What enables Southwest Airlines to achieve the status of a highly admired organization, besides forty- two years of straight profitability and enviable productivity while other airlines struggle in the same market?
Even more intriguing is that all other airlines fully know what Southwest’s strategy is but they just can’t get to its trajectory. Southwest follows a simple low-cost strategy, which includes single type of aircraft (B 737), point-to-point short-haul operations, quick turnarounds coupled with exemplary customer service in its category (“We like to think of ourselves as a Customer Service company that happens to fly airplanes”). And yet, the competitors can’t catch up with Southwest’s performance. How does one explain this?
Building culture at hiring itself
Southwest follows a unique approach to cultivating its work culture, built around collaboration and teamwork. While most organizations hire people for their skills, knowledge and attitude, Southwest hires for all of that plus, but firstly, for cultural-fit. That’s where lies the key difference between Southwest and the rest, for not many organizations focus on hiring for culture-fit.
In her December 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, Julie Weber, Vice-President of People, at Southwest, says: “We hire people who are engaged from the start, whose values are in sync with the organization’s”, pointing out that Southwest hires just 2% of all applicants, closely examining each applicant for culture-fit.
Why hiring for culture-fit is important?
In a longitudinal study  of 173 young high-technology companies, researchers found that firms that emphasized a strong culture and hiring based on culture-fit, stood out by completing initial public stock offerings sooner.
Take Google, a company that has grown to 60,000 employees in a matter of 17 years and yet has worked hard to preserve an “open culture.” And to ensure its culture is not diluted, the company pays close attention to the hiring process because that’s where the journey for right culture for great performance begins.
People with right values, when aligned with company’s values, produce a synergistic effect, increasing engagement and accelerating performance. On the other hand, people who are not in alignment with organization’s values produce a dysfunctional local environment, fighting against company’s values or principles besides lowering their own and their group’s performance and worst still, producing cynicism. Little wonder Zappos.com, a company known for treating culture as its main competitive advantage, has no hesitation in offering $2000 to a newly hired employee who doesn’t feel like a good fit for its culture. The idea is simple: If you don’t fit into the culture, it’s neither good for you nor for the company.
Roadmap for hiring for culture
All organizations, especially startups, need to place high priority on hiring talent but you also want to simultaneously build and strengthen your culture—just like Southwest does. Here is a broad roadmap for hiring for culture-fit:
Define your values
Before embarking on a hiring program, define the core values or the principles the founders and the leaders wish to live by. If this step is missed, on one hand a default culture will get formed, which may not be in alignment with the values you wish to hold. And on other hand, undefined or poorly defined values will result in large number of new hires who might not be intrinsically in agreement with organizational values—a huge risk for future performance.
Derive the “Attributes” that you need
Once you have defined the values, convert them into attributes, which are observable behaviors people need to display to live up to the values defined earlier. For example, if “customer service” is your core value, like it is for Zappos.com, you may like to look for friendly and polite demeanor, demonstrated empathy and ability to ride over emotions in stressful situations (e.g., dealing with irate customers). Or if “operational excellence” is the core value, like for Grofers.com, a logistics startup in India, then attributes like detail-orientation, teamwork and ability to stick to defined routines become important. In organizations where amazing user experience is a core value, like for Apple, the ability to empathize with users would be an important attribute to look for.
Develop a system to select right people
This is the step where the organization needs to create a system to progressively sift applicants to examine their fit vis-à-vis attributes already established. Variety of tools can be used at this stage. For example, according to one seminal study , general cognitive ability tests (that test raw intelligence and learning ability) as well as structured interviews (both individually explaining 26% of the employee’s performance) are far better tools as compared to say, unstructured interviews (explains 14%).
Google, for instance, combines many of the above techniques and uses an internal tool called “qDroid,” which guides the interviewers through the kind of pre-validated questions they should ask.
As the COO of a food startup, I remember interviewing one bright candidate. When asked how he achieved an exemplary financial performance in rather difficult circumstances, the candidate made a passing reference to dilution of investments in testing and quality to shore up the bottom line, something that was in direct conflict with our core value of “quality.” We had to politely refuse hiring because he didn’t fit into our culture of upholding quality as the highest value.
Consistent superior performance at Southwest or Google is not a matter of chance; among other factors, it is a result of unique culture deliberately built and preserved by hiring people who are good culture-fits.
Most organizations hire for talent, but hiring for culture-fit…that’s where leaders stand out from the pack.
 N Baron, M T Hannan and M D Burton; Labor pains: Change in Organizational Models and Employee turnover in Young, High Technology Firms; American Journal of Sociology, 106 (2001)
 Schmidt, Frank and Hunter, John; The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical implications of 85 years of Research Findings; Psychological Bulletin (1998)