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How to spot an employer that won’t stifle your creativity before you interview

Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger give you an exact template to follow, complete with data points to research and questions to ask in order to land in a place you won’t be constrained by groupthink.

How to spot an employer that won’t stifle your creativity before you interview
[Photo: PM Images/Getty Images]

We all know when a date isn’t going well. Conversation is stilted or nonexistent. Anecdotes trail off into excruciating silences. Jokes land with a thud. You have nothing in common, apart from the fact that you would both give anything for this night to be over so you could be alone on your couch, in your favorite sweats, watching The Great British Bake Off on Netflix. Is there a more agonizing, embarrassing waste of your time than a bad match?

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Yes, if you’re a Rare Breed. It’s when you buy into the propaganda that Company X is a great environment for freethinkers and provocateurs, and accept a position there, only to learn that you were lied to. Maybe you try to make it work, but you’re constrained by groupthink and executives terrified of anyone smarter than they are. After a month or two, you resign and head back to the job market bitter and disillusioned.

If only there was a way to separate the Rare Breed-friendly organizations from the duds, so you could spot the bad matches before you sit down for an interview—or worse, marry the company and wind up miserable.

There is. Hundreds of people have asked us for a tool they can use to identify Rare Breed Organizations. Just as important, they want a way to red flag the posers and wannabes who lack the guts to follow through. It’d be like a professional version of eHarmony for Rare Breed job seekers—something that lets you look beyond the superficial claims of Tinder and find organizations that are good matches for your intuitive, mercurial self.

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In response to those requests, we’ve created the Rare Breed Matchmaker to help you scout potential employers likely to be worth your time, which boosts your odds of landing a gig where you can be who you are and do the work you love.

The 3 Qs

Just like there’s no single way to know if someone might be The One, there’s no one factor that makes a company a good fit for a Rare Breed. With that in mind, the Rare Breed Matchmaker is built around 3 Qs: Quantitative Information, Qualitative Insights, and Questions.

Quantitative information

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First, you need data. So much of how we assess potential employers is based on subjective judgments (how the culture feels) and hype, and both can be deeply misleading. It’s essential to have some hard, empirical facts to look at when you’re trying to gauge if a company has that blend of open-mindedness, creative nerve, and “damn the torpedoes” esprit de corps that can make it a great landing place for a Rare Breed. Unfortunately, it’s time-consuming to scour corporate retention rates or employee engagement scores, so we did find three metrics worth reviewing before you submit your application.

  • Glassdoor’s Diversity & Inclusion Rating: The company research and feedback site has launched a D&I rating system that grades the organizations it reviews on their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In our experience, companies that rate highly in D&I are also more welcoming to employees who defy stereotypes and question everything. So if your prospective employer rates a top score on Glassdoor, that’s a good sign.
  • Fast Company’s own list of Best Workplaces for Innovators:  There are a lot of reasons why a company might be considered great to work for, like high pay and great benefits, that don’t cut to the heart of what makes a great home for a Rare Breed. Always hunting for innovation, this award celebrates company culture like no other. If the organization you are talking to is on this list, there is a good chance it was created by, run by, and/or made for Rare Breeds. This year, they’ve even added key categories like diversity, and sustainability. Pro tip: If a company appears on more than one of these lists, that corroboration means send them your résumé, like, yesterday.
  • American Innovation Index: Apart from being a free download (nice), this report scores companies like Apple, Samsung, and Trader Joe’s on both business and social innovation, and also ranks companies by sector, such as car rentals and banks. Again, innovation isn’t much more than a rough proxy for a Rare Breed culture, but it’s a good one. Innovative organizations tend to be risk takers that welcome dangerous ideas and the people who come up with them. Sounds good to us.

Qualitative insights

In the past, good jobs were scarce enough that we didn’t have the luxury of making lots of inquiries when considering a gig. We were so happy to land the interview that our questions generally started with, “What does it pay?” and ended with, “When do I start?” But thanks to the Great Resignation, the labor market is tighter than ever, good roles are everywhere, and companies are begging you to fill one of them. The question is, which one is The One? That’s where these less precise, more intuitive methods come into play.

