he became obsessed with creating a talent-centric culture where one could attract the best people and ensure that their environment enabled them to thrive and work well together focused on craft.

"When we get all those things right, our reward is profit but most people think the other way around," says Mr. Segal, now 35. "Never begin with profit as a focal point. The better we design our culture, the more attractive we are to the individuals who are motivated by craft."

The perks are there for Klick's 400 employees: the Lego wall, fitness room, free ice cream from the store-sized cooler and annual trips to Camp Muskoka – the signed canoe paddles proudly displayed at the entrance.

But beyond yoga classes, Klick's founders set out to free people from many operational and management tasks by using tools to automate them. Genome, their computer program for the workplace, creates more time for people to spend at their craft, resulting in happier, more productive employees. It also includes their own social media platform where staff share ideas and stories, communicating across locations freely without any kind of censorship.

With Klick's focus on people, cultural fit is everything when it comes to hiring. The process is intense, given that when candidates apply, the probability of actually being hired is one in 100. While hiring processes typically value experience and hard skills first, Mr. Segal says what they're looking at is harder to gauge but much more worthwhile because it's the essence of the individual.

"We look for people with the right balance of drive and empathy," Mr. Segal says. "It's a very sensitive conversation. It's important that they're motivated by the human impact of their work and more broadly empathic so they'll be easy to interact with and that the team dynamics are going to be right. Almost everything we're doing during our hiring process is to recreate those situations."

At every single stage, Mr. Segal explains that they try to be really deliberate about what personality they're looking for in a particular role.

"Is this a person we could have been friends with in high school, who shares our values, who's motivated to learn and has that insatiable curiosity?" Mr. Segal asks. "That's where our obsession lies. Once they come on board, then it's our job to teach them what we consider to be the secret sauce."

At Habanero Consulting Group, a Vancouver-based IT services firm with offices in Calgary and Toronto, cultural fit is also non-negotiable. Once they make sure the candidate has the technical skills required, there's a series of steps to make sure they're bringing on the right people in the right roles at the right time, explains staffing and resourcing co-ordinator Mami Shimada.

The initial step might be a conversation to get to know their background, what motivates them and how they want to grow their career. Then they'll do a series of interviews including meeting their potential teammates so both sides can get their impressions. The tail end of the interview process is a chat with company president Steven Fitzgerald.

"The chat is embedded in our hiring process because it's a bit of an ice breaker," Ms. Shimada says. "It's worked very well for us because then people don't hesitate to go to him with their ideas or go for a coffee with him. That goes for anyone at the company here. We encourage that."

When a company hits hyper-growth like social media management company Hootsuite Media Inc., hiring for cultural fit as well as skills – both are equally important to the company – can be a challenge. The Vancouver startup has ballooned from 20 people 3-1/2 years ago to more than 700 – with plans to hire another 100 or more in the next two months.

Ambrosia Humphrey, vice-president of talent, says that while Hootsuite has a 10-person talent acquisition team, they spend a lot of time partnering with managers so that there's a network of people involved in the process to give their opinion and gut-check. By clarifying what their culture is and what they're looking for, it makes it easier to scale up and find people who are culturally aligned. One of the ways they've done that is by creating their hashtag #hootsuitelife, which employees tweet out, sharing and tagging pictures on the Internet about their culture.

"That's our way of showing people who we are and not trying to control the culture message," Ms. Humphrey says. "We let it be genuine and let our employees own it. Instead of saying we're innovative and collaborative, our employees tell that story. What we hear from our candidates is that they know what our culture means. As we scale, that clarity is something we spend a lot of time on so we don't lose it."

Ms. Humphrey describes the company'e environment as employee-centric where employees run 90 per cent of their cultural events.

"We find that's how they want it," she says. "They don't want HR to walk in on a Friday, throw down a beer keg and say, 'There's your culture. Go.' "

While the company offers many perks such as nap rooms and yoga, Ms. Humphrey says culture isn't just a laundry list of frills. What it's really about is a sense of purpose, collaboration and partnership with employees.

"We define culture as who we are and how we get things done," Ms. Humphrey says.

"If your culture is to be collaborative, that's going to affect how you act and do things. We're very clear. When people talk about culture and they're talking about frills, they're usually not the right fit."

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