How to Recruit a Great Sales Executive
November 09, 2009
By Vikki Pachera
As an executive recruiter, I’m increasingly seeing an uptick in engagements to replace the head of sales. That’s no surprise, since the economy has taken its toll on sales organizations. Success can shield a litany of sins. But in leaner times, it takes a strong, tenacious, creative, and hard-working executive to successfully pull in and close deals.
Replacing a key executive in good times is difficult enough. In a flattened economy, it can get dicey because there is less margin for error. Many CEOs ponder the difficult decision of whether to sack a B or C player and roll the dice hoping to find an ace. They are not sure they can snag someone measurably better. They debate about keeping the incumbent in the company in a lesser role and carving up the sales force to accommodate the shift. But if you know how to assess sales leadership, it doesn’t have to be such a gut-wrenching decision. Following are a few guidelines for conducting a successful sales executive search.
Playing The Match Game: Cadence & Culture
The pendulum often swings radically in business, and it’s important that companies not get too far ahead of themselves. Matching the size of a company, matching the cadence and corporate culture are key to selecting the right executive.
For example, small, early stage companies may crave a “big brand” executive who makes them look professional—someone with an Oracle or IBM pedigree, for example. A larger, 100-year old company may yearn for an entrepreneur from a smaller company to generate new ideas and open new markets.
It’s wise to carefully think about what each of those environments looks like and, ideally, find a candidate who’s been in both ends of the market. Early stage companies rarely have the resources big companies do—and the last thing you want is to bring in a big brand guy who’s used to an entourage to support him. Conversely, someone who has only worked in startups may choke just trying to digest the organizational structure of a big firm complete with overlays, shadow P&Ls, and multiple reporting lines.
Matching the true cadence of your company’s pace against what a candidate is used to is also key. Most companies don’t have an accurate view of themselves. All companies like to think they are nimble and run lean and mean, but those concepts are a matter of perception and experiences, and do not necessarily reflect reality.
Distilling down to actual numbers can help identify whether there is a gap in what a prospective executive may be accustomed to and expect and the current environment of your firm. Things such as the typical work week, the number of weekends worked, amount of travel required, and volume of deals closed against the resources deployed—all offer more concrete measures of a company’s cadence, which can help both parties better assess how different the new environment is likely to be.
A cultural match is also important. When I worked at Apple in the early ’90s, it was an intense, driven, “in-your-face” environment. I went on to companies that were much, much softer, which required me to change my persona—sometimes with mixed results. People perform their best when they can be themselves. Interview questions involving storytelling, situational analysis, and the like bring out a person’s personality, and can be valuable assessment tools to use.
The Basics: High Energy and a Winning Attitude
A great salesperson is competitive and highly motivated by winning. Sometimes this is reflected by a passion for sports but it can be more subtle, a passion to be highly successful. Winning often is equated with wealth creation. Candidates who articulate their success in terms of making president’s clubs, exceeding quotas, being the rainmaker, are the ones who demonstrate this trait.
If your sales leader has to carry a bag and be rainmaker, you need to articulate that clearly and look deeper within candidates’ talents and connections. Who do they know? What kind of organization did they build or grow? Who went on sales calls?
Exceptional sales leaders have no fear—they will pick up the phone and cold call CEOs. A recent candidate I interviewed told me he cold called on Saks and ultimately turned that into its biggest account. Sales stars will go beyond their own network—no matter how large—and not only close accounts but penetrate them.
High energy and an upbeat outlook are traits of successful sales leaders. Too often, however, that’s the extent of the assessment—CEOs are wowed by a sense of passion and excitement. Truly successful sales leaders also are focused, highly diligent, and detail oriented. Ask to review a recent sales plan they created, look at how they approach their accounts, and talk to their customers about follow-up and quality of service.
Evaluate the Track Record by the Numbers
Reviewing the numbers is essential to a realistic assessment of a sales executive candidate’s performance. An automatic disqualifier is the inability to spell out what they sold last year and in years prior. Great performers can spew out facts and figures and are happy to back those up with a W2. The best reference on someone’s ability to sell is what they earned. Past performance isn’t a perfect indicator of future performance, but it’s a pretty darn good indicator.
To sum up: To ensure a good match, be sure to factor in your company, its cadence, and culture, and compare this with the candidate’s previous experiences. This should provide you with a strong perception that your candidate will resonate in your environment. Then work through the other key factors to get beyond just charm and likability. Finally, ask for tangible proof that the numbers cited are indeed the numbers earned.
All this may sound difficult, but in actuality, assessing the fit and potential of a sales executive is far easier than evaluating other executive candidates because no one else is as transparent in their success. The head of sales either bagged and exceeded their quota, and drove revenues significantly—or they didn’t. That’s why you need to be careful not to let charisma and charm take over your need to ask the hard questions and demand the proof. Using this practical approach, it’s more likely you will find the “sales star” you seek.