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“Culture is the differentiator for any company.”  That statement by Raj Singh, co-founder of Concur, was reinforced throughout a panel discussion at last week’s CEO Forum “From the CEO’s Perspective,” led by executive coach and author Teri Citterman.

Joining Raj on the panel were Scott Svenson, CEO of MOD Pizza, and Matt Ehrlichman, co-founder and CEO of Porch – all Seattle-area leaders who are passionate about culture and how it directly links to the success and growth of any organization.

Being from the world of executive search, I listened intently to the words of wisdom being shared with the eager audience of local business leaders. Culture – and thus culture fit – is one of the most important things we must understand and consider when identifying top candidates for our client companies. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear directly from CEOs how hiring for culture is top of mind, and what they do about it.

The three panelists offered several insights that were worth repeating.

Scott shared that “culture travels through stories.” But he emphasized that you can’t only tell the good stories. In times of crisis, everyone is watching — that’s when your values become really clear. All three leaders agreed not to be afraid to tell the stories of when things went wrong. Being able to tell the hard stories means you got through tough times with good people.

Raj emphasized that when his rapidly growing company committed their values to paper and started hiring based on them, as well as including the values in performance reviews and career development conversations, everything started to click and the company skyrocketed. They created a team that embodied their values and effortlessly brought them to life.

Matt agreed. At Porch they have learned that mapping to values is critical in hiring. One big guiding principal for the company is “no jerks, no egos.” He said those few times they compromised on that value because a resume was “too good to pass up,” it became a painful situation.  He added, “If you bring in the wrong person and then they start referring people in, it can go bad fast.”

Raj added that senior hires have serious impact in an organization because of the cascading effect. He advised that executives need to pay attention two or three layers deep when ensuring leaders are living the values of the company. If you have someone in the senior ranks who is too good at managing up, you may not realize when that person is tarnishing the culture and values that were so carefully built.

And finally, Scott shared something that happens at MOD that was a game changer. “Don’t get caught up on process. Lift your head up.” To make sure it happens in his restaurants, each general manager comes to the weekly meeting and shares a story of how they ‘caught’ a team member living the values. Employees feel recognized, leaders focus on what’s going right, and the culture is reinforced.

For more information on this event, check out Teri Citterman’s post here.