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  • Talk to current or former employees. Obvious, but effective. Find people who worked or still work for the organization and ask them if it’s friendly to rebellious thinkers, people who follow their passions, and nonconformists. If you’re targeting current employees, be sure to inquire in ways that are confidential. You won’t get responses (at least, not honest ones) if people fear for their jobs.
  • Look for mercurial, hyper-entrepreneurial founders or bosses. At Motto, we love to work with companies run by serial entrepreneurs and idea machines. In our book Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different, we wrote about the late cofounder of the Ace Hotel chain, Alex Calderwood. He was a dynamo of norm-busting, creative energy who lived to disrupt and reinvent industries. Organizations run by such people can be chaotic and ambitious, but they can also be incredibly inspiring. Research founders, CEOs, presidents, and board members to see if you find kindred spirits.
  • Bold, inspiring failures. Rare Breeds are risk-takers who challenge conventional wisdom, which means they fail as much as they succeed. Do your research and see if your prospective employer has a history of brave flops and glorious mistakes.
  • A conspicuous lack of HR scandals. Organizations with Rare Breed in their blood tend not only to be highly diverse, but genuinely progressive in how they treat people of different ethnicities, religions, gender identifications, and so on. A possible match will have a clean slate as far as any #MeToo-type accusations, lawsuits, settlements, and the like.
  • A healthy collaborative ecosystem of onsite and remote employees, contractors, and vendors. Organizations that welcome Rare Breeds need confident leadership, because Rare Breeds by definition challenge the status quo, are intolerant of mediocrity, and fight passionately for what’s meaningful to them. For leaders to not feel threatened by all that, they need to be pretty self-assured. How can you know if a company has confident people in the C-suite? Well, if a big chunk of the workforce is remote or trusted independent contractors—people who aren’t subject to the old “management by walking around” method of keeping workers intimidated and compliant—you can bet that leadership’s not lacking in the self-esteem department. That’s a great sign.

Questions

Let’s say that you do your empirical research and all the indicators come up positive. You do reconnaissance on the more subjective areas of a company and decide that you like what you see. You’re ready to apply for a position, or if you’ve already applied, to sit down for an in-person or remote interview. Consider the interview your final safety net, your chance to get information directly from the source to see if the company is consistent in what it says and walks its talk.

Your first line of defense here is just asking questions. If your interviewer is hostile to your desire to even ask questions, chances are you don’t want to be part of this organization. Rare Breeds are questioners by nature; you probably wouldn’t want to be part of the organization that discouraged the asking of smart questions.

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If questions are on the table, apart from obvious ones about the job you’re applying for and issues like compensation vacation policy, here are three questions we suggest asking to find out if this organization is Rare Breed-approved:

  • “Is your culture open to disagreement?” Rare Breeds thrive in situations where disagreement and debate are not only accepted but encouraged. Someone thinks an idea is stupid? Great! Game-changing ideas and the thinkers who dream them up are almost always met with horror and derision. Let’s take the idea apart and find out if it’s really flawed and why. Leadership proposes a community initiative that’s tone-deaf or offensive? The person who speaks up against it is hailed as a hero, not punished as insubordinate. Look for an environment where pushback is the sign of a great employee.
  • “Where do your best ideas come from?” The right answer is: everywhere. You want an organization that encourages bold creativity from every employee, no matter their title or tenure. If you’re told that ideas only flow from the top down, you might be dealing with an ego-driven company that won’t be friendly to outspoken opinions.
  • “How does the company handle remote work and keeping people feeling connected?” With half the workforce doing their thing from home these days, one of the biggest challenges leaders face is keeping people engaged and connected to their coworkers and the culture. The organizations that are most successful at this come at it with intention, vulnerability, and humanity. They expend resources, create programs, spend time, and don’t assume that Zoom plus Slack equals culture. A company that’s smart enough to know what people need to feel part of something bigger, and wise enough to care about keeping the culture intact, is a great home for a Rare Breed. Otherwise, pass.

Obviously, regard all the information you get with some skepticism; it’s only as good as its source. And trust your gut. If a workplace seems too good to be true, or if the hype gets in the way of the truth, walk. Rare Breed Organizations, while rare, do exist—we’ve been in them and worked with them. Culture is front and center and Rare Breed thinkers dare do apply.


Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger are founders of Motto and authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different.

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