Case Study: The Importance of Culture

by Visus Group Partner Don Jastrebski, Culture Consultant

The president of a $20-25 million education company, was told by his college buddy not to hire a particular candidate to replace himself.  He had taken over as president when the family hedge fund acquired the organization.  He was trying to set it up for the future.  The president ignored this advice, as is usually the case, and hired the candidate anyway.  6 months later he fired the candidate for dishonesty, and embarked on another search.

This time the president thought bigger.  With hedge fund backing, he had seemingly unlimited resources.  Now, he wanted to hire the superintendent of Dallas Public schools.  Again his college buddy told him to not hire this guy—he didn’t fit the culture.  But again he ignored this advice.  He was enamored with the superintendent’s pedigree, his contacts, his standing in the education industry.  He would bring prestige to the organization and put the company on the map.  He was totally focused on this candidate’s potential—which he envisioned in his own mind.  He really didn’t want to hear naysayers who were warning of the candidates lack of culture fit.  He hired him anyways.  Less than a year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, he fired him.  He kept him longer than he should have because he made such a large investment to persuade the candidate to leave Dallas and relocate to join a private sector company.

Not only did he waste hundreds of thousands of dollars in relocation cost, signing bonus, salary, termination settlement and outplacement for the failed hire—but he wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales, productivity and executive salaries, while his team  invested hours in things that had little benefit to the company or its customers.  The former superintendent, upon his arrival, set about establishing a number of initiatives and programs that he thought important, but were superfluous.  They were totally unimportant to customers and staff and the company’s best people spent hours on initiatives the customer didn’t care about.  Different cultures worry about different things, and the superintendent’s preferences were of little importance to company customers, who primarily shared the company’s culture.   Finally, even the hedge fund had its cost limit and the president had to pull the plug.

Thereafter, every new hire had to take the culture profile, even though his college buddy told him it was really only necessary for employees with customer contact or decision-making responsibility.

The Story Continues

A few years later, this same company had difficulty retaining sales people after Federal ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation revamped U.S. education and disrupted the industry.  Previously, customers were school principals, or on occasion, district superintendents.  Now they had to sell to state legislators trying to implement the Federal mandate.  Many on the sales staff could not make the transition from selling to local customers to selling at the state level.  The company had a dismal record replacing those who could not adjust.  The majority of sales’ new-hires left within the first year.  The situation was desperate.

This time the CAT (the same Culture Assessment Tool) was used to assess the sales force.  The company was amazed to discover that their few successful sales people all had the same culture profile—the same mindset.  Thus began the search to find candidates with their top sales performers’ culture profile.  They had a 30 to 35-person sales force with a supporting cadre of 40+ customer account representatives who trained and supported customers while maintaining the the relationship.  This group was assessed by the CAT to identify those with the same top sales performer mindset, thus representing at least potential for success.  These people were offered promotions into sales.  To the company’s amazement those who chose to accept the promotion were immediately successful with virtually no turnover—they knew the product, knew the key customer issues and thought like the customer.  Their mindset matched their customers’ mindset—in which the customers’ needs and expectations were embedded. Customers know they understood them, they trusted them, and sales followed.


  1. Assesses a candidate’s fit with the receiving culture
    • Discovers if a candidate’s past success was accomplished in the same or different culture
    • Foreshadow the candidate’s potential for long term success
    • Avoid the cost of a bad hire. Identify a candidate’s fit
  2. Use the Culture Assessment Tool (CAT) to select top candidates.
    • CAT provides the hard data and research to identify the culture type preferred by high performing individuals
    • The output provides the context for selecting candidates who prefer the same top performer mindset
    • These candidates have the appropriate thinking/decision bias that attracts the target mindset of external & internal customers.
  1. All other selection instruments measure a candidate’s strength in targeted traits found in a normative population across all culture types.
    • They measure specific traits generalized to all cultures. They do not measure a candidate’s fit with one specific organization culture—or their customers.
    • Other selection tests measure success traits, not culture fit.

As a staffing or recruitment firm leader, establishing excellent culture and ensuring there is culture fit should be one of your larger roles in the business. The impact is too important to miss! If Visus Group can provide any guidance, please let us know!

