I’ve chatted with enough Managing Directors, Vice-Presidents, and Human Resources personnel to know what someone means when they utter the term “culture fit.”
It’s just a way of telling a prospective employee that their “out of the box” thinking and unique, identifiable qualities need to be confined within that firm’s invisible “culture fence.”
You may think to yourself, “I’ve got all these great ideas and the best way for me to get noticed and move upward is to stand out!”
But “standing out” is not a great method for advancing when you work in a cubicle…
We’ve all interviewed or worked at companies that have their own unique social environments. At some shops, everyone who works in the office played sports in college, actively follows a popular television show, or eats lunch together all the time. Sometimes it’s easy to tell what a firm’s culture is but it’s more difficult when the signals are more subtle.
When you’re at an interview, should you take notice if the administrative assistant who ushers you into the office looks like they’ve spent most of their life training to be an Olympic athlete?
When the associate who greets you bears a strong resemblance to Ryan Reynolds, should you feel a little self-conscious?
And when the director slated to interview you looks like he was dressed by Tom Ford himself should you return your own suit after the interview?
It’s all worth a thought.
Numerous studies have confirmed that attractive, well-groomed people like working, socializing, eating, and hiring each other in any industry.
Should you stumble upon an office where most of the employees look like the cast out of Grey’s Anatomy outfitted by Hugo Boss, hopefully you’ve been hitting the gym, putting your Kiehls to good use, and taking a few (not all) sartorial pointers from GQ magazine.
And if you think it depends on the region you work in, you’d be sort of, but not entirely, correct.
East Coast Finance vs. West Coast Finance
I’ve spent the better part of my life on the East Coast. But anyone who has spent extended time in both New York and LA / the Bay Area is well-aware of the stark contrast between the two regions.
For example, the majority of New Yorkers who are in finance tend to have extreme “Type-A” personalities – mostly because the city’s water supply has been tainted with hyper-competition, compensation obsession, and material object fixation. If you live in this part of the world you might just get diagnosed with a complex heart ailment before your 25th birthday.
When you couple these traits with the persona of a city that favors conflict, every waking moment can appear as though it’s from a disturbingly addictive episode of The Sopranos, The Wire, or Jersey Shore. Other markers of this region include rampant sexual promiscuity, middle-class poverty, and an insomnia contagion – which might be, sadly enough some of the more “positive” qualities.
Everything on the West Coast, by contrast, seems more relaxed – from the weather, to the taxi cab drivers, to the person who serves your $8.00 latte every morning before work, to the bartender who serves your vodka and tonic afterhours, everyone just appears to be less high-strung.
I won’t say that the West Coast is less fixated on material wealth, but it’s a little more palatable by comparison. Just be aware that both coasts are still very much results-driven – so don’t think that investment banking, investment management, or any other high-end finance job will be easier.
Hot or Not?
What I’ve found very common between the two regions is their penchant for outgoing, attractive, and well-groomed (not to be confused with well-heeled) professionals.
I’ve interviewed and received job offers in both areas – sometimes with the most bizarre reasons explaining why I won the offer.
I’ve been told that I left an indelible impression because of my choice of cufflinks, my recreational wall-climbing interest, my teeth, and believe it or not, even my socks.
I wouldn’t put myself in the same category as a well-kept A-List actor, but taking the time to “be” and “look” the part is something I learned from my intern days on the Street.
Think of it this way: If you get an interview at a hedge fund, everyone knows your academic prowess; everyone assumes that you are intelligent; and they know that if you don’t know something, you can learn it quickly.
But what did you wear to the interview? Did you show up with an outdated, oversized wardrobe that screamed “Daddy’s Suit”? Did your color scheme tell everyone “I’m A Saturday Night Club Owner”? Physically, did you look like you spent your entire college years training part-time to be a sumo wrestler?
When you’re competing for a job, presentation matters.
So what does all this mean? To put it into context, I’ll provide three “cultural fit” questions that I’ve been asked by interviewers once I aced the technical parts of the interview.
“So What Do You Like to Do Outside of Work?”
The answer to this question is not intended to be a documentary about your life – it’s intended to give a realistic glimpse into your character. Your answer should fall into three categories:
Notice how I didn’t say anything about “charitable acts”. Realistically, who spends every waking weekend in a soup kitchen, or packaging survival supplies to refugees on Friday nights?
Most people I know party, do some sort of intellectual activity, and participate in sports or physical activities, in that order.
When I get this question, I don’t give much detail about each item: “I like to wall-climb, I enjoy freelance writing about a host of topics, and I help train aspiring collegiate football high school athletes.”
If they want to know more, I make it a conversation, not a monologue.
“I Like Your Tie. Where Did You Buy It?”
This question can be a compliment about anything that you are wearing – which is always a cue that someone admires your sense of style.
If you don’t know where you purchased the item, it shows that you may not care as much about your appearance as you should – not that you’re so fashion savvy that it’s practically a sixth sense.
On the flipside, going on for too long about any one item may show that you’re too preoccupied with your attire.
In a very indirect way, the answer to this question could be a testament to your attention to detail or even your work ethic.
If this question comes up, you should first acknowledge the compliment, say where you bought the item, and give some insight as to why you bought the item.
If you’re interviewing in front of someone who looks as though they’ve prepared for a fashion magazine spread, take careful note because the answer to this question could distinguish you from your peers.
Being noticed is a good thing as long as you do it with style and class. After you’ve answered the question, it’s also not a bad idea to give the interviewer a compliment as well.
“I See/Heard That You Played (Insert Sport Here). Do You Still Play For Recreation?”
This type of question is designed to figure out if you still actively work out and/or exercise.
In one of my interviews, the interviewer looked like he still ran quite a bit and from doing my own reconnaissance, I discovered that he actively competed in local running contests.
Earlier I mentioned that you could walk into an office where the administrative assistant resembles a finely-tuned athlete, but it could be any interviewer.
In a close-knit office environment, you may find yourself lacing up your New Balances if you still actively exercise – corporate gyms and smaller firm gyms offer camaraderie and the potential to get to know everyone well.
A former Director once asked me days into the job if I would be comfortable going for a light run one weekend – Why? Because I told him I still ran for recreation. Now I stuck to the gym whereas he preferred to run outside, but not agreeing to his request would have reflected poorly on me, and might have even made me look dishonest.
When working out with your peers or senior management, be aware that it’s not an open invitation to “max out” your bench press or to try to beat your personal best for a 12-mile run. If you want to really get an intense workout in, do it on your own time.
To answer this question in an interview, be forthright and honest in what physical activity you engage in – and remember that the canned “marathon runner” answer is outdated and overdone.
If you mention that you’re a biathlete, triathlete, pentathlete or whatever, you better be prepared to intelligently discuss what races you’ve participated in.
Unattractive and Poorly Dressed?
I’ve gotten tons of different behavioral and character-based questions in interviews – some were simple to answer, some were a challenge, and some were borderline-illegal.
But in any case, showing up well-prepared and well-groomed will always give you the best chance of acing the interview and becoming the firm’s newest hire.
That, and wearing the right socks.