How to hire the elusive Culture Add

“What do you read?” I asked.

He bobbed his head and blinked at me, shuffling his résumé. He took a breath.

“Well—” he began…

Contently was growing. We’d been hiring a lot of people. I was interviewing candidates for two important jobs that day. There was a simple question I meant to ask in both interview sessions:

What do you read?

…”Well I read sales blogs!” he chirped. No hesitation. Guy looked like a million bucks. I already knew he was qualified.

“And sales books,” he added. “It’s all I read, really. I’m extremely focused.”


“What do you read?” I asked.

She blinked at me and shifted in her chair.

“Well—” she began.

Woman in her 30’s. Quiet. Confident. Whip-smart. I already knew she was qualified.

“Okay—” she said— “so I have three kids.”

I nodded.

“And they’re starting to read young adult fiction. Vampire stuff, you know? And so I’ve started reading the books they’re interested in so I know what they’re reading and I can relate to them—”

She paused.

“—and I kind of love these books. I find myself stealing them from my kids and getting new ones before they do. I know it’s dorky, but…”

We blew ten minutes of a very busy day (hers) talking about fiction: that magic feeling we get of being a kid again when we read. Was Divergent really better than Hunger Games? Were angels going to replace Vampires as the hot new YA trend?

I only filled one position that day. Guess which candidate got a job?

Like I said, the first candidate was all kinds of qualified. But he wasn’t unique. (Dare I say…divergent?) We already had a whole team of salespeople who read sales blogs. And, shoot, I could give any smart candidate the best books and blogs on sales. They’d be up to speed in a weekend.

He was probably good. He’d clearly blend in. Less clear was whether this Brickell-coifed whizkid would add anything to the brain pool of my sales team.

Contestant number two? Now she was authentic! In talking about vampires, this woman dared to come across as human. More important, she volunteered a part of her story that helped me understand what sort of perspective she could bring to the team. A working mom who can wrangle three rambunctious kids without losing her sense of fun and empathy—that sounded like someone who could teach Contently Inc. a thing or two. And if your true self fits in at St. Vladimir’s vampire academy: that’s someone I could see considering ideas that a more traditional person would dismiss out of hand.

In my latest book on teamwork (out in June!) I write about how “culture fit” is the slippery slope to stagnation; the Grim Reaper of new ideas. When we emphasize conformity, we discourage people from making discoveries and from being themselves. That’s not great from a sanity standpoint. Nor is it great from an innovation standpoint. To solve hard problems together we need as many different kinds of thinking as we can get, not an army of interchangeable storm troopers. In Contently’s world, innovation equals a competitive edge.

Questions like “What do you read?” help me ferret out that essential ingredient, culture add: the candidate who lifts us up to her level. Here are a few of my other favorites (no charge):

  • Tell me what’s unique about your story.
  • What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been to that isn’t home?
  • Say you had a billion dollars and never had to work again. What would you do?
  • What’s something that I probably don’t know how to do that you could teach me?
  • What are your favorite traditions in your life?
  • What time of day do you get your most focused work done? What time of day are you most creative?
  • Tell me about the time you felt the most amazing in your life.
  • Tell me about the time you felt the least amazing in your life.
  • Tell me about the person who’s had the greatest effect on the way you think about life.
  • What about you is different than all the other people who might also apply to this position? Not in terms of raw job skills, but in terms of how you see the world?

Questions like these help us to get at a person’s unique story. The sum of our life’s experiences form a sort of cognitive mosaic—a lens, if you will, through which each of us sees the world. Having people with lots of different lenses improves the odds that a team will be smarter than its individual members.

And here’s the hack: it was never just about the questions. When you dig deep—when you get those who will share to share their story—then you inaugurate your working relationship by signaling that it’s okay to be your unique self. You and your organization value the differences your candidate brings to the team.

I used to have a Dr. Seuss quote on the wall behind my desk that summed it all up perfectly:

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

Shane Snow is an entrepreneur and author of three books. Get more posts like this in his Snow Report newsletter.
This article first appeared on Linkedin.