On Leadership and Recruiting for Misfits

Who among us doesn’t love a great company culture? Culture, by any other name, has been celebrated as both a competitive advantage and a characteristic aspect of truly great companies, and it’s difficult to find anyone who’d say a word against it. Culture is community; culture is cohesion; culture makes people work just that much harder.

It’s no surprise, then, that many employers use terms such as “cultural fit” when considering their next important recruitment. We all love the guy or gal who comes from the outside with new insights and competencies, but we love ‘em even more when they fit into the existing company culture like a glove (and bring brewskies to the company picnic).

At the same time, cultural fit can be a most poisonous thing. Recruiting for cultural fit can be a code for sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and a plethora of other ills. Recruiting for cultural fit can also bring about myopia and confirmation bias, shielding the company from things such as disruptive innovation and the impact of new trends.

So, what’s a poor CEO to do? In my experience, the very best CEOs realize that recruitment is a strategic issue, not merely the fitting of people into given slots – be those slots functional or cultural. Instead, top CEOs tend to think of recruitment as a complex process in which fits and misfits both have their place.

Great leaders have courage, and great recruiters do too.

In fact, I’ve gone so far as saying that the best leaders are mixologists. Now, the bartenders of yore always mixed ingredients to create the desired fit. Vodka fit most things, but you needed to be careful with gin and rum. Whiskey could only be used in specific settings, and more exotic ingredients were used sparingly if at all. The new breed of mixologists broke with this tradition/culture. They challenge their customers with odd new combinations, even to the point where they sometimes consciously create mixes that clash – but they do so in an interesting manner.

A contemporary leader needs to do something very similar when recruiting. Yes, at times you want to go for the safe option, the Wonderbread kid who fits the culture just so. But a modern CEO will also relish throwing a few curveballs, putting a few misfits into the culture, all in order to provoke what I’ve come to call “productive friction.” In recruitment, the most valuable work one can do is to identify the moments when a misfit is exactly what a culture needs to break free from its rut.

Great leaders have courage, and great recruiters do too. There’s nothing easier than hiring the good ol’ boy or gal who just fits in. True skill comes from finding the moments when you can break from this pattern, and bring in the glorious misfit, the rebel who finds a cause, the fly in the ointment who, to the surprise of everyone, makes the concoction just that much better.

For leaders, misfits are the gift that keeps on giving, and they need to relish the art of introducing them into their companies. The world, and our organizations, will be better for it.

This blog post has been originally published in February 2016 at hcmessentials.com and afrehn.com.