Hiring Marketers for Cultural Fit

Culture fit is always a big deal when you’re hiring but it’s particularly important for marketing jobs which are notoriously difficult positions to fill successfully at a startup. Marketers are also really hard to interview – their great communication, interpersonal and sales skills make them potentially full of bullcrap very difficult to read.

I’ve been building a team where culture fit has been one of the biggest challenges. The folks I’m hiring not only need to deal with a TON of ambiguity (and a certain amount of chaos), they also have to be able to deal with a spectrum of language and culture issues in an environment where successful teamwork is critical to the job.

Here are some things I am working into my interview technique to help me asses culture fit that I think would be useful for anyone hiring a marketer at a startup:

  1. Process-related questions – in general I like process-related questions when interviewing marketing folks because anyone can say they did things like “developed and drove programs” but it’s hard to figure out what the person’s exact contribution to the effort was (especially when there was outside help involved). Asking things like “Walk me through the process you used to build that” or “Describe the steps you took to get that project done” are usually good ones to get into the details of someone’s role. They also let you see how a person sees themselves in the context of their own team. Are they working with other folks or just doling out tasks? How are they interacting with their management team? How are they making decisions and moving projects forward?
  2. Have them describe their best and worst jobs – Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliche question but I still like it because of the number of times I get a totally surprising response. Again, pay attention to the people-related stuff. Did they clash with other people on their team? I’m totally sympathetic to folks who have left a job because they didn’t like their direct manager but a repeating pattern of lousy managers makes me worry that the employee is difficult. What were the aspects of the teams and culture at their other jobs that the candidate loved and hated?
  3. Pay attention to the questions that folks ask – Personally I love it when candidates ask a lot of questions about the work and I worry when they ask a lot about the organization structure and/or compensation in early interviews. I find that star employees know that the job is the main thing and compensation and titles are something to sort out after you know the job is a great fit.
  4. Have them talk to lots of people – I think startups are better at this than big companies but sometimes they forget to do it with marketing candidates. Your company culture is the people you work with. If everyone can’t feel good about each other at the end of an interview, they sure won’t at the end of a product launch.
  5. Trust your gut – I have one critical position that’s been open for a while and I’ve interviewed so many candidates that I’m starting to let my guard down on this one. I have had a couple of mediocre candidates slip past the first interview stage because I’m starting to get desperate. The good news is that my team promptly shoots them down but I’ve still wasted everyone’s time with a round of interviews that never should have happened. Interviews are like first dates – everyone is on their best behaviour. If there’s something that rubs you the wrong way in the interview it is almost guaranteed to make you insane 2 months down the road. Always trust your gut if you feel like something doesn’t click.

As I was writing this I was thinking about how both sides (candidate and interviewer) have to be wary of the issue of fit and interestingly I think most of these questions work for both candidates and managers.

What do you think – do you have any interview tips to share?

41 thoughts on “Hiring Marketers for Cultural Fit”

  1. Hi April

    This is helpful as marketing teams are a unique challenge to build. Dynamics are almost as key as skills at times.

    What part did their online presence play in this? I like when building these teams to get a URL first, not a resume.

    Curious if and how this played into your decision.

    And yes, we have a mutual friend in William @ Eqentia.

    1. That’s a good question.
      In my opinion it really depends on the job. For some jobs – marketing communications, digital marketing, public relations are a few I can think of, I would expect to see a decent presence online and I would expect the candidate to be able to point me to specific things they have worked on. For other marketing jobs – channel marketing, strategic partnerships, some aspects of solutions marketing etc. I would be less concerned about the person’s online presence because it isn’t really a big part of the job.
      That said, we are sourcing people almost exclusively from LinkedIn – so that is one part of a person’s online presence that I think is CRITICAL right now if you are potentially looking to make a move.
      When it comes to fit, nothing beats talking to a person. I’ve interviewed folks that have amazing resume’s and skills that personality-wise would have been a complete disaster on my team. Often what you see online or on a resume isn’t the full story
      April

  2. April, thanks for the insight. I truly appreciate it as I find myself becoming an interview aficionado.

    I question though are you using micro-elements to predict the macro-person? The interview::dating analogy is valid but the challenge is to quickly get beyond the first date appearances. You may have had a relationship(s)where the little things upfront became inconsequential while other items that you didn’t see became the deal breakers over time. (There was this woman whom I once termed frumpy, 10 years ago. She still gives me a hard time about that.)

