Cake & Arrow (formerly Ai) circa 2005 Cake & Arrow (formerly Ai)circa 2005

As employee number nine of what was, in 2005, a three-year-old agency to what is now, in 2017 a 50-person agency with 15 years of experience in retail, ecommerce, and insurance customer experience design, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go through Cake & Arrow’s doors. What started as a predominantly all male company with all full-time employees is now a solid mixture of males/females and full-time employees/contractors. And as the employee makeup of our company has changed, so has the organization itself, and the work that we do.

Throughout my 12 years with the company, I’ve been honored to work with an extremely diverse set of individuals. And while we have all come from different places, with different backgrounds, and bring to the table different sets of experiences, we also have things in common. Instilled within the Cake & Arrow employee is a core set of values that ladder up to who Cake & Arrow really is, who Cake & Arrow wants to be, and the legacy that Cake & Arrow wants to leave behind.

Just last year we went through a rebrand, and with that came a long hard look in the mirror. The rebrand gave us an opportunity to articulate who we are at our core as a collective group–our innate set of traits and values–and ultimately helped us realize that what we are really looking for when we bring people on board at Cake & Arrow isn’t whether a person is a cultural fit, but instead whether they possess a certain quality of character. We aren’t looking for people to fit into our culture, but for people who possess the character qualities needed to help Cake & Arrow evolve, and make it an even better place to work that delivers better work.

It’s not about culture, it’s about character

For the past decade or so, the idea of hiring for “cultural fit” has been in vogue, especially in the tech industry. But more recently, many have pointed out how this kind of hiring can lead to a lack of diversity, which can be discriminatory, and can actually be bad for a company and for innovation.

How can we hire people that don’t just fit into our culture, but can help us create a better one? One word: CHARACTER.

As an agency we are:

  • Rigorous Like Dian Fossey, we analyze the evidence, pay attention to details, and reach ground-breaking insights
  • Resourceful Like Indiana Jones, we spin on a dime to solve unexpected challenges and plunge confidently into unknown adventures)
  • Noble Like Brienne of Tarth, we do the right thing for our users, our clients and ourselves; fulfill our vows, and never leave a friend behind
  • Eccentric Like The A-Team, we do things differently, having fun together while we poke pretense in the eye and notch up a win)
  • Empathetic Like Babe the Pig, we understand people’s needs, fears & feelings to better connect and communicate with them

As it stands now, the traits above are what we look for in a candidate and strive to uphold ourselves. But this list is not definitive. Who Cake & Arrow is is always expanding based on the supplemental traits that come with each individual we hire. In interviews I’m often asked what has kept me at Cake & Arrow for so long. I talk a lot about the people, the process, the design culture, the joy of working for a company that truly puts people first and how I’ve evolved alongside my teams even when times are tough because of how those times are handled. While culture plays a big role, people make the culture.

Personal values complement company values

Culture is a reflection of the shared values and mission of the company. But, each individual who makes up that company has their own values and their own personal mission, which is why I end every interview asking candidates about who they are outside of work. What are they passionate about? What makes them light up? What do they want to leave behind and what character traits do they want to build in order to finish work every day knowing they are one day closer to that goal? Understanding the things that are important to them only helps us determine if Cake & Arrow can help them get there, and if, in turn, they can make Cake & Arrow an even better place to work.

One of my favorite Crossfit coaches, Ben Bergeron, talks a lot about character. He has helped build the world’s fittest athletes by prioritizing the person and building their character over their athletic ability, strength and strategy. He believes that winning is a result, not a goal, and that character, not talent, is what gets his athletes on the podium.

In his book, Chasing Excellence, he talks about maximizing athletes’ 24 hours; that it’s the action between the action, the hours spent outside the gym, that matter most (e.g., sleep, nutrition, recovery). Discipline, commitment, resilience, fortitude, humility, drive, passion, and patience– these are the qualities that make the difference between a good athlete and a champion. Just like stamina, speed and strength, to build these qualities up requires focus and training. This is why character, not ability, is where Bergeron focuses his coaching.

At Cake & Arrow, we too care as much about a person’s character as we do their skills and experience. I know that if I were to ask one of my coworkers if he wanted to be remembered as (a.) the Project Manager who created the perfect schedule or (b.) the Project Manager who reacted to the huge project problem with rigor, resourcefulness, nobility, eccentricity, and empathy, he’d go with option B. Why? Because even the best-laid plans go awry and even the most proven processes go off-the-rails. The true test of mettle is how you respond and react, and this is what we look for in anyone looking to join our team.

Good humans make good employees

In the digital agency world, it’s hard to find good PMs, good UX Designers, good Product Managers, etc., but why? There are tons of people who have years of experience in their craft, but it can be hard to find individuals who possess the kind of character traits we look for. Anyone can blame project issues on a change in scope, conflicting feedback, or unexpected Client demands, but not everyone has the ability to own up to their own mistakes, and be willing to work on improving themselves; it’s a deep dive most people are not willing to take. These are the people who are going to make our company better, our work better, and each and every one of us better human beings.

We want to focus on building good humans because good humans make better PMs, better Designers, better Product Managers, but also better friends and colleagues. If you know what your core values are, who you want to be, and understand who you are at your best and at your worst, when it comes to crunch time, that’s who you are. You are the athlete who cannot be rattled by the missed deadlift or bad call by the ref. You are the PM who cannot be thrown off course by the late-changing feedback or the unforeseen circumstance that significantly impacts your project.

Self-reflection can be uncomfortable. As a company we went through it with the rebrand and team training and came out the other side with a new sense of purpose and value in the marketplace. The same is true of our individual selves. Who are you? What do you want out of your every day? Are you willing to spend some time to self-reflect and then build the character traits to get you to where you want to be?

On day one we won’t be the company to hand you a binder that explains how we work or an over-engineered process diagram of how to do what you do. There is no static blueprint for how someone we hire should behave, but there is that set of character traits that we do hold onto and base our actions on. It’s how awesome things like these happen:

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So while projects change, needs change and people change, the DNA of what makes up the people we look for never does. And while we all share and aspire to build these character traits, it is the diversity of our collective selves that really drives the innovation and establishes a culture in which we all feel encouraged to contribute ideas, lead, and evolve the company. Thinking too much about “cultural fit” can have its limitations, but when you focus on hiring for and building character, employees grow and change, and so do you, as a company.