Conformity Kills: Hire Outliers to Create Strong Cultures

Strong cultures are built upon diversity of thought and perspective. Cultivating a shared focus on talent and performance above all else gives CEOs a competitive advantage.


“Is your desk neat or disorganized?” the hiring manager asked my colleague during a phone interview. Our company prefers to hire people who keep clean desks, the interviewer explained. Well, my colleague – whose workspace gives new meaning to the word “clutter” – politely ended the call and never pursued the position.

Their loss. Your company’s interviewers are probably not asking such trivial questions. However, are you inadvertently hiring individuals with similar traits and personalities? This could be putting your organization at a competitive disadvantage.

Here’s why hiring “outliers” creates a strong culture and is better for business.

Top companies hire for talent, not conformity

A focus on talent over conformity builds strong cultures. This is driven from the top. Achieving the company’s goals is the top priority. CEOs must own recruiting and ensure that HR and other interviewers hire accordingly.

As Kirsta Anderson, global head of culture transformation for Korn Ferry, told The Wall Street Journal: “What most interviewers are looking for and acting on is more of an intuitive sense of, ‘Would I get along with this person?’ and that often isn’t very reliable.”

Talent + strong culture = a focus on performance

Organizations with strong cultures tend to value creativity and openness. The more open the culture, the less political it is. When politics are at a minimum, people are motivated by performance, period.

The better the culture, the more accepting of all talent

When it’s all about performance, employees welcome top performers even if they are outliers. All of us have worked with people who are a little out there, but they have a specific set of really good skills. In other words, they have talent, and talented people are often outliers.

In strong cultures, these kinds of people can fit in and excel. Your employees will accommodate their quirks without being threatened by them. In a weak, ill-defined culture – for example, one built on shallow tenets such as desk tidiness – employees will be threatened. They may try to emulate or compete with the outlier instead of working as a team.

A quote from one of the “outliers” I hired sums it up as only an outlier can: “When I came in, I was the weird guy with the crazy ideas. Now, I haven’t gotten any saner, but the other people around me have become more insane. I think that’s a good thing.” It was!

Diversity is good for business

The empirical link between diversity and business success is strong. A talented, creative group of people are more likely to solve complex problems and develop innovative solutions, especially when crises or disruptions occur.

For example, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that organizations with above-average diversity on their management teams earned 19 percent higher innovation revenue than their less diverse peers. The researchers surveyed 1,700 companies in eight countries across six dimensions: gender, age, nation of origin, career path, industry background, and education.

McKinsey & Company research this past May revealed that executive teams with the highest diversity were more likely to have above-average profitability (analysis of 1,000 large companies in 15 countries). In the context of the pandemic, the McKinsey researchers concluded that: “Companies whose leaders welcome diverse talents and include multiple perspectives are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger.”

Strong cultures improve recruitment

A high-performance culture enables you to hire a wider array of people. It’s a perpetuating cycle: When you hire the best people, it attracts the best talent. Top performers want to work with other top performers.

While it presents challenges, the recent increase in remote work is a boon for employers. Many companies are discovering that it offers a bigger talent pool – national and even global. The flexibility of remote work appeals to many people, including – and maybe especially – outliers.

Judging Talent for Cultural Fit

This is not to dismiss cultural fit. However, it’s more important to determine the hurdles to cultural fit versus seeking a candidate who fits a particular model exactly. But how can you judge if such a talented individual will fit in with your company’s culture?

I look for four traits: creative initiative, exceptionalism, motivation, and value. I’ll cover those in my next post.

In the meantime, here’s a cheat sheet from The Wall Street Journal article:

Defining Cultural Fit

What it is:

  • Shared enthusiasm about a company’s mission or purpose
  • A common approach to working, together or individually
  • A mutual understanding of how to make decisions and assess risk

What it’s not:

  • A common educational, cultural or career background
  • A sense of comfort and familiarity with co-workers
  • Shared enjoyment of such perks as ping pong and craft beer

1 Comment

  1. Great post, Joel. I cringe when I see internal or external recruiters specify a long list of boxes to check off rather than searching for talent, drive, and a willingness to take on new challenges. Even for positions having technical knowledge requirements, hiring a highly talented person who may not check each box can pay huge dividends in the long run.


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