It has become a truism that organizations ought to look for cultural fit when hiring new employees. However, employers often fail to define what their culture is, and so, when they hire, they rely on instinct to tell them whether a candidate is a good match. Or they may hire applicants who resemble the demographics of their current staff — who are similar in gender, race, or age, for example, or who come from the same academic program or geographic area — under the assumption that these similarities will make for a good fit. In doing so, they may overlook promising candidates who don't fit these parameters.
But there are more structured ways to identify what your organization's culture is and to hire people who are more likely to thrive within it. To gain insight on defining culture, we spoke with Guy Gage, founder of the consulting firm PartnersCoach in West Virginia. Gage, who is a licensed counselor and has worked in HR and professional development for a midsize accounting firm, has nearly 30 years' experience coaching accountants and accounting firms.
How would you define organizational culture?
Guy Gage: Culture is a combination of shared practices, norms, and beliefs that shape what people do and how they do it (see the sidebar, "Culture and Change"). What gets difficult is when we start to define what it really means because it is so ingrained and automatic. It's like if I asked you to describe everything in the room you're in. Probably it would be a long time before you talk about the air in the room. Culture is like the air: It's that invisible thing that is very important, obviously, but we don't really think much about it or acknowledge it as there.
Can you tell us about some of the research into organizational culture?
Gage: I was introduced to the concept of organizational culture early in my career. One model I use quite a bit was developed by [Robert] Quinn and [Kim] Cameron. They established four of what they call archetypes, or forms, that organizational culture often takes: the clan culture, the hierarchical culture, the market culture, and the "adhocracy" culture. An organization's culture may contain elements of more than one type, though usually one is predominant. The reason why I like their model so well is it is so applicable to what I see in CPA firms.
In your experience, accounting firms tend to have either clan, hierarchical, or market cultures. Can you tell us about the clan culture?
Gage: In a clan, it's about us being together — very relational with an emphasis on harmony and stability and getting along. [In this type of culture] if people don't particularly care for what someone's doing, they probably won't say much about it because they don't want to shake things up. There's a peaceful coexistence that tends to occur. But the net result is a real, comfortable, stable, enjoyable setting in which someone can do their work and enjoy their career.
How would you characterize the hierarchical culture?
Gage: That's also very common in CPA firms. It actually has as much to do with structure as it does with hierarchy. In this culture people are organized. They have frameworks and processes and procedures, which all firms do, but they place more importance on following those prescribed ways than employees would in a harmonious clan culture. In a harmonious culture, it's more important to find ways of getting along and accepting variation among people. In a hierarchical firm, they're going to tolerate people so long as they're compliant with the procedures and the right steps to follow.
And how about the market culture?
Gage: The market culture is very externally focused. It's about how to present yourself out there to the marketplace. [Organizations with this type of culture] are very conscious of things like image and appearance. They want to have a reputation and create an image that they have expertise and they're able to interact with clients in different market segments. At times they can be client-oriented at the expense of a people orientation, whereas just the converse is true in the clan or in the hierarchical setting.
What about the adhocracy culture?
Gage: That's a Google- or Salesforce-type organization. They're really big on being known for being cutting-edge and entrepreneurial. They have a whole different view about mistakes. They're the ones that say "fail fast," and obviously that's anathema to [most accounting firms]. There are some firms out there that do have a bit of that flavor but not for the most part.
Quinn and Cameron's model was developed in the 1980s. Is it still widely accepted today?
Gage: The answer is yes, but the problem is nothing regarding culture is widely accepted. There just aren't that many models out there. A lot of people talk about culture, but they don't define archetypes like Quinn and Cameron do, which is what I like so much about their theory.
How can firms know which archetype predominates for them?
Gage: One way is by going back to the values and principles of the founders. Typically, firms don't start up just like a weed somewhere. They start off with a vision of a founder. That founder has certain attributes, certain values that they hold that are important to them. They build the firm, then, around those values. If you're in the third or fourth generation past the founder, sometimes it's hard to uncover those founding values and principles, but nonetheless, they're part of the DNA.
A second way is by speaking to new people to the firm. When I worked for an accounting firm, I used to do 30-day, 60-day, and 90-day check-ins with new employees. I'd ask how they were fitting in, but I was also on the alert for what they noticed about the way a firm did things and what seemed to be most important to it.
A third way is exit interviews. One of the questions that you can ask is, "When you were here, what did you notice that made it more challenging to be here?" or "What are some practices that you noticed going on around you that the firm seems to be built upon?" Sometimes they can give you glimpses into the automatic things that you never thought about but are still true.
If you don't have a clear sense of what your organizational culture is, you can run into problems, such as hiring the wrong people. Can you give us an example?
Gage: A firm I know of brought in a senior manager from a larger firm to fill a slot where they were short, and this person came in with not only experience but a lot of good ideas. But many of his ideas were centered around processes and procedures and checklists. The firm was very strongly hierarchical and took pride in its quality control, and firm leaders bristled against these ideas. The person's suggestions weren't taken as opportunities to develop; they were taken as criticisms.
So that person maybe wasn't a good fit for that firm's culture?
