Culture & Fit

If you are considering a new leadership position, how do you begin to wrap your arms around the workplace culture and determine if the opportunity would be an ideal fit for you? Neither candidates nor institutional stakeholders want to wade through a search process without some prospect of finding a good fit. Drawing on many years of experience providing executive search services to colleges, universities, and organizations nationwide, Spelman Johnson has assembled a list of five factors that impact organizational culture and fit. Keep these in mind as you evaluate new opportunities. Doing so will likely put you on a fast track to success.


Whether you are conducting your due diligence prior to applying or have already advanced to an interview, pay close attention to what people affiliated with the institution have to say. Listen carefully to determine if everyone speaks a common language with regards to how they describe the institution, division or department. Are descriptions consistent? Do people—regardless of their position of responsibility—use many of the same adjectives and descriptors in outlining the general work atmosphere, values, mission and operational philosophy? Keep an honest account and evaluate how your career journey to date aligns with these same factors. A one-to-one match isn’t generally required, but some facet of an institution that resonates with your own experience—educational preparation and/or professional work history—will allow others to more readily project you as a successful candidate in the position and should add to your own confidence that you would thrive in a similar institution.


How do individuals up and down the organizational structure describe the skills, competencies and expertise that are needed for success? Does the definition of the type of candidate that individuals seem to prefer mesh well with your own strengths, experiences and accomplishments? Is the institution seeking someone who will bring stability to the role, or someone who will constantly innovate and contribute fresh ideas? Importantly, where are you at your best on this continuum of “stable to innovative leadership”? You will also gain valuable insights into the profile of a successful candidate for the position by listening as individuals describe the job responsibilities and emphasize the relative importance of building relationships across the institution and/or generating specific measurable outcomes. Emphasis in one direction or another does not dictate the value or stature accorded to a position, but does help you determine whether you could reasonably see yourself looking forward to starting each and every day in the job.

Cultural Hallmarks

When looking at a new position, consider the employing institution’s cultural hallmarks. A good place to begin is to ask yourself, how does the institution and the people who work there conduct business? Is the institution best described as being highly entrepreneurial, familial or progressive? You will find evidence of an institution’s cultural hallmarks in its mission statement and strategic plan, as well as in its day-to-day interactions among constituents, governance structure, decision making and communication strategy.

Leadership, Values, and Social Justice

Stay attuned to how individuals up and down the organization describe the approach to leadership. Additionally, are the values, passions and commitment to social justice that people talk about compelling? If you are visiting the campus and talking with individuals in various settings, it will be helpful to compare and contrast what is said in group or public settings with what is shared in more private, one-on-one conversations. As search consultants, we find that what is expressed in something of a “sidebar conversation” is very telling about the organization’s culture. These conversations may indicate that individuals above or below the open position do not share a common understanding of position or that they hold varied opinions as to key objectives to be accomplished. If you encounter some dissonance, you will need to decide whether you can work effectively in an environment where there is dynamic tension and whether you can secure the support you need to be successful in a manner that is consistent with your own values and approach to leadership.


Organizational culture is shaped by people, values, goals and practices. Exploring how “change” is accomplished—whether it is a top-down or bottom-up process—yields yet another clue as to how you may fit into a particular institution. As you engage people in conversations about the history of the position and institution as well as current strategic goals and priorities, pay particular attention to the examples they share that demonstrate how the campus community has weathered change in the past. How easy or difficult has it been to break with common practice or tradition to introduce new ways of delivering services, educating students or managing resources? This, too, will lend valuable insights as to whether your ability to fill a leadership position and advance change while building on an approach that works well for you will comfortably fit into the cultural context of a new institution.

Valerie Szymkowicz

Vice President - Spelman Johnson

Valerie Szymkowicz received her BA in natural science/environmental studies from New England College and her MEd in student personnel from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Vermont. For over 20 years, she worked in higher education at both public and private research, baccalaureate, and liberal arts institutions, principally in the areas of academic advising, experiential education, and career services. With a strong belief in cultivating leadership potential among talented rising stars, Valerie has been a guest presenter at the NASPA Region I Mid-Managers Institute facilitating discussion on professional development priorities and she regularly presents on topics related to building capacity and leadership potential for other professional organizations including the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers.