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Company Culture: Why We Hire for Humility (Over Skill) 

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by Dave Gandy

I don’t know about you people, but I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.” — Gavin Belson


Let’s be honest here. There are probably already enough companies producing widgets, technology, and toys. What the world is in short supply of is organizations with a soul that reflects the right kind of bottom line. 

But for an organization like that to exist requires a certain kind of company culture. And cultures depend on the right kind of people.  

So, we know that icons are never going to change the world. But good people might. That’s why we always hire for humility over skill. 

A Bottom Line Beyond Profits

Before you read on, if you’re looking for a business case for why a company needs to exist beyond the ability to make money, you can stop reading now. I will save you ten minutes so you can go make more money instead. You’re welcome.  

So … you’re saying that fostering healthy company culture will cost something?

Companies that go about making a business case for the importance of fostering a “healthy company culture” are fooling themselves. Having a soul will cost you money, and the bottom line always wins at companies like this.

We’ve all experienced those kinds of HR campaigns. Your company wants to improve its “culture,” so, out of the blue, it starts “valuing” its employees. And why is that? So there’s less churn? OK, great. So, what happens if it turns out churn doesn’t get better? Do you decide not to value people? 

Here’s the deal: if your company decides to have a value and a bottom line other than money, it will always cost something. That means you have to be more thoughtful about your business.

Shallow Definitions of Company Culture 

When these HR campaigns get underway, a lot of workplace jargon starts getting thrown around about “culture.” Culture is a fine word, but at most companies, more often than not, the definition of “culture” is a hollow shell of what culture actually is. 

Culture is what happens when multiple people get together. That’s it. 

If you have a couple nerds at your company that like foosball, fine. Get a foosball table. Fill a fridge full of energy drinks. Try out a new beer on Fridays. Order out for Taco Tuesday. Host forums on social issues so your staff can become more aware and empathetic towards others. Sponsor a community event.  

All those things are great. But the activities of a culture are not culture. The notion that we can fundamentally shape our company cultures with activities or snacks is stupid.   

If you want to inform company culture, hire the right people. Period. Full stop. That’s it.

Beware of Hiring the “A Player” or “Rockstar” 

A critical bottleneck in most companies is hiring the right people. The problem is, most people’s understanding of who the right people are is all wrong. 

We tend to hire for skills and experience. We hire intelligent people. Experts. Rockstars. “A” players.  

When you set out to build a healthy company culture, beware hiring the “rockstar”.

Sadly, those routinely hired for the value of their skills start believing that talent is all that matters. Now take that core belief and hitch it to an “A player” persona, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, because these kinds of people tend to behave atrociously. 

The conventional wisdom of hiring is backward. Most companies hire for smarts and capability, and most fire employees for behavior. Very few people are fired for lacking skill. 

We can train people to gain capabilities and skills. But you can’t really teach a person to be unselfish. Sorry, but working in an office full of soulless “A players” one-upping each other at the foosball table pounding energy drinks is a nightmare.

At Font Awesome, we’d much rather build a business alongside nerds with humility. People who value other people over smarts, machines, or money. 

Our Hiring Philosophy: Hire Nerds with Humility

Our hiring process is involved, but it includes three key things that we think signal humility. 

The first step to building healthy company culture: Hire humble nerds.

First of all, the “who” of our hiring depends on someone’s character. I’ve always gravitated towards the kinds of nerds who are trustworthy and like people. How we treat one another in the workplace is most important to us — even more so than what we might know. 

Secondly, we look for voracious learners, especially those who are constantly learning new things, because the very act of learning something new inherently involves saying to yourself, “I don’t know,” which is in itself an act of humility.

Third, we look for people who aren’t above grunt work. When you work at a startup, you’ve got to clean up the bathrooms sometimes, and some believe scrubbing toilets is beneath them. In fact, we’ve passed up a candidate before who had a lot of experience but who wasn’t interested in doing any of the “entry-level” stuff that needed to get done. Instead, we went with someone far more junior because they were willing to get their hands dirty. They had humility. 

How To Identify a Humble Nerd: A Long Interview Process  

Interviews are a pretty contrived situation. So when you hire for character first, you need to put people in situations where their character leaks out. Of course, we’ll do a whiteboard session to see if they have the skills necessary to do the job, and we can suss that out pretty quick. 

So, If you’re lucky, at some point, the interview will go off the rails into non-job-related territory. When you finally get off topic from the main stuff and get your candidate to speak in an unguarded way, you can begin to get a sense of who they are. 

But the most critical part of the interview for us is working on a substantive project together.  

In a real-world project, disagreements will inevitably arise. We want to see how someone handles conflict through their behavior. And to really see examples of that behavior may take nine months to a year of off-and-on communication.

The first step to building good company culture: hire humility in action

Southwest Airlines is well known as a “values” driven organization. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you may have noticed their staff’s upbeat, can-do, funny personalities. Similarly, they hire for character first. 

One way they’ve done this in the past when hiring for a C-level position is to see how the candidate acts once they’re told at the front desk that their appointment isn’t on the calendar. Of course, the front desk staff is in on the gag. But the point is to see how someone reacts to a mistake. Do they fly off the handle or mistreat the front desk person? Or do they treat them with respect and patience?

That may be an overly engineered situation, but it is important to see if a candidate will act with character under pressure.  

The Real Reason We Created Font Awesome: To Create a Great Company Culture

The real reason we created Font Awesome was to work with the best human beings we’ve ever known who also happen to be world class experts in their field. The icons and the technology is secondary to that primary goal. We define our “A” player as someone who possesses humility. And we’re committed to helping each other live their lives the way they think is good, true, and right. 

In the grand scheme of things, we know that icons are not that important. We’re glad they help make your website look better, and we’re working to make sure you get your money’s worth. So, we know our tech isn’t going to make the world a better place. But quality people do.