    Yes, some amount of due diligence is required to ensure the person is who they say they are. This can be done on the phone. Once this is verified though you need to move beyond that. The past is just that, the past. As they say in investing – “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

    I know a local organization that does pair programming. As part of the interview they pair program for a day, even if the candidate doesn’t know the language. Language knowledge is not the requisite for the job since the design house uses several. What is required is good fundamentals, excellent attitude, and ability to contribute even when handicapped. They are getting a front row seat to gauge the candidates potential.

    The challenge as a hiring manager is to more accurately evaluate candidate success within the organization than flipping a coin. http://bit.ly/oJIf9i

    1. Hi Larry,
      Those are great points (and I love that post you linked to).

      The biggest issue I have with hiring marketers (particularly a marketing executive) is that there isn’t really a practical on-site test that makes any sense.
      I totally agree with you that you need to get past the everyone-on-their-best-behaviour stage though. That’s where I think that doing more interviews (and getting lots of folks to talk to the person) can help and doing a looser, more conversational style interview helps too.
      For the jobs I am hiring for, we are really only using the resume and past performance stuff as a screen to decide who gets the first interview. Beyond that we don’t focus too much on skills because in most of our interviews, the skill is apparent after a couple of questions. The fit stuff is much harder to figure out.
      Marketers are great at reciting the script and giving you sound bites you want to hear (marketing execs have literally YEARS of training on that). The key is to get them off the script as quickly as possible so you can get a handle on the real person behind the curtain.
      April

  3. April,

    The last point is the most important one in my book. If something doesn’t sit right with the candidate, even if you find it hard to articulate what exactly is wrong, then this is not a match. I totally agree with you. Any inkling of a concern you get in an interview will get amplified to an extreme degree when that person is hired.

    And then there are those where you just know that this is “the one”.

    Hmm, come to think of it, this IS a lot like dating.

    Ilya

    1. Thanks for the comment Ilya.
      Every mistake I ever made in hiring, in hindsight it was because I didn’t trust my gut. Every great hire I ever made I knew within 10 minutes that the person was going to be a star on the team.
      April

  4. April,

    Having gone through the job search process recently, I can say that most of these questions and points are valid from the candidate’s viewpoint as well. As a potential employee, you want to be sure of the fit, too.

    I walked away from some good opportunities because of what I heard – or felt – during that initial interview. It’s as expensive for a candidate, if not more so, to sign on with the wrong place as it is for the company.

    I agree that marketers are better trained at MABUSHI and it’s key to cut through that. One good question to ask a candidate who is crowing about some success (especially a campaign or piece of collateral) is to ask them to explain how that impacted their targeted buyer. If they are able to answer in terms of business problem addressed, material improvement to the customer and hard metrics to measure that success, then you have a good candidate. Anything less would indicate the need for another candidate.

    Tj

  5. April,

    First things first, I have had a major withdrawal of Rocket Watcher. I know how life intervenes, and these creative outlets get sidelined, I am just glad that it wasn’t a permanent vacation.

    There are so many talented candidates out there, as is evidenced by the CV’s that come across, but the fit culturally is a lot tougher to gauge. Even in person interviews can be deceptive.

    I also use much of your list (although I phrase the best/worst job slightly differently.)

    One question I use, and since I am looking for product managers/product marketers, it may not apply to your search for marketing talent, but I always ask: “Think of your worst “oh shit” moment, a situation where the wheels really came off, how you reacted to it, and how you worked through it. Anyone in this field for any serious length of time has had a few gut clenchers, and handled them, and can talk honestly and openly.

    I also gauge the seriousness of a candidate on how much they researched the company before talking to me. Being part of a large, public company means that there are several sources of information, from SEC and Edgar filings, Zoominfo.com, Brad and Dunnstreet, as well as the IR pages. I Always start there to research a company (and it is also my starting point in doing competitive analysis). Harder for a startup, but there is some information out there (unless it is totally silent) if your google-fu is strong. I am stunned when a candidate has no idea of our products, our mission, and an idea of our profitability/annual revenue.

    Keep the great posts coming, when you can squeeze in the time.

    1. Hey Geoffrey,
      Thanks so much. Yeah, I take a break from this now and then but I always think I will come back to it.
      Those are great ideas. I am amazed at how little research folks do before the come in to interview with me sometimes. Like seriously folks, you could at least pronounce the company name correctly!
      Thanks for the comment.
      April

  6. you need to get interviewed by NY Times and their corner office article series.. I read it once in awhile to see how executives tackle the hiring problem as it’s the most common question asked in the interviews. “how do you find good people”? what you wrote applies to any position at any level in any industry.. peace sister

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