My “best mistake” came early in my career as a leader — and it opened my eyes to how not to hire.
I was a new manager who needed to fill a position on my team, and I eagerly attacked the challenge of finding the best person for the job.
I spent a whole lot of time poring over resumes, looking for candidates who “wowed” me with their combination of technical prowess, experience, and education.
After interviewing a number of them, I hired the person who seemed to have the most impressive credentials and the strongest technical skills.
What a mistake that turned out to be.
As expected, my new hire was great at fulfilling the technical requirements of the job. But it became clear to me why performance is more than just getting the job done. The new hire was terrible at working with his colleagues. He alienated his teammates and caused much dissension in the ranks. Morale and productivity suffered.
The bottom line was that he didn’t fit into the culture of the organization — and had no real desire to adapt to it.
The experience was painful, for my team and for me. But it taught me an extremely valuable lesson about hiring.
I learned that cultural fit is an essential consideration in hiring – and that you have to spend as much time assessing a candidate’s “soft skills,” such as communication, personality, and empathy, as his or her “hard skills” and credentials. The best person for the job will be strong in both kinds of skills, but I’d choose cultural fit over credentials any day. Talented people can fill in any skills gap they may have, but it’s really tough to overcome a bad cultural fit.
Hiring for cultural fit is particularly important at a company like TIAA-CREF. We are a mission- and values-driven firm that exists to help the people we serve achieve financial well-being. We put our clients’ interest first. We look to hire employees who are not just great at what they do, but who will live the values that together define our culture: Put the Customer first. Value our people. Act with Integrity. Deliver excellence. Take personal accountability. Operate as one team.
When I interview a job candidate today, I ask different kinds of questions than I did when I was just starting out. I talk not just about the job requirements but about TIAA-CREF’s mission and values and our commitment to diversity and inclusion. I try to assess whether the candidate is the right fit for our company.
I wish I could say that my first hiring mistake was the last one I ever made. I’m not perfect and never will be. But what I can say is this: after that first misstep, I’ve never approached hiring the same way again.
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