Identifying Cultural Pedigree


  • Identify the culture you want to foster in your org.
  • When recruiting, identify the candidates' influential experiences. Identify the cultures at those companies.
  • Dig deep into the candidates' opinions of those cultures. Compare those opinions to your org's cultural goals.

Recruiting is one of the most important functions of any business. I'm not a recruiting expert, but I am a culture expert and I've done my fair share of interviews. Not only do you need to ensure that the people you're hiring have the raw talent and skills to perform at a level that will maintain or accelerate your organization's growth, but they also need to have the right culture and personality to maintain the fire within your organization that got you where you are. Most organizations interview for culture, but most don't know what they're looking for, or do not give it enough clout in the process. Culture is too often relegated to a check box on an interview summary, or is conducted by someone who has little to no expertise in cultural interviews. Let's talk about an easy way to get a lens into a candidate's professional culture and mindset:

Identify the candidate's influential work experience and the cultures at those companies.

Their Cultural Pedigree

The same way that parents, teachers, and role models influence our personality, mindset, and outlook on life personally, so do influential companies we have worked for influence us professionally. Consider the effect your first company out of school had on what you learned about business and the professional world. Consider how the mentor that gave you that pivotal promotion influenced your approach to leadership. There is no denying that our professional attitude is shaped by certain companies and the cultures within them.

The first thing you need to do is to identify the culture you want to establish in your organization. This should stem from your company's values, goals, and mission statement. List out 5-10 traits and keep them close when you begin looking for candidates. Also, distribute this list to people who will be conducting the interviews. If there is a specific cultural interview, give that interviewer targeted training on how to find out if a candidate fits your specific cultural goals.

Resume Review

When reviewing a candidate's resume, identify the influential companies in the candidate's professional journey. These will be companies the candidate has spent a significant amount of time compared to other places, or where they have found the most success. For example, if a candidate has four years at Company X and the next longest stint is one or two years, you can venture a pretty good guess that they fit well with and enjoyed Company X's culture. Likewise, if they received two or three promotions in a relatively short period of time at Company Y, it's likely a good indicator that they found it easier to excel in Company Y's culture. It's not an exact science, but it's enough to get you headed in the right direction.

The next step is to identify those companies' cultures. At this point I would suggest not getting too deep in the weeds, as you're simply deciding if you want to bring the candidate in for an interview or not. However, a quick search on Glassdoor can reveal an overarching cultural theme in less than a minute. Compare these findings to your own cultural goals to get a broad sense of whether they'd be a good fit or worth taking a deeper look at.

For example, if you're looking to establish a culture of focus, results-oriented mindset, and that has an ability to excel under pressure, consider candidates who have done well or spent a lot of time at companies like Amazon or Steve Jobs' Apple. If you're looking to create a culture that is customer-centric, innovative, and collaborative, consider candidates who have experience at companies similar to Google or Zappos.

The interview

As I've written about previously, the data isn't the whole story; it's just a catalyst for a conversation. It's important to have a part of the interview process that is targeted toward culture. I suggest dedicating at least a quarter of the loop to just culture.

During this interview, drive into their experiences at these influential companies. Find out what they liked and didn't like about the cultures there, what about it helped them succeed, and what held them back. A good technique to help get to the root of an answer is the 5-whys, or asking 5 targeted follow up questions. The goal is to get past the preloaded, sugar coated answer. Do your due diligence, stay specific to the influential companies, and dive deeper. Though chains of questioning are highly situational, here's an example of the 5-whys to get you started:

"What is something about the culture at (Prestige Worldwide) that you felt may have held you back?"

"Can you tell me about a time that served as the epitome of that part of the culture?"

"What would you say was the root cause of that interaction? Why did it play out that way vs something more suitable to you?"

"If you were on the other side of that experience, how would you have handled it differently?"

"Why do you think your way of handling it would have been better?"

Again, it's highly situational, but if you continue to ask varying followup questions, you'll start to get at the root of their culture.

Take notes throughout, and compare the theme of their answers to your cultural goals. If you need to, don't be afraid to circle back with the candidate for a second interview another day. But if you do, I suggest asking about a different company or experience to avoid the candidate giving you contemplated answers they think would be better suited than their initial responses. Remember, stay focused on their root attributes, and don't take their answers at face value - this is much more difficult to do when interviewing for culture than for skills.

Final Review

Before you make an offer, do a deeper investigation into the candidate's influential companies. List out traits that are common in reviews on Glassdoor, Google, LinkedIn, or Yelp. Get a well rounded sense of both the internal and external culture, i.e. how they treat their employees and their customers. Consider reaching out to other employees of those companies via LinkedIn to ask about the culture, or if they interacted with your candidate. 


In conclusion I think candidates' cultural pedigree is just as important to the stability and growth of your company as are their skills and talent in the role. Do not overlook it. I have seen just as many if not more companies fail because of cultural issues and inconsistencies than financial or strategic issues. Prevent those issues from happening by getting a deeper sense of your candidate's personality and mindset. You can see this by looking at companies that have been influential in their professional development. 


Lead Happy!