Financial Onboarding: Skills Vs. Culture Fit

Friday, April 13, 2018

I took on my first corporate leadership role when I was promoted as the manager of a software development team in a large financial services company. In addition to learning how to lead my former peers, I also had to learn how to evaluate individuals who would join our team as we expanded to support new areas of the organization.

When these new individuals joined our team, I had to learn how to prepare them for the new tasks and relationships they would manage. A dilemma I was constantly faced with, and one I still contemplate today, is whether to onboard talent based on work experience, or onboard talent based on a personality or cultural fit.

On one occasion, I was tasked with hiring two new teammates would be supporting our department from a remote location in another country. This location was new to us and the talent pool seemed adequately qualified for the work assigned to that site. In conducting the interviews, I was presented with multiple candidates, each having all the necessary credentials and work experience for the open roles.

After exhausting the list, there was no clear-cut candidate who should advance to the final round of interviews. I was confident each candidate could perform the role based on their detailed and well-rehearsed answers, but something was missing. I asked the recruiter to expand the criteria to include skills and experiences not formerly considered, specifically candidates with less technical backgrounds.

I was immediately presented with two candidates who had less experience than the others, but sufficient experience to warrant an initial conversation. As I interviewed these individuals, there was something different—they had a passion for the type of work we were doing and a vision for how to complete that work. This passion and vision were aligned with our team’s culture, and I offered both candidates a role on our team.

Despite being “less qualified” than their peers, these candidates were able to take on the initial scope of the roles and then develop themselves to expand their scope to include many more tasks. These employees continued to be top performers and eventually moved out of my team to take on larger roles.

Later in my career, I became responsible for training new hires in a financial services’ call center. A colleague was responsible for hiring the collections personnel at the call center and managing their performance once they passed the initial training course. He would target candidates with work experience from very specific areas, but not always with a collections or financial services background. Instead, he would look for candidates with experience in customer retention and sales, where negotiation skills are a core aspect of the job.


From his standpoint, we could easily teach systems and process; however, teaching the art of negotiation was much more complex and time-consuming. He relied heavily on role plays during the interview process to really understand how well each candidate could negotiate. I watched him turn many candidates away, regardless of their extensive financial services backgrounds. This approach enabled our call center to increase employee retention rates and drive significant improvements to our collections results. Many of the people he hired were quickly promoted to leadership roles in the call center.

I contrast these two examples with a recent experience I had with helping an internal candidate apply for a leadership role in another area of our company group. This candidate was a seasoned, well-respected leader, with proven results who could seemingly step into any leadership role and be successful; however, they never even got an initial interview because they did not have work experience that matched the job description. When discussing the decline notice with the candidate and the hiring leader, we learned that the necessary skills for this role were non-negotiable, requiring specific industry experience and certifications. Strong personality and leadership traits would not be enough to overcome the experience gap, and the candidate was declined as a result.

I can also recall an experience where I interviewed a candidate for a software development role. The candidate would be responsible for developing systems in a coding language I was not familiar with, so I invited a team member familiar with the technology to participate in a phone interview; we alternated questions, with me asking behavioral questions and my teammate asking detailed, technical questions.

At the end, I was pleased with the examples shared and the candidate’s ability to answer every question in a way that was relevant to our business. When I asked my teammate for his input, he was strongly opposed to moving the candidate to the next round. It turns out that the candidate was Googling every question my teammate asked him and describing the first answer returned in the search. My teammate knew this because he was also Googling his questions in anticipation of the candidate doing the same thing! Needless to say, this candidate did not really have experience with the technologies we used and did not get an offer from us.

From these experiences, and many others like them throughout my career, I’ve learned that the answer to deciding whether to choose between experience and personality is, “It depends.”

Factors I consider when determining each approach include:

  • If relevant work experience is negotiable, will the new hire have access to training content or a mentor to help them close the knowledge or experience gap?
  • When the relevant work experience is mandatory, do I have a way to assess the candidate’s ability in that area of experience? For example, if Agile project management experience is required, can I present them with a case study they can complete to demonstrate their abilities?
  • When looking past the experience prerequisites, can the personality and culture elements tie back to the documented competencies associated with the role?
  • In all cases, do I have the right controls in place to assess the candidates in a consistent interview process that is not subject to interviewer bias? I should not favor only extroverted candidates if that is an aspect of personality that fits my style best.

With the cost of employee attrition estimated to range from 16 percent to 213 percent of an employee’s annual salary, it is important for talent development professionals to help organizations onboard and retain good employees. Knowing when to favor experience over personality and culture fit is an important aspect of this process.

What are you doing in your organization to address this question?

About the Author
Travis Thompson has spent the last 17 years of his career in financial services, with roles in technology, operations, call center management, and learning and development. Throughout his career he has been involved in helping business units achieve their objectives through the effective deployment of systems, processes, and people strategy. In his current role as director of innovation and capabilities, he is focused on helping modernize the learner experience using technology, science, and innovation. As a PhD candidate, Travis is actively involved in academic research involving the psychology of leadership, emotional intelligence, and personality preferences, as well as their impact on personal development and business outcomes.
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