Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep.7 - Recruiting for Culture Fit, or Skill Set? with Sonal Bahl

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.


This second season of Centaur Stage is divided into four chapters, and this episode is the second of the second chapter, building teams. Marilyn hosted Sonal Bahl, Career Strategist and the Founder of Supercharge. In their discussion, Marilyn and Sonal explored what makes a good recruiter and how the recruitment process should go like, and what is the right balance between assessing for culture fit and assessing for skills.


Watch the full episode here.


About Sonal Bahl

Sonal Bahl is a returning guest from the first edition of the Cosmic Conference!

Sonal is an experienced HR Director and a Career Strategist, living in Belgium.

Originally from India, she has lived and worked in India, Uruguay, Chile, and France.

After nearly 2 decades in HR, screening over 250,000 resumes and conducting over 5,000 interviews in 3 continents - she has helped recruit, build, and evolve highly talented teams. She has experience working with large companies like GE & PwC, midsize family owned firms & startups.


Sonal helps people by offering authentic advice on how they can have a career they actually love. She will give you that extra edge you need to land that job, get promoted & improve your happiness at work.


She is also the creator and host of How I Got Hired, a top-rated career podcast in multiple countries. Sonal has an MBA from INSEAD, currently ranked number one program in Europe and top 2 globally. She speaks English, Hindi, Spanish, and French fluently.


About the Topic

To build a strong and happy team, you need to hire the right people. That means knowing how to assess the candidates’ skills and culture fit, and culture-add as we learned from Jonathan Yeo. While certain aspects of hiring for one’s skill set are obvious (for example, the position requiring specific degrees or past work), some are not, such as for soft skills, and the ability to learn more - which are not easily measurable. Moreover, no matter how skilled a candidate may be, it is very important for team members to share at least foundational values with the team. While recruiting someone who fits into the culture can contribute to the team’s success, over or mis-doing it, can also lead to having a very homogeneous team.


Recruitment 101

Marilyn started the session by asking Sonal about what it takes to be a good hiring manager, and what are the most important elements of the recruiting process.


Sonal stated that the most important thing is to recognize the fact that we're human, and we're going to have biases at every step of the way. The more focused you are about the position you’re recruiting for, the more open minded will be about who can fill the position, although some biases will still be there.


“You have to peel back the onion and wonder if some expectations are really necessary. You are not a perfect person, why should the candidate be? The more we recognize the human side of things, the better the experience”, Sonal said.

Her advice resonated with Marilyn, who added that interviews are meant for both parties to decide if they like each other. She then asked Sonal how recruiters can make sure they maintain their humanity during the hiring process.


Sonal said that there will always be mistakes, and the recruitment process can never be completely perfect. “The two most obvious mistakes are the alpha error (hiring the wrong person), and the beta error, (is rejecting the right person). Both are painful, but it would be best to avoid hiring the wrong person, because it is extremely expensive. Resumes, cover letters, interviews, and decisions made on emotions, are all only sides of the story, they are imperfect ways to judge someone. It’s also important to find the balance between the two extremes of hiring, which are top-down, and doing twelve rounds of interviews. Get rid of but questions - no one knows what they are doing five years from now. Behavioral questions are a lot more useful, as there are no right or wrong answers, but they are about understanding the candidate’s tendencies”, she stated.


Marilyn wanted to learn more about behavioral questions, and how they are usually structured.


Sonal explained that the way people react to mistakes and failures says a lot about them, and shared an example of a question to ask about it. As a recruiter, you could ask the candidate “tell me about a time when things didn't really go your way”, and as the answer will try to spotlight them as the hero of the story, ask them to tell you more about what happened. The actual content of what happened is 20% of the answer, and the remaining 80% is about how they reacted, and their choice of words (how they are placing the blame, for example). This is where you can let your instinct probe further and really get to know a candidate.


Recruitment Tools

Marilyn then asked about other recruitment tools, and Sonal’s thoughts on referrals.


Sonal said that employee referrals are very powerful because the candidate would already understand how things work, and someone from the company already knows they will enjoy the work. But that is more of a channel to her than a tool in itself.


She then spoke about psychometric tests, which are very controversial as many people love them yet many also hate them. The statistics prove the error margin in those is actually really low, there is evidential correlation between how you do in those tests versus future success. But whichever tools are used, it’s always good to be balanced.


As for testing skills, they are also very helpful according to Sonal, because they tell you what a person's preferences are in their natural habitat. It is very hard to cheat on those types of tests, because the questions are repeated and reformulated.


Marilyn asked Sonal about how to assess both culture and skill set, and raised a question from the audience about the role of assignments since interviews are a lot about performance.


“Everything is a performance. Whether you are having a chat with a client or on a date, everything is a performance. The thing that is wrong is when you present a version of yourself that is 180 degrees opposite of what you are like in reality. Instead, what you want to do is to accentuate what you are already strong at”, Sonal answered.


As for assignments, Sonal thinks they are great, because they help you know about how candidates act under pressure, and how comfortable they can get with certain necessary aspects of the role. The problem is, some companies want to give assignments which are actually their real business problems, under the hopes of getting free consulting out of it. As a candidate, it’s important not to fall into these traps.


Marilyn shared that at one of her old jobs, the company had a three-step recruitment process: the first step being an interview to see if the person had the right skill set and knew the right terms, the second was an assignment to get done within a week, and the third was a feedback interview where the recruiters would look at the assignment with the candidate to to see how compatible they were in their ways of getting things done. “There are different ways to do assignments, and it’s okay to do whatever fits your culture”, Marilyn said.


