Like Water for Culture…

Think this through…

You’re hunting down the perfect hire.  You’ve outlined the specs for the job.  You’ve combed through all the job boards and check the passive (aggressive) candidates on LinkedIn.  You’ve identified two strong candidates and you bring them in for the interview.  They both do well. You stack up their resumes and they both look pretty similar on paper.  They’re both aggressive.  Know how to close.  Similar education.  Similar history of success.  One does seem to have a few more years under their belt.  A bit more seasoned and wily.

They’ve got swagger as my kid would say.  (For those without 17 year olds in the house, swagger is something you can’t define but you know it when you see it.  It’s kinda like being cool but with more of a 2011 spin.)

Which one do you hire?

Before you reach for the person with “swagger” consider this…

Bull Sharks and White Sharks

Bull sharks and white sharks are both apex predators.  Ain’t much they won’t attack and eat.  Both are aggressive.  Both grow to about the same size (some whites can be bigger – but overall about the same.)  Both have big, big teeth.  Both are pretty solitary hunters.  Both strike fear in the heart of their prey (meaning me).

Sharks But there is a little known difference between the two (little known to the random sample of bar patrons last Saturday). Bull sharks tolerate (rather well) fresh water.  Yep.  Fresh water.  In fact, after Hurricane Katrina, many bull sharks were sighted in Lake Ponchartrain.  Bull sharks have occasionally gone up the Mississippi River as far upstream as Alton, Illinois.  They have also been found in the Potomac River in Maryland.

Why is that an important fact?  The water these sharks live in – and can thrive in – is like your corporate culture.

I’ve heard people say culture doesn’t matter.  But that’s like saying the water doesn’t matter to these sharks.  The bull shark can thrive in fresh water and salt water.  The “great” white – not so much on the fresh water side.  You won’t find many great whites in Alton, Illiniois.

On paper, the two sharks are similar if not almost identical. They have similar characteristics and I’d even argue that most HR folks couldn’t tell them apart from the pictures provided in this post (the bull shark is on the bottom BTW).

Culture is the Water Employees Live In

Your culture is the water your employees thrive (or die) in.  Just like the sharks, culture surrounds employees; they live in it, breathe it and when toxic – like fresh water to great whites – can die in it.

Check your two candidates again.  Which one now looks better?  One with a history of success in similar cultures as yours – or even success in many different cultures?  Or the one who has a bit more swagger – but only in a specific culture?  I’d go with the bull shark.

And you thought you were safe in Lake Erie this summer…look at that bottom picture – in fresh water! Ha!

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Jared Hooste says:

    First, thanks for ruining swimming for me this year.
    Second, I really liked the analogy; however, just because a bull shark can tolerate fresh water doesn’t mean he will stay there. It takes an incredible amount of effort to work in a difficult culture.
    So, how do you identify someone that can work in a toxic culture that may a shorter resume than most?

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks Jared – appreciate you weighing in here. The bull shark can actually thrive in fresh water so they can cover both ends. However, the white shark will die in fresh – so the point I was trying to make is that there are some folks who just can’t make it in a specific culture so you need to keep that in mind and not just work of the “specs” of the person.
    Identifying whether someone will work out in a culture first assumes you know and really understand your own culture – something many execs don’t get (that’s a post in itself.)
    If someone has a short resume – they are pretty much untested and unknowable relative to culture – but you can suss out some info from where they spend their free time – clubs, hobbies, etc. can clue you into what they find attractive in their social situations. Think – high competition sports as a hobby. I’d guess those folks might cotton to a more competitive culture. Those that like book clubs and knitting groups – more social in nature me thinks.
    Nothing is set in stone – but – my point in the post is that you can’t ignore culture and hope – you need to consider it and work with it. There are no guarantees in any of this. Hey – we’re working with people and people are just plain weird overall.

  3. Good post, Paul. You know I’ll come down on the side of culture every time. And you’re right. One challenge is too many execs don’t know what their culture is or don’t care to.
    “Hiring for fit” is a popular topic, but I also believe in “hiring for challenge.” Too much sameness can result in too much “talking to ourselves.” That said, even when hiring someone willing to bring the contrary view, that person should still be able to deliver that contrary message in a way that fits within the greater company culture.

  4. Michael Long says:

    Nicely done Paul!
    I’ve spent the past two years working on this topic. I’d love to see a future that includes companies understanding their cultures and sharing them openly for talent. The issue, from my perspective, is the continual desire to boil culture down into something simple. In reality, it’s complex and constantly evolves. One act, one change, one moment of truth and the culture of the organization shifts.
    Thanks again for the post! I enjoyed it.

  5. Paul Hebert says:

    @Derek – appreciate the comment. I am in agreement – hiring for fit doesn’t mean cloning – it means what it says – fit. Too much of the same is as bad as a bad fit. I can be contrary – but do it in a way that is consistent with culture within a company.
    @Michael – thank you too for reading and commenting. Culture is very, very hard – I think because it is influence by the top and the bottom – by what is rewarded and what is ignored and by what happens when under stress and when not – so many ways culture can be influenced and defined. Many folks think they can do culture via programs – it takes 100s of little efforts every day – not a program.
    Thanks all for taking time to read!

  6. Joe S says:

    I love this analogy and I loved this post! 🙂

Comments are now closed for this article.

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