How to Hire People Who Match Your Company’s DNA

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

Shortly after my twenty-sixth birthday, I created my first startup company, Career Central. It was 1995 in Silicon Valley, and this was among the first recruiting companies in the era of the burgeoning Internet. It sounds common today, but back then prospective clients asked us, “Huh? What’s online recruiting?” Before we could recruit for our clients, however, we needed to recruit for ourselves. Even before we could do that, we had to decide who we were. What was the soul of our burgeoning company to be?


I needed to decide what I wanted the business to accomplish and what sort of company would be successful in Internet recruiting. Then, I began to think about the people who I would need on my team to bring about that success.


My founding team and I came up with three qualities that we knew we wanted in every one of our employees: tirelessness, selflessness, and fearlessness.


“Tireless” meant people willing to put in the hours, work hard, and move fast. Tireless people are driven and resilient in the face of challenges.


“Selfless” meant people who would work collaboratively but also adopt a servant mentality toward our clients. We wanted to differentiate our company from others by tripping over our own feet to serve customers; more than just being customer-focused, we wanted people who were hardwired to put others first.


Finally, we chose “fearless” because we knew we needed people who were unafraid of change and ambiguity. That’s what any startup requires, of course, but we suspected the Internet recruiting category was going to evolve rapidly over time. It did; within two years, over 1,000 job website companies had launched.


Our work paid off. We had near-perfect retention of our employees, even in the late 1990s war for talent. Without a doubt, it’s because we took such care to craft our company DNA early and to recruit only people who shared our hardwiring.


By 2000, our company had grown to 150 employees, and client satisfaction was exceptionally high. That’s when Spencer Stuart, one of the top-ranked executive search firms in the world, acquired our company. We had been able to deliver results because we had a great culture, which was the product of our deliberately acquiring people who shared the DNA we wanted on the team.

The Role DNA Plays

Attracting Rockstars is one thing. Keeping them is another. That requires giving them a place to excel. Twenty-five years later, many of my former Career Central colleagues still tell me that it was the best job they’ve ever had.


The number one thing Rockstars look for is a challenge, be it a challenge in terms of career growth, trajectory, or job promotions. It’s even more important than money. Whether you’re the CEO or the leader of a department, your job is to create a culture that fosters and enables that.


According to a landmark study, 69 percent of people won’t consider a job with a company that has a bad reputation; they won’t even talk to them. Here’s the kicker: This is true even among people who are unemployed.


Bad reputations develop when companies fail to foster a healthy culture. You can’t fake it and you can’t mask it with press releases or fancy websites. If you don’t develop a winning culture—a place where Rockstars are compelled to join and a place where they can do their best work, you’ll fail to recruit them. And if you do by chance get lucky and land a Rockstar, they’ll quickly leave once they realize their mistake. So, if your culture isn’t stellar, save your time. Recruiting isn’t your biggest problem.


Be very clear about the DNA of your company so you know the people you’ll need to hire. Your company’s DNA isn’t a long list of feel-good values—that gold emblazoned list of fifteen useless slogans mounted in the waiting room of most companies.


Rather, it’s the three to five precise traits that you’ve identified as most important. You’ll recall that ours at Career Central were “tirelessness,” “selflessness,” and “fearlessness.” What are yours? If you don’t identify them first, every step in this process that follows is ipso facto, a waste of time. You’re going to great lengths to identify a person who shares your DNA. But if you don’t know what your DNA is, how can you possibly know whether that person shares it?

In my companies, I’ve often hired people with the right DNA and subsequently found roles for them, rather than the other way around. Traditionally, companies identify the skills they need and then hire people with those skills. The DNA of the person is often an afterthought, if it’s considered at all. That’s a recipe for diluting your culture and damaging your reputation. I know this sounds easy, but you must put DNA before experience, as so few companies do.


Retaining Rockstars is essential to an organization. Losing one is understandably devastating. To keep them, you must engage them with challenging work and an opportunity to succeed. Everyone wants to be an essential member of a winning team.


If you can provide that environment, your Rockstars won’t even pick up the phone from a headhunter even if they’re offering more money (and they usually are). A study showed that 84 percent of employees would consider leaving a job if a company with an excellent reputation (read: culture) called them. You can’t afford to not be that company.

The Difference between DNA and Culture

When I interview a potential employee, I’m not looking at how that person will fit into the company’s culture. I want people that will stand out—while still sharing the same core beliefs as the people they’re joining. I don’t want to hire people that look, speak, and act alike—a bunch of robots. Rather, I’m looking at their DNA. Do they have the three to five traits that we’ve identified as non-negotiable? If they do, they’ll fit well enough—and hopefully be additive to the culture.


Culture is the collective makeup of a group of people, while DNA is a given individual’s makeup. The latter is something we can assess a candidate against. To illustrate, consider an organ transplant. Sometimes, the body rejects the organ. The same thing can happen in a company when a new hire doesn’t have the DNA that fits with the company. The “body” rejects the new “organ.” If that happens, whether it’s an employee who doesn’t fit in a company or an organ that doesn’t cooperate with a body, it won’t take long to discover.