Flexibility in Recruitment Criteria

Marilyn then mentioned that the world of work has become more flexible, and less focused on whether the candidate has the right skill set for the job. She asked Sonal about the instances when the opposite is true.

“The thing is that in the world we live in, we like binary thinking, and putting people in one camp or another, but the reality is a lot more boring”, Sonal stated. She explained that there are two main instances in which a skill set is a necessity: professions which require a license to operate (e.g. doctors, pilots, lawyers, teachers), and the other is when the position is at high stakes, for example a CFO at a $20 million-dollar company. But aside from the skills, most fields can be trained in.


“Hire for attitude, train for skill”, Sonal said.

Sonal then spoke about how firing someone is usually less about the person and more about them not being the right fit, so it’s important to take your time when hiring. She shared that through her podcast interviews with her guests who have hired hundreds of people,in companies of all sizes, that they focus more on the culture and attitude rather than skills. She clarified that by skills, she means specifically teachable skills as opposed to non-teachable ones: one can learn coding but soft, power, or life skills are more difficult to teach.


Integrated Recruitment

Marilyn asked Sonal about how to include in the recruitment process those soft and life skills. Sonal, who loves acronyms, shared ‘HEPLASH’ an acronym that she uses in hiring:


H: for Hunger, because interviewers can tell whether candidates really want the job or not.

E: Energy, how candidates show up matters a lot, and the delivery of the content actually can matter more than the content itself.

P: Potential, to see if the candidate can take on more responsibilities as the company grows.

L: Long-term thinking, because it takes around a year or a year and half for a new recruit to become fully autonomous.

A: Attitude, it is the glue that brings all of these concepts together.

S: Soft Skills, which emcompasses communication, people skills, problem solving skills, influencing skills, persuasion.

H: Hard Skills, the skills that you can teach, whether it’s in university or on the job.


Sonal pointed out the irony in the naming of the soft skills and hard skills, as the latter are often easier to go around, and that six out of seven of the components are related to how the person fits culturally, and if they add something to the culture.


Where do values stand?

Marilyn mentioned that hiring for culture fit requires having a clearly defined culture, which can be an issue sometimes as many companies actually do not have their virtues formalized or documented anywhere. She took a question from the audience, and asked Sonal if when one is working on the values of their company, they should also think of questions or ways to understand if the candidates will be a good fit, and if questions around values should be integrated in the interview process.


Sonal began her answer by stating that culture is very difficult to define and make concrete. One of the things that helps is to have values that are non-negotiable, as they allow you to draw the line in the sand. The interview is a great opportunity to find out where the candidate would stand in a certain real life situation. Although they would obviously emphasize their good side and hide their bad sides, there are still ways to understand them better, in order to avoid making mistakes in how they fit culturally. For example, the recruiter can ask about their views about something that happened in the news.


“The more you can extract out of them, the more you can get them to talk, the more you can be quiet. Let them speak, even if there is silence in the interview, don't feel awkward.Are they comfortable? Are they covering it up? Sometimes when I talk too much, it can be because of nervousness, which is okay, but then you should be able to tell if they are covering something up - it is a bit of detective work, and you will never know completely a hundred percent for sure. And that is okay, we're not hiring robots, but the sooner you realize where they stand on certain issues the better”, Sonal said.


Marilyn added that the interview process is a two-way street and integrating values in them enables you to know if both the candidate and the company share the same values, so as to not waste anyone’s time. Not every company matches for everyone, and that is alright.


Culture Add

However, there is an extreme to this aspect of culture fit, which is when you hire a lot of people who are similar to one another, and end up having a very homogeneous organization. Marilyn asked Sonal how to avoid falling into that trap, and how to maintain a diverse and inclusive organization, to stay innovative and interconnected.


Agreeing with Marilyn, Sonal stated that culture fit does get a bad reputation. “While diversity is a fact, inclusion is a feeling, and culture is also a feeling. A lot of studies have shown that when you have a culture that is a melting pot of different views, the end result cannot be compared. Recruitment should be about increasing the size of the pie, but unfortunately a lot of recruitment is based on fear - one of the reasons why people sometimes do a lot of rounds of interviews is to make sure this is the right person. The safe becomes people who look like us, sound like us, et cetera”, said Sonal.


Marilyn then asked Sonal about where employee referrals stand towards the extreme of culture fit, because although they are proven to be efficient, they can lead to having a lot less culture add in the organization.


Sonal answered that as long as it is not your only source of recruitment, then you are in a good place. She then brought up an analogy one of her podcast guests used once: “when the person steps in the room, whether they were referred to or headhunted, you want them to be radiator and not a drain. Radiators bring heat and warmth into the room on cold winter days, whereas drains suck out the energy when they walk in. In interviews, you have to also figure out if the candidate is nice. Not only intelligent and creative, but also simply nice.”


Rating Grids

Marilyn got curious about where Sonal stands on using rating grids in the recruitment process, and asked her about her thoughts on them.


Sonal said that she always felt like the best feedback is almost always qualitative, but there are obviously certain instances in which those grids and tables make sense in assessment. Being street smart is very important in doing a great job, and fortunately more and more people are realizing this.


🔥Rapid Fire

The one thing every team needs is…"Trust”

The one thing a team needs to avoid…"Gossiping behind one’s back”

A good team leader is…"A coach”

The best book on teams is…”Twelve and a half” by Gary Vaynerchuk

What’s your favorite team ritual? “I use this ritual, whether it's about me showing up to a live stream, or my client who I help when they're preparing for a very high stakes meeting. I keep a little bottle of perfume next to my laptop. I know that sounds ridiculous, but there is something that happens, it completely elevates your mood. You show up happier, and everyone is impressed.”