AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

3 Reasons You Should Document Your Culture and Hire for Culture Fit

3 Reasons You Should Document YourCulture and Hire for Culture Fit

“In our early years, we didn’t talk about culture much. We hadn’t documented it all. We just built a business that we wanted to work in. And, that was great. But the real return on culture happened when we started getting more deliberate about it. By writing it down. By debating it. By taking it apart, polishing the pieces and putting it back together. Iterating. Again. And again.” — Steve Jobs

Most executives would agree that people make their organization unique. The addition of high-performers can create a ripple that accelerates the initiatives they touch while improving the contributions of others. Conversely, the loss of high-performing individuals can create a vacuum that devastates the initiatives they were involved in while bringing down the morale of those they were close to. Either way, every person you add or take away from your team impacts your organization’s DNA or culture — sometimes subtly, and sometimes profoundly.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work in and around several high-performing cultures over the last few decades.

I spent 11 years cutting my teeth on — then stretching — Bloomberg LP’s culture as an engineer, engineering manager, and business owner. Over the next 3 years, I drove cultural change across Dow Jones as the CIO. And, for the last 3 years, I’ve been emphatically absorbing Amazon’s robust culture while helping the world’s largest companies transform their cultures as Global Head of Enterprise Strategy for AWS.

Through this experience, I’ve found that high-performing cultures hire for culture fit just as much as they hire for domain and/or subject-matter expertise. Strong subject-matter expertise — whether it be engineering, sales, marketing, or whatever — should not be ignored, but it also only tells part of the story.

In every high-performing culture I’ve come across, the organization was purposeful about the role culture played, and benefited from the rising tide it created to help more people meet their potential faster. So, before I explain why I believe it would be beneficial for your organization to consider culture when making hiring decisions, your organization needs to agree on what your culture is, and, ideally, write it down.

Every company — regardless of its size, industry, or age — has a culture.

Culture is the result — not the cause — of who your company is.

Not every company, however, memorializes their culture in writing.

If your culture isn’t well-documented, you run the risk of having people guess how they’re expected to go about their work. Not surprisingly, with any reasonable scale, people will go about this in a host of unproductive directions while working against the grain.

When I was at Bloomberg from 2001–2012, for example, some of our culture was documented and some felt more “tribal.” Each department had a series of explicit metrics (like ownership, technical aptitude, communication) that employees were evaluated on to reinforce certain behaviors; there was also a single implicit metric that we simply called “Bloomberg Values” (like grit, tenacity, and get-stuff-done or “GSD”), which was felt and experienced over time. In hindsight, I watched a number of what seemed like high-performing individuals — particularly those with lots of previous experience — struggle with “Bloomberg Values” while they took longer to ramp up (more on this later).

Similarly, Amazon memorializes part of our culture in the 14 Leadership Principles (or LPs, as we Amazonians refer to them). Each LP is hard at work every day as a key ingredient in everything we do at Amazon — from hiring to performance management to business decisions (also more on this later).

In a related post, Joe Chung, one of my colleagues at AWS who I’m fortunate to learn from every day, wrote about the importance of establishing clearly defined tenets to help guide decision making during any large cloud program. Many of Joe’s points would be applicable to any large change management or corporate culture principle-setting activity.

Regardless of whether your organization has “principles” or “values,” or some other way of describing your culture, history seems to suggest (at least for Apple, Bloomberg, and Amazon) that writing your culture down works better than not.

And, if it wasn’t already obvious, writing your culture down makes it easier to identify those who would be a fit for your culture. Here are 3 reasons why you should consider writing your culture down and hiring for culture fit —

Reason One — Hiring for Culture Fit Makes It Easier to Consistently Scale Your Hiring Efforts

© Roger W https://www.flickr.com/photos/24736216@N07/5869083813

Hiring one person is hard enough. The more people you have to hire, the harder it becomes.

Most well-known high-performers I know (the sort of people you want on your team) already have jobs they like, which is probably one of the reasons they perform well. I’ve found that these high-performers tend to look for cultures where they can succeed rather than the other way around. (Myself included; I *really* wanted to come work at Amazon to see what makes us “tick.”) This means that the more you embrace, enrich, and celebrate your culture, the easier it will be for the right people to find it.

