Two things to look for in candidates instead of “culture fit”

First impression matters.
First impression matters.
Image: AP/LM Otero
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Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer, was designing a new feature for his last company, Behance, when his co-founder Matias Corea came to him with a question.

Behance was a site where creative professionals could show off their portfolios. The feature Belsky was designing allowed users to pick their creative “realm,” like industrial design or typography, as they signed up.

“Scott, what is a realm?” Corea, who was born in Spain, asked. “Most of my friends don’t know what that means, and a lot can’t even pronounce it.”

Belsky was a Harvard Business School-educated, former Goldman Sachs analyst who had business in his DNA. His co-founder was in many ways his foil. Corea was a typography nerd who had never built a website before he started helping Belsky with Behance. “His only real experience [before Behance] was designing a catalog for a saxophone manufacturer,” says Belsky.

They decided to change the wording of the sign-up page to say “creative field” instead of “creative realm,” which lead to spike in conversion rates on the site. Six years after that fateful design decision, Adobe acquired Behance for over $150 million.

Now at Adobe, Belsky spends his days thinking about how to make teams more creative and innovative. He’s got his philosophy down to a science.

“Innovation is identifying an edge that will someday become the center,” says Belsky. “And the only answer I can come up with [for how to find more edges] is to hire an extraordinarily different group of extraordinary people.” His logic, though sound, is not particularly surprising. Diversity has long been heralded as the key to outside-the-box thinking. But his means of bringing on diverse teams flies in the face of some conventional hiring logic.

“The word ‘culture fit’ basically means whether or not people feel familiar and comfortable with this person in a 30-minute interview,” says Belsky. “That means that they’re looking for people like themselves, which is a dangerous concept.”

Instead, Belsky looks for two other things when hiring.

1. Does this candidate make you curious?

To Belsky, your degree of curiosity in someone you meet is a great measure of what that person will add to the team.

“Curiosity and growth of intellect are better signals” of an innovative teammate. Belsky tries to surround himself with folks that will help him see the edges.

2. Is each conversation with this candidate more interesting than the last?

To Belsky, this is a healthy signal that you’ve found someone special.

Perhaps it’s not scientific, but then neither is the concept of cultural fit, which he says is “really just driven by bias and superficial measures.”

Adobe’s Scott Belsky.
Adobe’s Scott Belsky.
Image: Adobe

Belsky has found that many of the candidates who fit both criteria are people who speak multiple languages. Not only are multilinguists’ brains wired differently, but they tend to have different lexicons, cultures, and experiences to draw from whether in making conversation or thinking through business problems.

Unlike most US-based startups, Behance had a user base that was more than 50% international from day one. Belsky attributes a lot of the company’s success to having people in the room that came from backgrounds that were very different from his, and from one another.

“The more successful a company is, the more similar it becomes,” says Belsky. “But edges are identified through mistakes of the eye. To be innovative on a consistent basis, you need to have respect for people that see things that you don’t.”