“Cultural fit”, the difference between Hiring the “Best” candidate vs. the “Right” candidate

Posted by:  Linda Schaler
Posted on:  July 20, 2015

We recently had conversations with two Chief Academic Officers, at two very different institutions. In the last few years, each faced what they described as, a “failed” Dean search. Both went through what they believed were successful searches and hired the best candidate as recommended by their search committees. Each candidate was excellent on paper and exceled in their interviews. However, neither made it to the two year mark before being let go and interims appointed.

The reason? The newly hired Dean’s didn’t “fit” culturally within their new institutions.

This is where working with a search firm and a very engaged search committee can have a tremendous advantage. In vetting and selecting candidates we carefully consider the school’s mission, goals for the position, and cultural fit. Our job is to educate the committee on the full range of diverse candidates qualified to assume the role.

In a recent New York Times article, “Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work”, columnist Laura A. Rivera notes a recent survey where 80% of employers named “fit” as a top recruiting priority. She states “When done carefully, selecting new workers this way can make organizations more productive and profitable.” But how much weight does your institution actually put on cultural fit when recruiting and going through the search process? And what are the potential consequences if you ignore it?

You have probably experienced this phenomenon first-hand or heard similar stories. A candidate from Maine becomes a Dean for an institution in Utah and fails to “connect” with his/her new surroundings, faculty, and/or community. Or a faculty member from Boston, who relies on public transportation and enjoys walking everywhere has a hard time adjusting to a more suburban campus 40 miles away where a car is a necessity and restaurants close at 10 PM. Whether you are considering candidates in your own backyard or 3,000 miles away, how can you avoid the above scenarios?

It’s imperative to find ways to ask the important questions that can reveal the answers necessary to assess the issue of fit. Your institution, especially at the Dean level, requires stability and consistency to build and sustain its success. This stability is directly correlated to student recruitment, retention, faculty engagement, and generating money for the institution in terms of fundraising and business partnerships.

Don’t hesitate to ask probing questions when assessing candidates. Asking in the interview process “Provide three ways you will build a community culture within the School?” or “Give an example of how you have adapted to and improved an existing culture when coming into an organization from the outside” will tell you much more than “Do you have any concerns with moving 3,000 miles away?” or “Do you get along well with people?”

The goal of the search process is to identify the right candidate for your institution, which may not always be the person with the seemingly best CV. A successful search not only produces top talent, but produces the right talent for your organization and culture—talent that endures and can help you build and grow for the long-term.

At Stephen-Bradford Search, we don't just help you hire employees, we help you find the right talent who will successfully grow your business. We're a proven recruitment firm based in New York, working across the US and globally. To learn more about Stephen-Bradford Search, our Washington, DC based higher education practice, our process and our team, please visit or