As sales leaders, we need to accept that we will ultimately be judged on our ability to hire and retain people who are both willing and able to do the job of selling. If either of those elements is missing in a sales hire that happens on our watch, we’re not doing our job.
All too often, we fall prey to the “great interview” syndrome. A candidate delivers what seems like a fantastic interview, or maybe two fantastic interviews, and we end up hiring the person, imagining that we’ve just brought Tom Cruise onto the team … but within a month or so we realize we’ve actually hired Rodney Dangerfield. So. How does this happen? What happens during these interviews?
Here’s what we’ve seen. Frequently, we make initial choices based on that elusive, hard-to-define element known as “fit,” which typically means we are following our own individual intuition: “I like person A; I don’t like person B. I have a good feeling about person C; I don’t have a good feeling about person D.” And so on. Having followed our intuition that far, we narrow the list and move on to the question of competencies. We ask interview questions that are designed to uncover how this person approaches specific problems, tasks and challenges, and we may even use an assessment to measure the competencies the applicant brings to the table. And we narrow the field further. Eventually, we make a hiring decision.
But if you stand back for a second and look at both of these classic ways of picking our next sales hire, you realize the neither of them necessarily have anything to do with whether the salesperson is both willing and able to do the job.
Plenty of salespeople can project what seems like a good “fit” with our team during an interview ... without actually matching up with the template of our ideal sales hire. Plenty of salespeople can being essential “competencies” to the table ... only to deploy those competencies infrequently, erratically, or not at all once they’ve been brought on board.
We have to begin digging deeper. Let’s look more closely at the able issue first.
To make a good assessment about whether somebody's truly able to do the job of selling for our organization, we need to do be prepared to a little more research and ask for a little more data from the people we end up interviewing. We need to look at the person’s record critically. Specifically, we need to identify the actual skills they've developed professionally, the relevant experience that they've accumulated over time, and the actual results they have generated. In other words, we need to see the hard evidence before we even consider making the hire.
It doesn't make a lot of sense to assume, based on an interview, that someone has the ability to initiate conversations with C-level contacts at organizations of over $100 million a year in revenue – if they've never actually done that before and have no experience remotely connected to doing that. When there are skill gaps, you can use training to fill those gaps if you choose to .. but you want to know where the gaps are, and you only want to train people who have a background that shows a strong likelihood of actually being able to perform the key functions within the role. You want a candidate who fills in as many of the blanks as possible, which means you’re looking for hard proof of specific skills, experience, and results that connect to the job description..
What about the willing side of the equation? That's a little tougher, because it’s connected to stuff you can't always see. Identifying a candidate’s actual willingness to align with your team’s culture and expectations is what great interview questions are for. For instance: “Can you describe, from your time in your current company, a situation where you were pursuing an advancement, a particular territory or account, or a new role ... and even though management knew who you were and what your performance record was, you had to put some effort into proving you were ready for the move?”
This interview question is a highly reliable detector of an “entitlement” mentality that signals an unwillingness to work within a team-first culture. That’s the opposite of an optimal hire.
Time after time, we find that people who represent the optimal hire, people who operate from a “we-first” rather than a “me-first” mentality, will answer with something like this:
Applicant: Sure. I was very eager to move up to [role/territory/account/advancement], but I found that I had to work closely with [mentor/colleague/other teams/workgroups/senior management] in order to make it happen. It turned out there was a lot for me to learn, much more than I imagined. I got a lot of support and encouragement along the way from [name].
Those may not be the exact words of course, but you get the idea. The we-first sales applicant will go out of their way to identify the specific people and teams who were helpful in securing their career goal. It’s quite common for these people to single out a mentor who was particularly helpful and to make a point of heaping praise upon that person. This is exactly what you do want to hear. This is a sign that you should keep talking to this person. He or she is, in all likelihood, willing to take on your working culture and to make every effort to meet mutually agreed-upon expectations.
What you will hear when you’re dealing with an applicant who is unwilling, who has entitlement issues sounds very different. The entitled response will be something like this:
Applicant: I had already earned that [promotion/account/whatever]. I had worked hard, and I deserved it.
You: Really? Tell me more about why you felt that way.
Applicant: Well, I’d been there for two whole years by that point.
This kind of exchange is not what you want to hear from a sales applicant. This candidate is simply not willing to adapt to a team-first selling culture. This is someone with a me-first mindset, an entitlement mindset. It’s highly unlikely this person will help your team to succeed at a high level, support you, support his or her team members, and allow you to scale revenue growth aggressively. Do not make a job offer to this person.
For more on the art of hiring and retaining salespeople who are both willing and able to do the job, see The Success Cadence, my new book coauthored with Tom Schodorf and Bart Fanelli.