People confuse and conflate what cultural fit means: Alisa Cohn

People confuse and conflate what cultural fit means: Alisa Cohn

Alisa Cohn, the world’s leading start-up coach, shares how start-ups and scaling companies can invest in culture building, why normalising hustle culture is problematic, and how people misunderstand what hiring for cultural fit means.


Do you believe start-up founders often overlook the importance of getting their company culture on the right track in the early days? What are some strategies early-stage startups can use to understand and nurture their company culture?


The first thing is to realise is that it’s important. Your early employees are your cultural cofounders. Therefore, you want to make sure that they fit into the culture you have in mind and support and promulgate it.


You have to think about what kind of company you’re trying to build. What are the characteristics of the company? What kinds of people will be a part of the company? What are people going to be doing? Additionally, if a founder is coming to this a year or two or three in, they already have an existing employee set, so they can ask, who are the most successful people around here and why? What kinds of people are the best fit inside of our culture? What are the three words I would use to define our culture? Then ask the employees the same question.


Who is most successful here and why? What are the things that we do which help us get our work done? Who would be the best fit here, and who would not be a good fit here? When you’re curious about these kinds of things and engage your employees in this kind of discussion, this will help you to both articulate and continue to promulgate your culture.


There’s a popular statistic that says that only one in 200 start-ups succeed to become scale-ups. From a culture standpoint, what are the most common pitfalls start-ups should watch out for as they start scaling?


There is a multitude of reasons why start-ups don’t make it. From a cultural perspective, you must build a culture that aligns with what you want to do. If you’re doing something that is focused on detailed work in methodology, you want to bring in people who are culturally focused on those kinds of details. If you want to build something groundbreaking, you’ve got to bring in people aligned with a culture of innovation. So you should think about the culture you want to build and then bring in the right people to help you succeed from start-up to scale-up.


Do you believe some of the strategies that helped a start-up succeed in the early days might not help it scale?


 A start-up will first start with experimentation, doing things for a one-off. As Paul Graham famously said, “Do things that don’t scale.” That is great for a little while until you find your way. And then you’ve got to find ways to scale things. You’ve got to bring in systems, tools and processes, and different kinds of people who can execute systems, tools and processes.


You’ve got to always be finding the balance between pushing the envelope and doing things in a one-off for the sake of experimentation. And then, as you get bigger, do things that are repeatable in a more consistent manner and also robust in the face of a growing company. Q Do cultural norms like “hustle-and-grind” need to change in the start-up community? A People indeed tend to work hard at a start-up. Over time, the hustle culture leads to burnout and inhibits creativity because people need downtime to regenerate and be more creative. So hustle culture for its own sake is not helpful. The truth is that working hard is a part of life at a start-up.


Studies have shown that start-up founders suffer acutely from mental health issues. What are some prevalent mental wellness challenges you’ve seen entrepreneurs face, and how do you recommend they overcome them?


Founders are 30% more likely than their counterparts to experience mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. I’ve seen moodiness and mood swings, panic attacks and overall anxiety, and they are difficult for anyone to navigate.


If you are having issues, it’s good to seek a mental health professional. With all that said, there are other things that you can do as a founder to protect your mental health. Get enough sleep, and make sure that you’re eating right and getting enough fitness activity. Make sure that you have people around you every day who are supportive of you. Go outside and take a walk. These are just some of the basics of physical fitness which lead to mental fitness.


Also, make sure you have people around you whom you can be honest and feel safe with. Another thing I like to tell founders to do is to build a highlight reel. What they do is think about their past successes and write them down so that they can remember them when they’re feeling down – what they’re most competent at and their many capabilities.



Scaling a company comes with its fair share of leadership challenges. How can leaders stay ahead of new challenges brought by scale?


I think leaders always have to be growing and learning, be humble enough to know that they don’t know everything, find mentors and coaches, and establish a peer group around them to share best practices and understand what they’re missing. Leaders should regularly probe themselves by getting 360-degree or other kinds of feedback to know where their leadership gaps are and grow new skills.


Do you believe hiring conventions such as “cultural fit” are often ill-defined and somewhat biased reasoning for weeding out candidates? Are there some cultural fit elements that candidates should be screened for?


I think people confuse and conflate what cultural fit means. Thoughts such as “I like him or her” or “I wouldn’t mind flying to Tokyo with him or her” are about liking each other and having an easy rapport – that is different from culture. Culture is more about our values regarding being proactive, multifaceted, methodical or data-driven – although those can also be biased. I think one of the really important values is rigour. You’ve got to be rigorous in building your culture and not just rely on a feeling such as “Oh, I like her or him.”


In addition, I think it’s helpful to have multiple people test for cultural fit. Pushing yourself to expand your definition of who will be a successful hire is also a helpful habit. There’s no question that we’re coming to better understand our inherent unconscious and conscious biases. For example, a founder I work with tries to hire from within his network, as these are people he already knows and who do good work. But he wants to make sure that they have a clear job description and that he’s not the only one interviewing them. He ensures that he has people other than him interviewing candidates so they can also assess the specific cultural attributes they’re looking for more objectively.


How can HR and business leaders bring a cultural change that sticks when each organisation is said to have a microcosm of cultures?


Microcultures are about the personalities of different groups. However, macrocultures still have to be embedded within each individual microculture. Leaders and managers must buy into and work through macrocultural elements. A company I work with is very focused on efficiency and on not wasting money. One of their departments having creative folks – has a value of creativity. Thus, they created a microculture of creativity within constraints; that is, constraints make them creative. They’ve taken their macrocultural element and turned it into a benefit within their microcultural element. Managers and leaders have to be thoughtful about binding together microcultures. Changing a culture is difficult and requires will and discipline, as well as the consistent efforts of both the founder and the CEO along with the executive team and the managers.


How can large, established organisations adopt a more nimble and agile mindset?


First, organisations have to learn the tools of Agile to do a better job of testing and learning. They have to do a better job of thinking about which processes in a bureaucracy are really necessary. They have to be more comfortable taking risks and thinking about risks as opportunities to learn and promote more experimentation.


Also, if you bring in entrepreneurs and other creative types to be part of the ecosystem, you will naturally take on different attitudes that are more entrepreneurial in nature.


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