In most executive searches, considering culture fit is a top priority. However, too often this is understood as: can this hire fit in with us and the way we do things? Sometimes, however, growing a company means introducing a new and different perspective to the business. Here within the GTM Practice at Erevena, we have seen a number of examples where the candidate hired is a deliberate cultural shock. Let’s explore the question of how a business hiring a new GTM leader can ensure that they will be the right sort of catalyst for change, rather than a complete organ rejection.

A prominent example in enterprise technology is Google Cloud hiring Thomas Kurian from Oracle. Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote an interesting piece in 2018 on this topic:

Thompson outlines  that Google, though successful in building technically superior consumer products, failed to make the headway in the Cloud market they believed their product intrinsically deserved. Google had not built a successful enterprise sales motion that could tailor offerings to customers, develop features for CIOs, and offer real support. Kurian was the deliberate clash to shock the business into moving in the direction it needed to. Just on the line of the right sort of change, but still a clash.

Stylistic differences vs core traits

In recent searches, we’ve worked with founders and companies experiencing similar challenges: the organization may have found success with initial traction and needs to commercialize and make that success repeatable or they may have succeeded in the SMB market and want to expand further upstream into enterprise. They realized that they needed to bring in a change in leadership, but were less sure to what degree and more importantly how to assess – making the false assumption that stylistic differences are an indicator of an individual’s broader personality trait. As an example, hiring a Sales leader with a more direct communication style may make you reticent if you consider your team less forthright, but a direct style shouldn’t necessarily lead you to draw the conclusion that they would not be a good listener or would not treat the team well for example. It’s a style that can be used in different moments for positive and negative outcomes – but it’s not an indicator of their personality nor will it necessarily predict how well a new hire would fit with the team.

As you think through these degree of change needed, it’s important to consider the problem you are trying to solve.

Ask yourself:

  • What specifically are you trying to achieve? Is there an obvious weakness in the team or function that needs to be address? Is it around process or skillset or even investment into systems?
  • With the candidate – do you share a common vision or similar values?
  • And for your team – do you know what they really feel and what level of change they would be comfortable with? Perhaps they would be more accepting than you initially anticipated.

Patty McCord, the former Netflix Chief People Officer, in an HBR piece titled ‘How to Hire’, reinforces the idea that organizations can adapt to many people’s styles and vice versa. She shares anecdotal examples of people from  markedly different backgrounds, who didn’t fit the existing mold, but were given a chance based on their thoughtfulness and intellectual horsepower, and were able to drastically shape an organization’s growth trajectory.

Spend the time to get to know someone deeply

To understand the core of someone’s character as a leader, it is often about understanding what they are like under pressure, how they interact with others and how they make difficult decisions. Equally important is being clear about your priorities so that you can spend the quality time with your standout candidate(s) rather than spreading yourself too thinly in a transactional way. By being clear on what you’re hoping to accomplish, you can spend meaningful time with these leaders diving into their unique experiences, understanding the tough decisions they were tasked with navigating through, what their core beliefs are, and how aligned they will really be with your organization’s culture.

As we move into 2023, it’s likely that the challenge won’t be filling a pipeline of candidates who are interested in speaking with you. The challenge will be having a successful assessment framework that ensures a standout candidate, regardless of perceived surface level differences. This will be someone who gives your business and your teams exactly what they need for the next phase of growth. Our advice is understand your tolerance for change and then make sure you analyze beyond the surface traits so that you can make a fair judgment on the choice a candidate represents. If you want to add someone who might be a needed clash, spend the time to ensure they are what your organization really needs, a growth catalyst rather than organ rejection.

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Chris Warner, Partner

Specialisms: Sales, Marketing, SaaS, FinTech

Eric Liao, Principal

Specialisms: Sales, Customer Success, Marketing, SaaS (Bottoms-Up/Enterprise)

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