At Amazon, we’re hiring a lot of people very quickly. We pull many levers to meet our hiring demands — a rock-star recruiting team, a relentless pursuit of innovation, and smart people who attract other smart people, just to name a few. Among all of these levers, I’d argue that the way we assess each candidate against the most relevant LPs for the role allows us to scale our hiring the fastest. Each interviewer is well versed on how to assess a candidate on the LPs that are most important to the hiring manager, and all of our “debrief” discussions — where we come to a decision on every candidate — are rooted in how well they align to the LPs versus the risks (there is no such thing as a risk-free hire). Without these LPs and our deliberate process, I don’t think we’d be able to hire nearly as fast.

When I was at Bloomberg during several of its peak hiring years, we were hiring somewhere between 100–150 engineers straight out of college each year. There was a minimum technical bar — each candidate had to be able to design a basic system and write code that solved a simple problem — but the rest of the decision was based on culture fit. Most of the Bloomberg interviewing team had several years of experience with the company and knew the culture well enough to gauge whether a candidate had the right amount of problem-solving ability and “Bloomberg Values” to perform well in the organization. Armed with these insights, we were able to make hiring decisions on the spot, which brings us to our next point.

Reason Two — Hiring for Culture Fit Makes It Easier to Onboard New Hires

Starting a new job can be an exciting and terrifying experience. New hires are rarely certain about what to expect or who they’ll be working with, and they usually don’t have a complete understanding of the nuances that come with their role. But the more candidates know about your culture — and the more they know they’re aligned with it — the easier time they’ll have adjusting to it.

I often envision high-performing cultures as a slipstream. New hires who are aligned with the culture will be accelerated by it, while those who swim against it will ultimately tire and either adjust their behavior or leave the organization.

At Amazon, we like to be confident that a new hire will flow with the current, rather than swim against it, before making a hiring decision, and the focus on LPs during the interview process helps us do that. Better yet, when we discuss the risks that a candidate presents during our debrief, we’re also able to discuss ways to mitigate those risks — through specifically called-out mentors, training programs, or coaching — so the candidate has the best chance for success in our culture.

And, because our LPs are written down, they outlast any one individual, manager, or initiative. This makes it much easier for new hires to consistently understand how we do things. I can’t recall how many times throughout my career I’ve seen or talked to someone widely regarded as a high-performer who ended up unhappy or unsuccessful because they didn’t realize they were out of alignment with the culture.

Reason Three — Hiring for Culture Fit Makes It Easier to (Re)Deploy Your Talent

A number of sources (here, here, and here, for example), as well as your common sense, suggest that the average employee tenure in today’s enterprise continues to decline.

Among other conclusions that can be drawn from this, it stands to reason that longer tenures will exist within organizations with high-performing cultures.

I’ve also seen that hiring for culture fit gives you the best chance of hiring talent that can help your organization on a number of fronts over a long period of time, in addition to building a flexibility into your business that’s hard to replicate. I try to convey to every candidate I’ve hired at Amazon that we’re looking to create a mutually beneficial relationship that will allow us to explore multiple different roles and disciplines over what we hope will be a long period of time (we like to think long-term).

To add some additional color, I held 6 different positions across a number of domains during my 11-year tenure at Bloomberg. The variety of opportunity that was made available to me was one of the primary reasons I stayed at Bloomberg as long as I did. And, while I made countless mistakes, operating within Bloomberg’s cultural values is part of what made my leadership team(s) comfortable offering me such a diverse set of opportunities. Looking back, 3 of the 6 role changes I was asked to make after I’d made a mark in the area I left; as for the other 3, I’m pretty sure they were offered to me because I wasn’t swimming against Bloomberg’s cultural current.

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What’s your experience been? Is your culture written down? If not, how come? What would you write? Do you hire for culture fit? I’d love to hear what your thoughts are! Leave me some comments and new ideas for more posts on culture!

Keep building,
Stephen
@stephenorban
orbans@amazon.com

Note: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” is my latest series of posts covering the role culture plays in a modern enterprise. It follows the Journey to Cloud-First series and An E-Book of Cloud Best Practices for Your Enterprise. Stay tuned for more posts in this series.