DNA, in its scientific sense, determines the color of our eyes and hair, and our height. For our purposes, I’ve expanded the definition to encompass everything that comprises a person, including how their personality and behavior is hardwired.


As previously noted, research indicates that our traits are baked into the cake at an early age—we simply are who we are. A recruiter’s job is to put a candidate under a microscope and peer into that person’s DNA. Are they detail-oriented? Passionate? Intensively creative? DNA guides behavior, and behavior determines whether an employee will live the values of the company and, ultimately, be successful in their role.


DNA is, in a sense, the soul of a company, and it shapes the resulting culture in intuitive and unspoken ways. Rather than a divinely handed-down set of well-articulated tableaus, it is, instead, an a priori set of guiding principles, an inherently understood morality that requires no discussion or explanation. It manifests itself in how things are done, what’s expected, what’s allowed, what’s unacceptable, and how employees are punished and rewarded. It’s how we communicate. It’s how we act.


If you’ve done a good job of defining it, the DNA of your employees may evolve as it grows, but it won’t radically change.

How to Find Your DNA

A clearly articulated DNA stands for something. It has a viewpoint. You must be willing to say, “This is what we are all about.” And you must be willing to part ways with people, even top performers, who don’t live the values you’ve articulated. Protect your company’s culture—at all costs. Tony Hsieh, former CEO of the Zappos division of Amazon, was notorious for exiting employees who don’t match the company’s core values—even offering them $2,000 in their first seven days to leave of their own volition.


It takes discipline to consistently adhere to this standard. There will always be pressure to settle, but remember: People can be coached and performance can improve, but DNA cannot be changed; it’s immovable.


What happens when you make a bad hire and you realize the DNA doesn’t match? Kindly let the person go. You’ll save both your company and the individual a lot of time and frustration. It’s not a judgment. They’re not a bad person—it was simply a mis-hire.

Identifying the Existing DNA

If you’re just starting a company and haven’t yet hired anyone, this exercise will be easier because you haven’t had the chance to make a hiring mistake.


But more than likely, you already have employees. To identify the DNA that already exists at your company, assemble your core team—the CEO and her key staff. These are typically members of the senior team, plus the head of HR or talent acquisition, and folks that are broad in their knowledge of the current employee base.


Have this team meet in person and ask them to identify three Rockstars already in the company (present company excluded, of course). These three people should epitomize the company, the ones who are the fabric of the company, who define its soul. These are the people who, if they gave their notice, would cause you to cry yourself to sleep.


Next, discuss the characteristics they have in common. List them out on the whiteboard. What DNA elements do they share? Are they driven? Fearless? Great problem-solvers? Brainstorm everything you can think of. We’re trying to get to the essence of what traits they share.


Organize this list into subcategories, grouping similar traits together. You are looking for three to five traits that define your company’s DNA. It may take more than one session to figure out. Continue refining your results because the end product is the essence of your company. And your new recruiting standard.

Though it’s better to do this when your company is still small (ten to 100 employees), it’s never too late. I’ve facilitated this exercise for clients even when they have 5,000 employees. At that size, you may find that it varies from division to division.

Communicating the DNA

Sharing the results, the essence of your company, is important. Create a plan to educate all members of your organization, regardless of their position. This is more than just a single email. It’s an ongoing discussion.


Here’s what to say: From this day forward, because these characteristics define our company, everyone we recruit must have all of these traits. Not three or four out of five. All of them. It’s non-negotiable. Provide specific examples of what you mean by “Tirelessness.” It’s not simply the word. It’s the essence of the word and the expectations around it. What is revered? What behaviors will not be tolerated?


Be prepared because the day will soon come when an amazing candidate crosses your desk. He will have the numbers, the credentials, and the personality, but he won’t share all five DNA qualities you’ve identified as non-negotiable. Do not hire him, regardless of the pressure placed upon you by your manager, your Board, or your team. Just say no.


Of equal importance, the second piece of the communication plan is more delicate and must be done one-on-one. You need to begin exiting employees who don’t share the now-articulated DNA. Yes, this will undoubtedly be difficult. Some of these employees are top performers, some are in leadership positions, some have relationships with key customers. It doesn’t matter. If you’re serious about building a culture that attracts and keeps Rockstars, you must have consistency in your DNA.


Make the decision to part ways with them. You need not do it all in one day, and you won’t do it inhumanely. Have a conversation and point out the disconnects; give examples of the lack of fit. It’s easy to look the other way when an employee delivers results but doesn’t share the DNA. This is where so many leaders fail. Don’t be one of them.


