Hiring for Leadership vs. Hiring for a Cultural Fit

This is interesting.

Shortly after stepping down as chief executive officer of IBM Corp. in 2002, Louis V. Gerstner addressed MBA students at Harvard Business School. "The thing I have learned at IBM," he said, "is that culture is everything."

That's no insignificant statement coming from the outsider who joined the ailing computer company in 1993 to turn it around — the Big Blue of the crisp white shirts, lifetime employment, and cult of individuality among employees.

Indeed many recruitment experts seem to agree with Gerstner that an organization's culture is a crucial consideration when it comes to evaluating candidates for hire.

Not Steve Mader. The vice chairman and CEO practice leader of search firm Christian and Timbers was part of the team that recruited another outsider, Carleton S. Fiorina, to tech giant Hewlett-Packard in 1999. Fiorina resigned under pressure as the company's chairman and CEO earlier this month.

"H.P. might have hired someone with a better cultural fit but that wouldn't have made [that executive] more effective" than Fiorina, he says. Mader spoke with CFO.com about what CFOs can learn from the HP–Fiorina relationship.

Instead of culture, Mader prefers to focus on leadership. That is, it's not so much whether leaders are compatible with their companies' culture, but whether the leader has the skills to recognize and bridge any gaps between his or her own style and the existing culture.

Ideally you want both. But if it comes down to a choice – leadership vs. a good fit for the corporate culture, I think your decision depends largely on the type of culture. Some corporate cultures will reject anyone who doesn't fit, others may accept a leader who can bridge the gap. Carly's difference from the "HP way" was considered good initially. But HP really needed someone who was a good cultural fit. The more unique a firm's culture, the more difficult it will be to bridge that gap with leadership alone.