Cultural fit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Sep 26, 2021

Hiring people who fit in and don’t cause problems is hardly the way to be innovative and really push your business forward.

Everyone talks about how “cultural fit” should be your goal when it comes to hiring anyone for your AEC firm. That sounds good on the surface and seems reasonable, right? We all want people who fit in and don’t cause problems. But maybe that’s a recipe for creating a firm full of conformists who don’t rock the boat. That’s hardly the way to be innovative and really push the business forward.

Here’s more of what I mean: As a business founder or owner, we need people who will challenge the status quo, don’t we? Cultural compatibility means everyone is aligned and buys in to how you do things. That doesn’t imply any urgency or desire for changing anything the business does that isn’t “broken,” or at least want the predominant thinking to be about what is working and what isn’t. But “good enough” is rarely the way to exceed client expectations. Constant change and evolution is the most likely path to long-term success versus being static. We need people who challenge the status quo – at least in some jobs in our companies, if not all.

Cultural compatibility could be interpreted as the opposite of diversity. It is becoming a widely accepted idea in business today that greater diversity leads to more creativity. People from different backgrounds and perspectives see things differently. But if you are trying for cultural compatibility, that implies homogeneity, doesn’t it? Find people who are all similar with similar backgrounds and ways of thinking? Is that best for your business? If you look at boards of directors for AEC firms, a lack of diversity is often apparent. My experience is more diversity – i.e., less cultural compatibility – is often needed, not more compatibility.

As someone who teaches entrepreneurship – new venture development, specifically – I used to let my students form their own teams to work on their new business planning teams at the beginning of the semester. After a few years of that, I decided that I would assign the team members and still do that today, 15 years later. Why, you may ask? I do it so there is some diversity. The least creative teams I had were the most homogeneous and culturally compatible. When they self-selected, we would have five frat brother marketing majors, and their ideas weren’t very creative. One of the best examples of that was a culturally compatible business planning team whose idea was to create a “koozie” for Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liquor, because they have an odd bottle shape. On top of that, because they were all duck hunters, they wanted to use a camouflage pattern employing the shape of the state of Texas as the basis. They couldn’t understand that they would have a very small market potential with that idea, because to each of them it sounded like something they’d buy. No diversity and cultural compatibility led to myopia. I have witnessed the same thing in AEC firms where the owners and key people all had similar backgrounds and ways of thinking.

Diversity doesn’t just mean different sexes or ethnic backgrounds, especially when talking about AEC firms – not to say those things aren’t important. It can mean different academic or experience backgrounds, or different discipline expertise. For example, early in my career I worked for an engineering firm as the head of project development (another term for marketing) and human resources. I was the first non-technical person who was part of the executive team there and the first non-engineer to become an owner. I didn’t think many of the ways we did things at that company were the best ways to do things, and I pushed for a lot of changes. I will never forget that when I eventually turned in my notice to join a larger, more successful firm, my boss, the chairman and CEO, said if anyone ever asked him about me, he would “tell them I was a s***-disturber, but that they needed their s*** disturbed.” I don’t think I realized what a compliment that was at the time! But really, it may have been as simple as the fact that I was not culturally compatible with the rest of the owners.

Cultural compatibility may stifle disagreement, but disagreement is sometimes necessary. You need people who will challenge you and your assumptions about things. It doesn’t mean you will always love those people, nor does it necessarily mean they will always stay with you over the long haul. I won’t deny that I don’t usually love having my ideas or ways that I do things challenged – at least at first. It can be very uncomfortable. But I do think it is often necessary if you want your business to move ahead and take on a life of its own, and develop real leaders who can keep things going in a positive direction after you are gone.

Cultural compatibility is one of those things that, on the surface, seems like a good goal for hiring. I haven’t run into many people in this business who would question the wisdom of it. But maybe it’s time to rethink that one.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.