THE MYTH OF A GOOD FIT
Updated: Mar 31
“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you.” John Wooden
School systems focused on reimagining themselves, in the wake of the pandemic, would be smart to institutionalize the wisdom of John Wooden when assembling their C-Suite team. Leaders need to start by abandoning cultural compatibility and lifestyle markers, euphemistically known as a "good fit," as the primary criteria for building their teams.
Why? Because looking-glass merit has no place in an institution responsible for protecting and perpetuating the ideals of American democracy. Instead, school systems must reestablish their cultural and organizational identity by institutionalizing practices and policies capable of withstanding the conventional weight of systemic inequities. The pandemic has shone a dark, national spotlight on them, in education and other American institutions. Given the perfect storm that's set the stage, it appears America is suddenly poised to address social justice in its institutions. It's a welcome occurrence for everyone who is committed to building a just, equitable, and inclusive education system, and a stronger democracy.
My motivation for writing this piece now is the persistence of good fit methodology in hiring practices that I've witnessed over the course of this early hiring season, at a time when leaders should be seeking sophisticated agents of change with demonstrated evidence that they have led, or been a part of, successful and large-scale reform efforts. When I've received reference calls this season from other superintendents, board members, or HR managers, they invariably are focused on fit. I am not devaluing finding a person who can work harmoniously and productively with individuals and groups, as most C-Suite job descriptions identify as an "ability" required for the position. I am simply saying it could be a starting point, but should never be an ending point.
The domino effect of many superintendents parting ways with their school boards and other veteran education leaders retiring by incentive or due to pandemic schooling and its anticipated aftermath has spurred a great deal of activity in the C-Suite, providing fertile ground for organizational growth.
In my role as a member of the educational leadership faculty at CSUF, I work closely with our candidates and graduates to find advanced placement in educational leadership positions. I also work with colleagues, past and present, who seek advice and counsel on career advancement, given my interest and work in career development and my position as a superintendent.
OK, given all of that, let me attempt to bring clarity to my position on the concept, idea, and methodology of cultural fit. My rejection of it as a best practice in no way underestimates the importance and role that culture plays in hiring practices and institutional stability. Especially if the organization happens to have a positive culture and high-functioning group dynamics.
But, when organizations focus on people who "fit in" they are reinforcing an organizational tendency to seek confirmation of its ideas, beliefs, and theories. There is also a danger that such a practice may result in discrimination.
It's a form of confirmation bias and a barrier for education leaders who aspire to lift the collective weight of internal and external pressures so an organization can move forward. Institutional inertia reinforces the status quo and makes it difficult to be nimble, flexible, and adaptive, all coveted organizational traits of 21st Century organizations, but rarely associated with school districts, especially large school districts. Focusing hiring practices on the good fit principle further reinforces the status quo.
There's science behind my countercultural take on good-fit fanaticism. Two theories, in particular, exemplify defective decision-making and the dangers of not managing agreement effectively: Groupthink, introduced by psychologist Irving Janis fifty years ago, and the Abilene Paradox, introduced by management thinker Jerry B. Harvey around the same time. I'm applying them in the context of hiring practices, but they apply to all forms of decision-making. Including reopening schools.
In Harvey's words, "Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solve them."
Like all paradoxes, the Abilene Paradox deals with absurdity since it is illogical to take actions that are diametrically opposed to the data and knowledge and even good sense skilled leaders possess for solving crucial organizational problems. Yet, it's more common than you might think.
To prove his point, Harvey deconstructed the Watergate episode as an example of how even the brightest and most powerful people in the world can make a decision that makes no sense, at all. Nixon and his Cabinet implemented a plan that stood in stark disagreement with everything they knew was right, proper, and appropriate. The inability to manage agreement led to a decision that defined a president and an era. It's based on the concept of action anxiety, which maintains that group members take actions in contradiction to what they know should be done due to intense anxiety to act in accordance with what they believe needs to be done.
The other example of neurotic organizational tendencies is the phenomenon of Groupthink. It's similar to the Abilene Paradox in that it too leads to defective decision-making, due to a failure to resolve agreement. Where they differ is Groupthink makes people feel good about bad public decisions, while the Abilene Paradox makes people feel bad about good private decisions withheld from the group. While the Abilene Paradox creates conflict in the aftermath, Groupthink engenders esprit de corps among its members.
In the interest of my argument that the good fit is a bad practice, it's the major corollary of both Groupthink and the Abilene Paradox, the inability to manage agreement, that I'm focusing on. Leaders will tell you that their job is managing and resolving conflict. And to a certain degree, it is. But much of that conflict is self-inflicted and the result of not managing agreement well. It's a leadership defect that often goes undetected until leaders wake up one day and realize the very system they're trying to change, they've created.
The good fit principle is a prime example of the pernicious influence of both Groupthink and the Abilene Paradox. More like-minded people reinforce the status quo.
Profiles, even for superintendents, a group of one by virtue of being the only employee of a school district hired and evaluated by elected officials, are commonly based on "fit" culture. Instead of an explicit fit, in the case of superintendents, school board and the executive search firms they collaborate with to find their superintendent, are smart to find a match that is complementary to the organizational culture, instead of one who fits in it. The same goes for superintendents staffing their cabinet or cabinet-members staffing their division. Find a good match. Don't settle on a good fit.
Author of Good to Great, Jim Collins, has dedicated most of his career studying and teaching the habits and philosophies that separate the absolute best companies from the rest of the pack. He studies and writes about the public sector too. While he recognizes that cultural fit has purpose, it has its limitations too. He has found that the best companies don’t hire people who fit where the company is now, they hire people who will help the company get to where they want to be. It's like "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it's been.”
For John Wooden, the right person will not be influenced by Groupthink or fall victim to the Abilene Paradox. The right person will take actions in accordance with what they know should be done, no matter what the consequences are for standing out in the crowd.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of outstanding is standing out. Great leaders like John Wooden manage agreement so that there are rewards, not consequences, for out-standing people. Besides, people who are willing to stand up for what is right, particularly in the face of intense pressure, are not worried about consequences anyway. In fact, they are fueled by them.
People willing to take the heat, may take comfort in another Woodenism: “Things
turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
My advice to those who ask: Go somewhere you can standout, not fit in.