A Perfect Example of Insufficient Cultural Fit

Larry Summers has been ousted as the President of Harvard. (I'm based in the Boston/Cambridge area, so you can imagine the news coverage here.) If you look at the facts, it's clear to me, he was canned because he didn't fit the culture of the institution. (See the USA Today editorial and the Time article.)I did not attend Harvard. I have no affiliation with Harvard, so it's possible I can't see all of the cultural issues from the outside. But here's what stands out for me:

  • It's not acceptable for the President of Harvard to question generally accepted ideas. (His questions re women's genetic capability to perform hard science. I would have loved to hear the debate on that!)
  • It's not acceptable to provoke change at Harvard. Instead, change needs to come about slowly. Summers was trying to provoke change.
  • It's not acceptable to discuss what should be measured and rewarded. His idea that faculty should teach and focus on real-world problems is an example.

I would have loved to see the academics sink their teeth into these questions, perform real research and debate the answers. Harvard missed the boat–the faculty could have used the publicity of the debates to further define their brand and make Harvard an even more valuable institution.

But here's what I saw: a bunch of overpaid underworked faculty who are more interested in protecting their positions than in helping undergraduates or graduate students learn. Daughter #1 didn't consider Harvard. I hope Daughter #2 doesn't either. I don't want to subsidize a bunch of close-minded ivory-tower academics who aren't willing to ask hard questions, research and discuss the results. That's not an academic institution. An institution yes, academic, no.

Harvard wouldn't hire me either to take Summers' place 🙂 I wouldn't fit the culture (and I don't have PhD). But it's clear that their next pick for President needs to fit enough of the culture so that he or she has the influence and negotiation skills to do whatever needs to be done. Summers may or may not have those skills–but given the culture he was unable to use them effectively.Cultural fit is critically important for any knowledge worker. I don't know enough about other kinds of roles, but I suspect it's equally important for other jobs. Make sure that when you hire, you consider how a person fits into your culture–even if you want to change it.

3 Replies to “A Perfect Example of Insufficient Cultural Fit”

  1. Hi. I’ve both been a professor and have worked in the private sector, and despite the views of the Harvard professors, which may be wrong, it is just incorrect to say that they are overpaid or underworked. Really, what are you talking about? The majority of those people work their asses off, and their salaries are effectively capped. Except for a small minority in the sciences and in the business school, there is little opportunity for “upside” on the rewards of their labor.
    Indeed, it is probably because they are underpaid and overworked that they are fearful of change. Everything is a threat to them because they are abused by the institution.
    You are probably right about cultural fit and Summers — but being well-informed in matter of detail as a commentator is important as well.

  2. Cultural fit for any position is important but so is job fit. Below the level of Harvard president, there is a very easy way to assure cultural and job fit before you hire. Called job fit assessment tools, they first define a benchmark of top performers’ attributes and traits plus their behavioral aspects.
    This creates a strong criterion for what works and who can succeed in that job at that company and with that company’s unique customer and market need.
    ANSWERS provides several different tools and their web page should be explored for the appropriate assesment tool, all of them taken on line and requiring no special training to deploy and use. wwwucanpreventbadhires.com

  3. Johanna, Summers questioning of accepted ideas amounted to many people at Harvard as an opening to bigotry against women, inotherwords, questioning the innate capacities of a certain class of human beings. That’s usually seen as dangerous by the group under scrutiny.

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