Interview: How to Break Through the Cultural Chasm?!

posted by Dilip on June 28, 2019

Culture eats strategy for breakfast—Peter Drucker

I often see clients wanting to move from traditional, large organizations (a’ la legacy companies: Oracle, Cisco, GE, Boeing, Proctor & Gamble) to younger companies that have non-traditional, fluid, yet distinct cultures (Facebook, Uber, Google, and start-ups) that make them both, unique and coveted. What often happens when they go through the interviews in these companies, however, is that they get rejected, especially after a round of face-to-face interviews because of a “lack of cultural fit.” This is despite their impressive entrepreneurial track record of accomplishments inside those bureaucratic behemoths, excellent leadership successes, and great pedigrees.

Why does this happen?

This happens for two main reasons: Résumé screeners and candidate reviewers do not see what is already trumpeted on their résumés—big, legacy, company backgrounds—and, interviewers at these upstarts are not skilled enough to see through how these candidates dealt with their employers’ ossified cultures and steep hierarchies to overcome organizational impediments to achieve significant successes touted on their résumés. If previous career stops at big, traditional companies were an automatic disqualifier for applicants, these coveted companies would never venture to interview these applicants. Such, however, is not the case.  

So, how do you overcome this bias towards rejecting worthy candidates—false negatives— just because they come from companies with “traditional” cultures. Although you cannot change the inherent bias of the inexperienced interviewer in front of you, you can steer their perspective by being conscious of how you want to showcase your cultural adaptability by focusing on how you got things done in a bureaucratic culture by examples of your successes in those companies. This challenge is further compounded by the misperception interviewers hold that their entrepreneurial culture is somehow superior and not easy to adapt. But, there is a way to neutralize this threat to your success by showing them—not just by telling them—how you got things done despite the crushing bureaucracy.

In other words, do not just talk about how you can adapt to a fluid culture coming from a stiff one, show how you created your own culture of action within your own ecosystem in a highly bureaucratic organization with your leadership. One way you can do that is by deliberately bringing examples of how you overcame the stifling bureaucracy without subterfuge and got things done, better than anyone else. You can further cement your candidacy by showing awareness of how much even more effective you would be in an established culture that encourages entrepreneurial approach for getting things done.

So, what are some of the ways you can fight this inherent bias and predilection to reject by default candidates that overcame traditional cultures of large companies in the selection process?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Starting with your résumé be sure that your stories (bullets) clearly show how you provided leadership to your team to circumvent the surrounding bureaucracy without subterfuge (Do NOT badmouth your employer). Clearly show the speed with which you got things done routinely to get things delivered to customers. E.g., Delivered the FCS on target in just nine months despite previous releases that took year or longer by finding new ways of getting things approved, innovative approaches to deal with common impediments, and structuring the team to have a more efficient approach to development.

    Such stories can help you clear the résumé-screening (ATS) hurdles to get you in front of hiring managers and interviewers. And, when you do, keep elaborating on these stories to impress upon them how your company’s bureaucracy did not deter you from innovative approaches to getting things done; in fact, show how they mobilized your creative leadership.
  2. Throughout your interview discussions make vivid comparisons with others in your company who followed the routines to get things done and how long they took to achieve what you were able to achieve in considerably less time, effort, and hassle.
  3. When discussing your company’s org chart show fewer hierarchies without misrepresenting the structure surrounding your own position in the company. When it comes to your own organization do not brag about various levels under you, but how effectively you managed a large team or organization with easy access to leadership.
  4. Cite examples of speed and efficiency within your immediate ecosystem and compare them to what other organizations typically faced. Tell stories of how team members within your organization got creative without compromising policies and helped innovation in the process.
  5. Show that you know how to drive team members to achieve an optimum work-flow velocity that provides both efficiency and effective resource utilization: “The FCS release that I mentioned before (see #1) was accomplished in just nine months using 25% fewer resources because our team had optimized its workflow and had eliminated rework.

These are just some of the ideas that can be implemented when you realize that your past is getting in the way of how the interviewers are assessing your cultural fit if they see you as someone coming from a hierarchical and bureaucratic culture. Although this is not a guarantee of success it can be a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for acing the interviews.

Good luck!