Culture fit based hiring sets the standard when it comes to modern hiring best practices. A whole host of studies have reported that positive culture drives profit, and that employees who fit that culture outperform those who don’t. This is why employers and recruiters are geared towards hiring for culture fit.
The problem is not all aspects of the current culture are healthy, and in fact, a Booz and Co survey revealed that 51 percent of the 2,000 companies/professionals surveyed worldwide think that their company culture needs an overhaul, which suggests that a cultural fit hiring policy may not be totally justified, as you may be accentuating the problem. This is why at some point in your career, whether as an internal or external recruiter, you may be asked by the CEO to hire one or more “change agents”—that is, people who don’t fit the mould—and who will help shake things up and move the company toward a more desired cultural state. This may be too big a task to put on one person; so, it is likely there will be a program of disruptive hires that will create inertia and momentum and help to drive the organization toward its new culture trajectory.
So, when you are hiring change agents, what qualities should you be looking for?
1. Resilience. Now, I know that most of you were probably thinking that the key quality or skill that a change agent would need would be change management skills. I don’t doubt its importance, but a study from Athens University of Economics and Business has shown that resilience has a big part to play. Yes, resilient employees who are able to bounce back from negative emotional encounters have been shown to be better prepared mentally to accept and apply change than those with better change management skills and low resilience.
2. Change management skills. We are not going to be controversial and suggest change agents don’t need change management skills—influencing, persuasion, storytelling, and project management—but the study above did find that not only did the presence of change management skills not mean a person was ready to accept and apply change, it did not seem to make them more competent at effecting change either. This is with the exception of project management skills whose, which did lead to a greater ability to affect change. So, I’d recommend change management skills with a greater emphasis on the project management skill component in your ideal change agent.
3. Ability to unlearn. Change agents need to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things, and before they can accept new ways of doing things they need to be able to unlearn old procedures. This ability to unlearn was highlighted in a paper titled, Unlearning Ineffective or Obsolete Technologies, by William H. Starbuck, New York University, and was published in the International Journal of Technology Management, 1996, 11: 725-737. So, at interview, probe carefully and see if candidates can give examples of where they learned something new, but in doing so they were required to completely abandon their current way of thinking.
4. Willing to challenge the status quo. Thinking innovatively down the pub after a few beers is one thing, but putting this innovation into action by challenging the status quo, disrupting norms and overcoming cynicism, skepticism and resistance is completely different. Make sure that your change agent can demonstrate how his/her innovation and free thinking has held up and prevailed in a hostile and unwelcoming environment.
5. Can handle uncertainty. Change agents are often breaking new ground as they are operating in an entrepreneurial environment and entering an undiscovered country where there are often no rules or established norms. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Change agents and entrepreneurs need to be able to handle uncertainty. (I mean could you imagine if Captain Kirk or Christopher Columbus couldn’t handle uncertainty. They’d never leave their quarters without a stern dose of Valium). Ask the candidates to provide examples of how they have led the way and held their nerve while going into new, uncertain territory.
Good luck with hiring your next change agent.