Gage: Probably not. In my conversation with [that firm], I said, "What would you like to have known when you interviewed this person?" Then we had a discussion around how they prefer to give and receive feedback. In interviews you can ask applicants, "How do you share your opinion? What's your style?" Just knowing a person's style goes a long way.
What are some other good questions to ask during an interview to determine cultural fit?
Gage: One to ask is, "If we hire you and you show up on the first day, what do we get? Who comes?" But you need to be careful. I learned early on that I would get the same answers over and over and over again. One is, "I've got a strong work ethic. I work hard." The second one is, "I'm dependable. You can rely on me." Well, I started hearing those two so often that I finally said, "OK, here's what I'm going to assume. I'm going to assume you've got to have a strong work ethic, and I'm going to assume that you are a reliable, dependable person. Those two aside, what else? Who else shows up on that first day and every day following? What can we expect from you?" What that shows is their level of self-awareness.
I also like to ask, "Who do you become when you're stressed? What stresses you: Being overwhelmed, being criticized, being found unworthy or less than, or being in a situation that you're unfamiliar with?" There's a lot of different ways we've learned to handle our stress. Some people cave in. They get very quiet. Some people lash out. Some people get distracted and do something else. But the bottom line is, I want to know what we can expect from you and what kinds of resources and support you need as you go through your stress.
If you're hiring for a management position, what's a good question to ask?
Gage: I always like to go back to the archetypes. You could ask a question such as, "When faced with a difficult situation, what do you do?" Do you find yourself relating to people and what they're going through and trying to appreciate their struggles and stresses? Or do you find yourself leaning more toward the procedures and policies? Or do you see it more as about producing results? Sometimes managers will start tipping their hat to one of those and begin the conversation around which environment they're more amenable to.
Then you can ask, "How do you go about supporting your people when you see them stressed and in an overload moment?" A lot of times if they're focused on harmony, they'll say that they will take work back, or they'll reassign it, or distribute it differently, or change deadlines and timelines for the sake of the staff person. Everyone has a primary motive or driver that precipitates certain kinds of behavior, even though that behavior may look similar in different archetypes.
What advice would you give firms about hiring in a tight market?
Gage: There are times when you just need someone to fill a slot. The important thing is to know who you're hiring. You might hire someone who isn't an ideal candidate but who can help you in a pinch. What do you need to build around that person to hire them? If you hire someone who's more relational and harmonious, but they're remote, you might connect with them on a regular basis, preferably daily, perhaps as a five-minute check-in to start their day. That's going to matter more to them than to someone who's more driven and achievement-oriented. For that type of person, that daily five-minute check-in is going to be seen as an intrusion and then as an interruption.
Even though the candidate may not be ideal for you, you need to change your support and your interaction with them so that they can thrive as best they possibly can. Who knows? They may come around, and you may expand your capabilities in terms of managing people.
This article was adapted from the JofA podcast episodes "What Type of Culture Does Your Firm Have?" (www.journalofaccountancy.com) and "Hiring for Culture: How to Find the Best Staff for Your Firm" (www.journalofaccountancy.com).
Culture and change
Guy Gage, founder of consulting firm PartnersCoach, likens an organization's culture to its immune system: One of its key roles, he said, is to reject what's foreign and different. That can help an organization be more cohesive, but it can also act as a barrier to positive change.
"What can happen in firms with strong cultures is that whenever they try to expand or diversify or somehow adopt a way of being that is outside the boundaries of their norms, they get a lot of pushback," he said.
In fact, culture can be a reason why firms struggle to "become 21st-century firms" in terms of introducing new technology, moving toward advisory and consulting, or embracing diversity and inclusion, Gage said. Many firms resist change "primarily because their cultural norms don't permit it," he said. "And so consequently, it's a longer process to adapt and adjust."
Leadership, Gage said, is crucial to getting staff to accept change. "In the end, the norms and practices have got to be flexible enough to account for something new," he observed. "Leaders are the ones who declare this foreign approach, this thing that is outside our boundaries, as 'friendly,' and as something we want to bring in."
But change must still be aligned with an organization's culture, he said. "Ideally, what you want to do is develop a vision that's consistent with who you are as a firm, but then institute strategies and approaches that work with your cultural norms," Gage noted. For example, in a firm where harmony is prized and staff are accustomed to giving input, change needs to happen on a timeline that accommodates those inputs. In such an organization, he said, leadership should not impose change from the top down, or staff will feel that norms have been violated.
Change is not "just a matter of where you're going" but is also about "how you're getting there," Gage concluded. "The more aligned you are with your culture, the quicker you're going to get there."
About the author
Courtney L. Vien is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4125.
"Adapting to Workplace Culture in a Virtual World," JofA, July 19, 2021
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"Interviews That Will Get You the Staff You Want," JofA, June 3, 2019
"Build Employee Loyalty With Better Onboarding," JofA, April 30, 2019
"5 P's That Define Workplace Culture," JofA, April 15, 2019
"How Success Relies on Workplace Culture," JofA, April 8, 2019
"Define, Then Hire Your Ideal Employee," JofA, March 25, 2019
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