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There has been a lot written on the subject of hiring for talent/competence vs. hiring for cultural fit.

Image Credit: <blog.smashfly.com

Image Credit: <blog.smashfly.com>

I won’t try to re-invent the wheel here. Instead, I want to talk briefly about what it means to be “talented”. From there the question of when to hire for talent vs. fit (for me, at least) becomes fairly obvious.

So… “talent” in an employment context generally refers to one of two things:

1. Exceptional technical ability

2. High potential to develop exceptional technical ability

What technical ability a given employer may be looking for of course varies depending on the job, but the possession of a relatively scare or rare skill set – or the capacity to develop one – is highly valuable in the market place.

Unfortunately, in the first case many employers often overestimate the transferability of talent (and spend too much time focusing on cultural fit), while in the second case they underestimate how important the right conditions are for talent cultivation (materially undervaluing fit).

Journalist Geoff Colvin touches on the spirit of what I’m talking about here 1. In addition to “Talent is Overrated”, if you’d like to learn more about deliberate practice I recommend the following: K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 1993, Vol. 100. No. 3in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. 1

In the book, he shows that with the exception of a select few genetic characteristics that contribute to success in certain arenas (like height in basketball) that talent is not innate. Instead, it is the product of something called deliberate practice.

Basically, the theory behind deliberate practice states that people who are very good at a specific thing are good at it because they’ve broken down what it takes to be successful at their craft into component parts – and then focused on developing those skills in chunks on a day to day basis.

Talent doesn't always need to be a cultural fit if it stands out. Image Credit: retailleverage.wordpress.com

Talent doesn’t always need to be a cultural fit if it stands out. Image Credit: <retailleverage.wordpress.com>

Assuming this principle to be true, if an employer wants to hire a world class actuary/computer programmer/project manager/compensation consultant/financial analyst etc. the employer shouldn’t be looking at “cultural fit” so much as it should be measuring skill transferability. The asset that the employer is paying for in this case – technical ability – is likely to yield the needed value only if the technical ability the talent has is aligned with the needs of the organization. As such, I would argue that an interview (and job posting) process that accurately identifies and tests for the skills needed to be successful in a role are much more important than cultural fit in cases where companies are hiring for a specific skill or experience.

Conversely, if an employer is hiring a candidate for his or her capacity to learn then cultural fit is *much* more important. In this case an employer is hiring a candidate largely because of his/her cultural legacy. A candidate’s background (schooling/life experiences/work ethic etc.) make he or 2. And for the record, more jobs require the second type of candidate than the first. The first group is made up mostly of highly technical jobs (doctors, lawyers, scientist etc.) The majority of roles are learned (primarily) on the job, and require candidates with the right temperaments and behaviors as opposed to specific technical skills. she an attractive training prospect. 2 As such, if a candidate isn’t a good cultural fit then the work environment will likely prove to be sub-optimal for training purposes (leading to unrealized potential and a presumably failed hire).

Closing… If I’m recruiting for a role where the incumbent’s existing abilities will define his or her success in the role (and any training is negligible or non-existent), then I am looking for skills and not fit.

Not all work requires exceptional talent. Often a new incumbent just needs to fit in. Image Credit: http://www.staffmills.com>

Not all work requires exceptional talent. Often a new incumbent just needs to fit in. Image Credit: <www.staffmills.com>

On the other hand, if much of what an incumbent does in his/her new role will be based around learning internal processes then cultural fit matters a lot more in the selection process.

In the case of the former the incumbent defines the role, while in the case of the latter the incumbent is stepping into a pre-defined space where his or her ability to succeed will be determined largely by the ability to fit into what the employer does.

As always, please share your thoughts below.



If you have questions about something you’ve read here (or simply want to connect) you can reach me at any of the following addresses: 

SomethingDifferentHR@gmail.com OR rorytrotter86@gmail.com