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What a Professor & the Wu-Tang Clan Can Teach Your Nonprofit

February 11, 2016

Ben Duda headshotToday’s post is written by AmeriCorps Alums’ Co-Executive Director, Ben Duda (full bio below), and is part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders.  

Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Beyoncé gave us the latest example of a musical “mashup” last Sunday at the Super Bowl, with more sure to come at the Grammys this month. And when it comes to musical collaborations, building a group whose contrasts are as interesting as their harmonies is key. A new book by Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management, suggests the same is true for forming strong teams.

In an interview about Grant’s book, Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World, he shares an interesting take on how hiring managers define “cultural fit” for prospective employees that I think is acutely appropriate for the social sector.

originalsIf you look at the hiring process,” says Professor Grant, “most leaders try to hire on cultural fit, they say look, we want people who share our values. And that’s a really good way to create a clone of your company. The data show that companies that hire on cultural fit initially benefit from a lot of motivation and solidarity, but then they fall victim to group think, and they grow at slower rates. What you need to do is hire on cultural contribution, which is about saying, we don’t want people who just replicate our culture, we want to figure out what is missing from the culture, and privilege that. So, let’s bring in a bunch of people that will enrich the culture, not just give us what we already have.”

In other words, if you’re hiring for cultural fit, and not enrichment, you’re missing out. And AmeriCorps alums, who are more diverse than the U.S. population and have a proven ability to take skills built in service to their careers, could be a significant portion of the talent pipeline you’re missing.


Photo By Derzsi Elekes Andor via Wikimedia Commons

It’s clearer to see Grant’s concept at work when we look toward music again. So let’s think about this using two of my personal favorites: The Band and the Wu-Tang Clan. In assembling these iconic groups, each looked for members who could make cultural contributions to the work rather than the clones that Professor Grant warns us about. In The Band’s case, musical mastery came from five musicians and three singers, including a painfully shy savant on organ, a joyful bassist with warm vocals and a dynamic range, a raspy-singing nuanced drummer from Arkansas, a high tenor on piano, and a non-singing front-man/songwriter playing lead.

Similarly, Wu-Tang Clan wouldn’t be what it is if it was just a collection of Method Mans. They paired his charismatic style with the thoughtfulness of GZA, the poetic Ghostface, the braggadocio of Raekwon, the technical acumen of the RZA, and more, to make Wu-Tang a transcendent force in music.

So when you’re asked to speak about cultural fit as a potential candidate in your next interview, think about the Originals. And The Band. Make the case about your potential for cultural contribution. What are you uniquely suited to add to an organization’s mission, vision and culture that will move the work forward? You’re not exactly like everyone else in the organization, and that can become a selling point and not a barrier to your hiring.

diversity stock pixabayAnd, let me take a minute to address alums who help make hiring decisions and are ideally situated on the frontlines of this work. We’ve talked before about race and equity in the social sector and how we’re not working in a field as diverse as the communities we serve. How are hiring practices at your organization balancing cultural fit with the possibility of cultural enrichment? What’s keeping your organization from fielding a staff as diverse as our community?

Shifting the paradigm from cultural fit to cultural contribution can pay powerful dividends in how we think about talent and teams in the nonprofit sector. I choose a social sector that will make its own WuTangClan.orgs. I choose a sector that has room – and makes room – for everyone to contribute.

Author BioBen Duda completed two years in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) as a Corps member and team leader. In addition, Ben served as a teaching fellow for middle school students with Citizen Schools’ AmeriCorps program in Boston. Dedicated to increasing civic engagement and impact, Ben then spent five years after AmeriCorps as a senior program manager with KaBOOM! where he grew and led a major campaign to increase the engagement of mayors and city residents in supporting play and physical activities. During his tenure at AmeriCorps Alums, Ben has expanded its programming to provide professional and purpose-driven leadership development opportunities to AmeriCorps alumni while building extensive partnership with universities and employers. Ben holds a M.P.P. in Urban Policy from The Johns Hopkins University, and a B.S. in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University.

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