How these two things happen speak volumes about company culture

17You can gain deep insights about an organization’s culture by understanding:

  • how decisions are made
  • how recognition, aka “kudos,” is awarded

Consider asking those two questions about a company the next time you are interviewing for a new position, in addition to the other best job interview questions.

The answers to these questions reflect the leadership style and organizational dynamic established by the leader. As a recovering consultant, I could not resist the impulse to reduce this concept to a two-by-two matrix:

Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded
Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded


In the lower left corner, we have a culture of lobbying and arm twisting where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on influence. This culture is often found in teams with weak leadership, where the boss is routinely peppered with closed-door “advice,” either thinly or thickly disguised as an agenda of personal advancement. Team direction changes frequently and indescribably, relying on informal channels of communication to disseminate the new direction. Expect high attrition from staff who value transparency and meritocracy.

In the upper left corner, we have a culture dominated by the “squeaky wheel” where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on influence. Tantrums, meeting hijack, and open conflict are reinforced as means to an end by the steady advance of a vocal minority in the organization. While also a product of weak leadership, the only improvement over the lower-left lobbying culture is that the rules of the game are publicly known. Anyone unwilling to compromise personal integrity for career advancement will not last long in this culture.

In the lower right corner, we have a stable, humble culture of relative introverts where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on merit. This culture likely reflects the self-image and natural personality of its leader. I’ve chosen a cupcake as the image to reflect this culture because it is a satisfying individual treat. While it might be relatively boring, this culture will also likely be more successful than those on the left side of the matrix, as individuals who cannot compete on merit alone and those who crave public recognition will exit.

In the top right corner, we have the most transparent, extroverted, results-oriented type of culture in this matrix, where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on merit. The multi-tiered party cake represents the culture in which the success of an individual greats benefits for the group. Decision making and recognition are public and merit, meaning that the “rules of the game” are clearly demonstrated and objective. While this culture requires a strong leader who is not afraid to hire “A players”, it will likely have higher performance and lower turnover than the other squares in this matrix.

In this summary, I have done my best to withhold judgement and simply provide a framework for readers to identify a company culture so that they can best chose the one that fits their own needs. If you have other “cultural diagnostic” questions to share, please leave a comment!


What are the best job interview questions?

Mediocre interview questions are boring for everyone and don’t create clear differentiation between candidates, leaving the hiring manager to draw on gut instinct (also known as good old fashioned bias) when making a decision.

“How is this an issue?” Some interviews are doomed from the start.

Good interview questions help the hiring manager understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of a set of candidates in the context of the role’s requirements. Good interview questions are predictable enough that a candidate can provide composed, complete answers that put his or her best foot (feet?) forward, exhibiting both technical capabilities and unique personality traits.

Great interview questions make the experience engaging and informative for everyone involved. The best interviews build a positive reputation for the employer, regardless of whether the candidate receives an offer. The best interviews build confidence in both parties that there is a strong mutual fit and build positive momentum into the offer and joining phases of the hiring process.

So what are the best interview questions? Here are a few categories you should test for, regardless of the job description, along with a few examples I’ve encountered in my experiences on both sides of the interview table.

  1. Domain knowledge: “Tell me about five subjects on which you’d consider yourself an expert and how you gained knowledge in the area.”
  2. Interpersonal dynamic: “Think of a time where you discovered a mistake that would have caused significant cost to your team if it was not corrected. What was the mistake, who made it, and how did you resolve the situation?”
  3. Adversity and its aftermath: “Tell me about the most significant failure in your last role. What specific, personal contribution did you make that created the failure?”
  4. Unique contributions to success: “Tell me about the most significant success in your last role. What specific, personal contribution did you make that created the success?”
  5. Self-awareness and commitment to development: “What would you say is your main development area today? How did you become aware of it, and what are you doing to improve in that area?
  6. Professional relationships: “Looking at your resume, tell me in one sentence for each transition why you left and how you found the next role.”
  7. Mental fatigue: Near the end of the interview, ask the candidate to stand up in front of a white board and work through a tough logic puzzle like these involving weighty things, calendar cubes, or other popular techie puzzles. It’s not the answer that matters, it’s how the candidate demonstrates their ability to apply structured thinking under pressure.
  8. Mutual evaluation: Last, let the candidate ask any questions he or she has for you, so that everyone walks out of the room with the information they would need to make a decision on an offer. Are the questions about strategy, career progression, pay, coffee quality, weekend emails? You can learn a lot from what questions candidates ask in what order.

Please leave a comment if you have feedback or suggestions on this post. Happy hiring!

The New Guy Can’t Type: How to Handle a Hiring Blunder

A college friend of mine and his wife visited for lunch last week. He mentioned keeping my blog open and unread on his browser for days (I was flattered, regardless). “Ryan,” he said,

I would love to read about strategy and innovation. But I just hired a guy as a customer service rep and he can’t type more than 30 words a minute! How do I deal with that?!

Successful leaders can’t close the door to the corner office and fiddle with their competitive market share optimization strategies all day. Leadership includes identifying and resolving the challenges that hold the team back right now. Unexpectedly welcoming a dud into your team creates risks with your customers, frustrates your other high-performing staff, and saps your own productivity. And yes, that sound you hear in the background is your lawyer dog-earing the pages of the latest  Hemmacher Schlemmer catalog in expectant glee of an early termination going ugly.

Here are five tips to navigate the situation and prevent another misfit from slipping through your hiring process:

  1. Document, document, document: ensure your expectations, and your employee’s acceptance of them, are documented clearly in writing (email will do).
  2. Ensure the employee understands the specific performance gap, accepts responsibility for changing, and the consequences (both positive and negative.) Some leaders are reluctant to cause any additional stress that could further degrade performance (see diagram),
    Don't allow fear of pushing struggling employees further to the right on this curve prevent you from communicating a performance gap. Maybe they are on the far left?

    however, the gap must be common knowledge. As I wrote in my three-part coaching model, a manager can provide a vision of success and skills to get there, but the motivation must come from the employee.

  3. Talk to your other employees as soon as you recognize the risk. In an objective, discrete, and respectful manner, make sure the other employees in the area “know that you know” and are doing something about it. In addition to protecting your (eternally fragile) credibility, this message then allows the other employees an opportunity to coach the struggling new hire.
  4. Don’t be afraid to move on: it’s business. Often a business’ most scarce commodity, leadership discretionary time, unwittingly flows towards struggling employees. Once you’ve made a clear, genuine, and respectful effort to correct performance without any tangible change, it is likely time to part ways.
  5. Capture the feedback to improve your hiring process. Whether your business has 5 employees or 5,000 the people responsible for hiring take pride in getting the best people they can. Do you need more behavioral interview questions? An extra practical/case study with an open written response section? A few quick multiple choice questions to screen out psychopaths? No hiring process is perfect, but each one can be “tuned” by positive and negative experiences.
(note: this post does not offer and should not be mistaken for legal advice. You are responsible for understanding applicable labor laws and practices. Please seek professional help if you need it! The Department of Labor offers the basics online)