How to Talk About Culture in the Hiring Process

April 21, 2022 Jamie Notter

I’m hearing a lot of senior leaders frustrated right now by the recruiting process. It’s hard to find good people, and the longer it takes, the more their remaining staff are getting burned out from working short-staffed.

In an environment like this, culture becomes incredibly important. Anyone you would consider top talent is going to care about the culture. A lot. That means in the hiring process, you need to describe your culture in a way that is both accurate and attractive. We call this your culture elevator pitch, and it’s harder than you might think.

People are often too vague, describing the culture as great, strong, fun, etc. Or they rattle off their core values, which is fine to share, but honestly, knowing you value trust, accountability, collaboration, and transparency tells me very little about what it’s really like to work there. You have to go deeper in your description. Here’s a structure for developing a solid culture elevator pitch. There are four parts.

One. Culture management. Start by letting them know where you are in terms of culture management. Are you in the middle of a big culture shift? Is the culture mature and stable? Let them know what they are walking into. Candidates want to know that you understand culture and are actively managing it, so if you start with that, they’ll be more trusting of how you describe the culture.

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Two. Culture trajectory. The next step is to place your culture somewhere on the continuum from “traditional” to “futurist.” You don’t need to use those terms (those are the ones we use in our culture assessment), but candidates want to know what parts of your culture are leaning toward the future (transparent, agile, collaborative, fast, digital) and what parts of your culture are more traditional (command and control, silos, hierarchy). They’re trying to see how “average” you are. Most cultures have both futurist and traditional aspects, so just paint an honest picture of where you are. One of my favorite parts of our culture assessment is the Trajectory Map which plots all 64 culture metrics on that continuum so you can clearly see which parts of your culture are more futurist or more traditional.

Three. Culture pillars. Now that you’ve established the context, pull out the most important aspects of your culture and show clearly why they make you more successful. You can bring in core values here, but you really have to make the WHY clear. Show me how “trust” makes the organization (and me) more successful. You should always have a small number of “pillars” that hold the culture up. These are the things you hire and fire for. The goal here is not to look cool; it’s to make it clear what’s valued so the candidate can say emphatically “Yes, that’s what I want to be a part of.”

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Four. Culture priorities. Finally, tell them the parts of your culture that you’re developing right now and give some examples of the change efforts. Showing candidates that you are constantly working to improve culture will score points, and it also makes your pitch more believable, because you’re admitting that you’re not perfect and some parts of your culture need work.

And a caveat… Don’t talk about being a “Best Place to Work”. Most people are well aware that those designations are pay to play and pretty much meaningless.

If you want some help developing a clear pitch, we can coach you through it or organize a quick workshop to develop one. Contact me for more information.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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