Be very clear about why this is happening. Tell them that, as a company that wants to grow, the culture needs to attract Rockstars. Explain that to attract Rockstars, you need a culture that is unstoppable, fun, and rewarding and where people can do their best work and be challenged. To do that, you need a team of people consistent in their DNA characteristics.


You’ll find that people who don’t share the DNA will realize their days are numbered, and that’s okay. Some will leave of their own volition. The body is rejecting the cells. That’s when you know your culture is becoming consistent.

Living the DNA

Now, it’s up to you, your CEO, your leadership team, and every manager in the company to ensure that employees are living the values of the company. Recognition is an important piece of this. When someone demonstrates the DNA of the company in a meaningful way, make a public example of them. Rewards are key, too—both financial and non-financial; we’ll talk more about this later. If someone consistently lives the DNA of the company, promote them. This sends an important message that it’s not only performance and results that matter.


When someone isn’t living the DNA, it’s often the chief talent officer or head of human resources who hears about it first. That person needs to ensure that the rest of the senior leadership team knows about the behavior. Just as your head of marketing serves as the guardian of your brand, the head of HR/talent is the guardian of your company’s DNA.


That’s why it’s important that your head of HR/talent be one of your early hires. In my view, it’s the single most critical hire a CEO can make. And I encourage my clients to make it one of their first twenty hires. They’re often surprised by this, but when they do it, they’re grateful that I was so insistent. It sends a message to everyone in the organization that recruiting Rockstars with similar DNA matters. That we put talent first. This person must report to the CEO, and must be the first and foremost example of the company’s defined DNA.


You need not reinvent the wheel with all of this. Finding other companies with similar DNAs can give you ideas. Through research and asking around, you should be able to identify companies with like-minded values. Maybe you hire a lot of people from a particular company. Study what that company does. How do they live their DNA? What types of events, celebrations and promotions do they host? What is their talent strategy? What is their compensation design?

Using Sales & Marketing Tactics to Recruit Talent

Recruiters can learn a lot from the world of sales and marketing. The analogies are strikingly apparent and the principles are easily transferable. I began my education and career as a marketer, so the more I learned about talent, the more I realized how similar attracting Rockstars is to attracting customers. See Exhibit 1 for some examples.

Brand Awareness

Just as your company’s products have a brand, so, too, does your company as an employer. It’s how people think about your company and what it’s like to work there. Market the hell out of your employer brand. Create stories to help prospective candidates visualize what it’s like to work there. Use video to capture a sense of the company’s DNA.

Candidate Pipeline

Develop a candidate pipeline in the same manner that a head of sales and marketing develops a customer pipeline. This pipeline is the bench of talent. Develop it before you need it. Just-in-time hiring is too slow and results in hasty decisions.

Employer Value Proposition

When salespeople pitch a new product, they speak about the product value proposition, which is the value it delivers to the customer. An employer value proposition is the value the prospective employee receives from working at the company. It’s the career path, the challenge, the place where they can do their best work. That is the “product” you’re selling to prospective employees.


Just as a salesperson keeps abreast of competing products, you need to study competing employers in your location and industry. Who are they? What are they offering? How do you differentiate yourself? Who is winning the war for the Rockstars, particularly in your city?


Just as each grocery store product has a price point, so, too, does talent: compensation. Marketers have pricing philosophy, and you need a compensation philosophy for decision making. That might mean being creative with fixed and variable forms of compensation, developing a hybrid of the two. It also means targeting up-and-comers for whom this is a meaningful move and pay increase, instead of an individual making a lateral move with the same compensation.

Target Employee

Salespeople zero in on their target audience. Do you know specifically who your target employee is? Have you developed an avatar of that person? What’s their DNA? What’s their background? Where do they live? If you don’t know who you’re looking for, you’re guaranteed not to find them.

Candidate Experience

Consider your candidate experience in the same way that sales and marketing execs consider customer experience. What’s the first thing you see when you walk in the front door? The impact of your recruiting emails? The warmth of your receptionist’s smile? When’s the last time you conducted usability studies on the “Careers” section of your website? What’s it like to interview here? What unique things do you do to make it an easy decision to say “Yes” to your offer? What’s the onboarding plan to welcome new hires with open arms?

Employee Surveys

Just as marketers survey customers about likes and dislikes, employee surveys open a dialogue to determine what’s working and what isn’t.

Exit Interviews

Just as you conduct retention analysis when you lose a customer, conduct exit interviews with employees. Where did they go and why? What could you have done differently?

In this chapter, we’ve revealed that Rockstars value culture and challenge more than money. We’ve discussed the necessity of defining a companywide DNA to seek in employees, which will, in turn, contribute to a cohesive strong culture. Finally, we’ve used the tools of sales and marketing as a template for a recruiting philosophy.


In the next chapter, we’ll begin the process of recruiting Rockstars. Remember, it doesn’t make sense to proceed until you’ve done an honest assessment of your culture. I’ve got a free tool to do this—you can download it at

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

Get Your Free Copy of Our Bestselling Book
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.