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We have been going through a large amount of staff change since I arrived in San Diego 9 months ago. Perhaps its the result of leaving the fog of the pandemic and sailing out into the sunshine again. People are seeing new horizons. We’ve had some retirements and resignations to go to new work contexts. And we’ve been hiring new staff. It’s been the busiest human resources period of my career. I have spent a lot of time thinking about our culture in the past 9 months anyway. But when you’re hiring, it shines a whole new light on the concept.
It is frequently said that hiring is the most important decision a law library director will make in their career. And we may not do it very often. In fact, I’m a little self-conscious about having so much personnel upheaval in a short time. I realize that it’s not me, but I’m hyper aware that one of the changes in the past 9 months was my joining the organization.
One thing I think I bring to my work is a sense that, sure, that’s good, but what would make it better? Is there really anything that is perfected? And I have thought a lot about the kind of environment I want to evolve at our law library. I say “evolve” because I think that’s an important element. Culture isn’t something that stays the same.
That’s why this article in Fast Company struck home for me. The opportunity to hire someone into your team is such an incredible chance to make an improvement. And you usually get so few opportunities to make that sort of a change in your leadership career.
I have often thought about hiring – and terminations, to be frank – as the most significant opportunity to impact culture. As a law library director, you work on this every day. You want the law library to be a place that is enjoyable for staff to work in and in which to grow, for them to have positive interactions with colleagues and with the people we serve.
Most of the time, though, improvement is incremental. You set an example by repeatedly acting in a way so that staff see and can respond to or adapt to that example. You encourage the sorts of behaviors – showing initiative, showing curiosity, turning work off at the end of the day so that people don’t burn out – that you want the culture to reflect. That takes time. I know that, in the past, it has taken me years in some cases to slowly move a team to the point where I felt like the culture was always (mostly?) healthy. Where we had eliminated negative behaviors or had enabled people to feel comfortable at pushing boundaries. You often are building culture within a larger context which, if it is unhealthy, can cause you to butt up against headwinds as you steer your own team.
But a new person! The possibilities! Imagine you’ve put a small paper boat on a pond. You can drop little pebbles next to it to create ripples to move it the direction you want it to go. If you are open to it, bringing a new person on board can be like dropping a huge rock in. Galump. If you’re not careful, you may swamp the boat. But if you’re thoughtful and deliberate, you have a chance to really move that boat a long way.
I’m not talking about hiring rock stars. Or assholes. Any person who is new to your team can be a catalyst for dramatic change. It’s not the role or the personality, it’s the additive element, the opportunity to evolve with a bit of a jump forward.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this story before. But we were hiring for a technical role at a previous company. HR brought in the typical three candidates: one was too hot, one was too cold, and one was just right. And the one that I loved, and who got on with the other peer roles on our team, was not favored by HR. “Not a cultural fit.” Why? Because they exhibited nonconformity in how they greeted people, not shaking hands (ahead of their time). Nothing else. They answered our technical and contextual questions clearly and capably, they were personable, they exhibited all of the traits we could educe in the restricted confines of an interview.
It shouldn’t need to be said that I wasn’t persuaded by that. We made them an offer, they joined the team, and were exceptional. I was never aware that anyone felt uncomfortable about that aspect of the person’s behavior. It was not long before all I ever heard about was the exceptional work the person was doing.
I had already been a director for awhile so I had the confidence of my own experience, as well as my own instinct, to rely on. I can imagine other less confident or less seasoned managers might have been persuaded by HR. And I won’t suggest that I get all of my hiring decisions right, but I would not hide behind cultural fit for not selecting someone.
There are baseline attributes for a new hire. You want curiosity. You want customer service. You want them to be able to communicate effectively. A lot of the other things that they bring – experience, personal interests or skills, energy for particular concepts – are going to be more unique.
If you think of culture as a jigsaw puzzle, then you may be trying to fit a piece into a spot so that it blends in, matches. But that’s a rigid approach. As the Fast Company article points out, each person can be, should be, additive. If they match your baseline of skills and abilities to do the job, then consider all of the other things they can bring that your team is lacking. If you are asking them to just bring the same things that everyone else on the team already possesses, you’re missing an opportunity for the team to grow.
The other great thing about hiring when you are evolving culture? The new hire doesn’t know what the old culture was. If you are being consistent in how you are nudging the team culture along, they will just assume that’s the way it’s always been. In that way, new hires can accelerate culture change because they can’t compare “how we used to do it” except through the eyes of your longer serving employees, who lived the past culture.
Another HR train wreck I’ve watched happen but have not been impacted by is the use of personality tests. At my last law library, I had the opportunity to use them. We would go through the normal hiring process and then, once we’d selected a candidate, the Human Resources folks would reach out to the person and ask them to take a personality test. (I’m pretty sure our company was using this company’s test)
I say I had the opportunity. I may have gone along with HR once. But only once. They extolled the virtues of this testing – “for fit” but also because they felt it would help me to anticipate how I should manage the individual. Right.
These are not the “what type of leader are you” or “what’s your communication style” tests. Those can be fun and help people to think about an aspect of how they present themselves at work. Pre-employment personality tests may have a similar design but a more insidious purpose.
My initial feeling was that it was creepy and unnecessary. I had already met the applicant. I had used my 6 seconds and years of experience working with people. Why would I ask them to do this test? My ultimate feeling was that it was creepy and unnecessary.
If I got results from one candidate, I don’t recall. When I realized it was optional, I didn’t even ask applicants to take it and I wouldn’t have used the one set of results for decision-making but to go-along-get-along with HR. My perspective was driven mostly by how I felt about the testing. But, after reading that article, it’s now clear how damaging it can be for employees. As I put myself in that position, I realize how it would probably be a deal-breaker for me to go to an organization that embraced that kind of hiring approach. It tells you a lot about their culture in a way that is not positive.
Ironically, I’ve never been given a personality test as a director applicant. I am much more likely to be weeded out based on my law school and library school grades from 25 years ago than for my current personality or abilities. Let’s just say that personality tests and cultural fit aren’t the only hurdles we have to think about and overcome.
Like hiring for cultural fit, personality tests seem geared towards deepening the status quo, not growing beyond it. They’re not about inclusivity of new and different types of people. They’re about acquiring the same. I expect that approach can be easier for a corporate culture to manage, because it doesn’t require managers to grow either. You are getting the same again. Or, in the case of personality tested applicants, you are being told by an algorithm how to manage them, and so you don’t need to think for yourself and find out.
I have hired, or been a decision-make in the hiring of, a fair number of people. But I’ve moved jobs too and each time it’s almost like hiring an entirely new team. You don’t know the culture, not really. You don’t know how each person is part of and contributes to that culture. And so there’s this period of exploration as you learn about them, just as if they were a new hire instead of you being the new hire. It’s the luxury of being the director, because you can impact that culture perhaps more than anyone else can.
It’s a fun time for me in my current role. Our new crew are settling in and we are all learning. I’m hyper aware of our culture, which is something that never falls too far from the front of my thinking. But I’m excited about how we all develop together and to look back in the future and see how our culture has evolved since this large change in staffing.