In Staffing, those firms with a great strategy go far, those with a great culture go much farther.

Don’t get me wrong, I love strategy. The big decisions. The army generals in the war room, looming maps, deep thought discussions on sweeping moves. But where the rubber meets the road, where execution is had, where battles are won, is at the culture level. “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is a very famous comment made by Peter Drucker that drives to the very point of this article – culture is key. What this means is that a company can have the most well thought out strategy in the world, but if the company lacks an engaging culture or does not truly align to a common purpose, the results could be disastrous. With my staffing clients, I see a wide range of companies with strong cultures and those with ever-changing cultures or lack identity. The degree of growth among these various firms is eye-popping.

Building an engaging culture is a very challenging task regardless of the size of the business. It is likely more difficult in small firms versus middle market or enterprise firms. In small firms, the culture is driven 100% by the owner / operator of the business. Venturous decision making versus prudent decision making, autocratic management versus collaborative management, highly standardized sales methodologies versus non-standardized sales methodologies, etc., it all falls on the back of the owner / operator. How can this problem be solved and how can a firm of any size build an engaging culture?

Build a Culture Team

It all starts with a compelling vision and core values. A VISION is not “we want to grow to $100M in revenue”. Vision is not “we want to open offices in 25 States”. Vision answers the question, “What difference in the lives of our clients, candidates and internal employees does our organization make?” It is unchanging. Deeper than and far more reaching than a revenue goal or a strategy. Core VALUES are the principles in which we live by. The gas that fuels the engine. The guideposts that direct our behaviors with clients, candidates and internal employees. These values are mentors that coach us through decision making. If a company has no vision and no core values then it is dead in the water. The company will never have an engaging culture where execution and positive results will always be an issue.  

Once vision and core values are established, management can build out what we call a “culture team”.  What is this? It is a team of internal employees selected by leadership that is both cross functional and cross generational that meets or exceeds the newly discovered core values. If a company is serious about creating an engaging culture then members from sales, operations, back office and management need to all be represented on a culture team. Representation just from one or two departments and the culture team’s efforts will not only become meaningless but likely that the team will experience group think. Cross generational representation is also critical. Generational gaps are real. A lot of companies never address it. “Oh, that’s just John, he is long in the tooth”. “Oh, that’s just Ashley, she is a millennial”. This type of thinking and speaking in a company is a culture killer. 

Once this team is established, they conduct a series of interactive dialogues on some challenging questions. Notice I did not say “a series of meetings”. These engagements are not meetings, rather they are spaces where members of the organization can speak from their hearts about what matters most to them about being a sales executive, about being a recruiter, or about being a back office support person to the organization. They are spaces where members share where they find purpose and meaning in careers and in their working relationships with their colleagues. Creating these spaces is crucial in building a sense of purpose and accountability among the entire members of your team. When we typically engage in a cultural assessment with our clients, one easy way to test whether a staffing firm does indeed have a strong and engaging culture is through a brief, informal focus group. Why do I say focus group? Because it’s an easy way to see whether your teams are rowing in the same direction (by aligning to a common culture or purpose) or spending their time complaining and pointing fingers. It’s unfortunate, but it happens more often than not. And, most importantly, it’s best to get everything out on the table in order to build a true and honest culture within your group.

A culture team will dig deep and respond to questions about the specific behaviors that tie back into the values of the organization. What specifically does it mean to be a culture of integrity? What are the specific behaviors that exude living out a value of integrity? Take any of the common values we see posted on a company’s website such as, Honesty, Integrity, Community. Someone, the culture team, or better yet, leadership has to articulate the specific behaviors that live out the values or short list of values. There is a reason why a sizable number of employees cannot recite the company’s core values. It has nothing to do with their memory. They simply have never been asked to enroll in the company’s values or they have never been shared. The behaviors are not articulated, modeled nor discussed in any corporate gatherings by leadership and most often, the founder / owner.  

Culture work is not for the faint of heart. It is risky. It is work. Here at the Visus Group, this is the kind of work we help owners and leadership teams walk through. The war for talent is a real thing. Sure, we can certainly work with your staffing on creating a sound strategy, or building a growth plan, but having an innate, engaging culture goes a long way toward achieving results and beating the competition.