Hire People Who Accomplished Something Amazing

Let’s say you are looking for a sales executive to fill a position in your software company. Candidate A has a lot of contacts in your industry and has three years of software sales experience. Candidate B set the school record for the 5,000-meter run at her college. Which one do you hire? Unless Candidate A can show me a six-figure W-2 from his previous employer, I’ll take my chances with Candidate B every time.

In his famous 17th century text, A Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi discusses how to become a great swordsman. He emphasizes the discipline, sacrifice, and practice involved in mastering this art. After a student spends years practicing and eventually mastering every nuance of sword fighting, he is said to “know the way broadly.” The author says, “If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.” Meaning, if someone can learn the discipline it takes to be very successful at one thing, he can apply this success formula to other pursuits in his life. The bottom line is: People who are very successful at one thing in their lives usually find a way to continue on this successful journey.

So, how do the ideas in this 400-year-old book about sword fighting help us hire better salespeople? Very easily: Always start by looking for the success factor in a sales candidate.

When I was running a high-performing, multimillion-dollar sales team, I often relied on my managers to conduct the initial interviews with new sales executives. It would have been impossible for me to conduct every first interview and still help 30 sales executives close business. Unfortunately, I found myself in many unnecessary and time-wasting second interviews. When I questioned my sales managers on why they decided to ask these candidates back for second meetings, I received various responses: “She has a background in advertising sales,” or “He said he has a ton of contacts,” or “She really knows this industry very well,” and so on.

I did a poor job communicating to my sales managers what I was looking for in a sales candidate: a history of success. I could train a motivated person with a winning personality on how to follow our proven sales process. We could teach somebody the buzzwords of a particular industry. We could provide a new hire with sales leads; old stale personal contacts are rarely a good thing. What I couldn’t do is teach somebody with a track record of mediocrity how to magically become motivated, disciplined, and ultimately successful. Bob Baffert is one of the most famous racehorse trainers in the country, but even he couldn’t train a donkey to win the Kentucky Derby. I was getting a lot of second interviews with donkeys.

The breakthrough in our hiring process came when I met with all of the managers and told them why I hired each one of them. I didn’t need to go back and reference their resumes. I knew their accomplishments off the top of my head. They all had accomplished something extraordinary in their lives. “Steve, I hired you because you played four years of Division I football, and you successfully ran your own insurance agency. Tom, I hired you because you sold $1.5 million worth of computer hardware for XYZ company and made over $100,000 your first two years out of college. Bill, I hired you because you were a national debate champion in college.”

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They all got it. I explained to my managers that they were all hired because they had at least one (and usually two or three) amazing accomplishments on their resumes. They were very successful before they walked in the door, and that is why they were successful here. I then told them, “Before you ask a candidate to come in for a first interview, you need to identify at least one very successful experience in his or her life. Don’t focus on activities or leadership positions. Look for amazing individual performance at something. Anything. Sports, arts, music, business.” I explained that the best way to predict success in this job was to hire somebody who has already proven to be successful at something else.

So, we developed a routine. Anytime I was asked to conduct a second interview, I would ask the sales manager, “Why am I meeting this person?” To which the sales manager would reply, “Because she was successful at…”

This process revolutionized our success rate with new hires. And, the sales managers enjoyed the process more because there was less subjectivity in the screening method. They were able to objectively look at a resume and interview a candidate with one goal: identify if this person has been very successful at something. Yes = second interview. No = best of luck.

This doesn’t always work. I hired my fair share of wrestling champions and concert cellists who were lousy salespeople. However, if you continuously look for candidates who “know the way broadly” and focus less time on recruiting mediocre performers with great industry experience, you will absolutely develop a higher-performing sales team.

Brian Mullins is the founder of ChicagolandSalesJobs.com, the only job board that exclusively lists sales openings in the Chicago area.


14 Comments on “Hire People Who Accomplished Something Amazing

  1. I certainly agree! When we interview and present sales professionals for positions, we have discovered that ‘athletes’ seem to be a good choice when a choice is given. Most athletes, are competitive by nature and set their own goals in addition to those set for them by the company. Although, you cannot say all athletes are good candidates, I also agree with you that choosing those who ACCOMPLISHED something and sets them apart from the pack makes for a good candidate background too. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Success breeds success. I think this is an important concept to keep in mind when hiring anyone who will be responsible for growing, strengthening or creating for the business, not just in sales.

  3. Agreed on a lot of levels. We’ve found that people who have felt success as you’re describing are hungry for it in their next endeavor. That hunger is diffucult to teach, if not impossible. The other issue is that these people have often failed as well, but have been able to pull themselves off the mat in order to reach their level of success. They tend not to crumble when things don’t go exactly to plan.

  4. I have a team of recruiters who exclusively handle revenue generating roles at NetApp. For years, I have asked my customers the question about rolodex:
    If Brian Tracy or Anthony Robbins was in front of you with no industry experience or rolodex, would you hire them?
    Of Course….when you reach the top of one sport as a winner, the logical move is to consider other sports to conquer.. The best are very comfortable with new sports because of the challenge of not being #1, then winning: Lance Armstrong finished the NY Marathon last year.. Michael Jordan and Dion Sanders played baseball.. etc.. I won a highschool championship in an event because my coach told me that I could not… there has to be more than just money for even the best sales executives.

  5. While hiring those types of individuals who are driven and motivated we have had success for sure, but I have to say that every sales environment is somewhat unique, and not all have been successful. In my last organization we hired some of the top notch sports heroes of their days in college, and only 1 in 9 would make it. The drive was there, but the skills were somewhat lacking, not because they did not have sales experience, but because the sale was very unique to what they were used to and they had trouble changing or adapting.

    I never played sports in High School or college, and yet by my second year out of college, I made 6-figures…Despite the lack of sports I am very driven and can adapt. It seems the ability to adapt is huge, because if you are stuck in one way of doing things, whether you are a sports hero or not, you won’t be able to breed that success in your next organization.

    Just food for thought

  6. Now THIS is a great article. Brian hits it right on the head with one of the least understood aspects of hiring. Most think that industry experience is the most important thing, but that is very rarely the case. Product details and industry overview can be learned, and can be learned very quickly by a driven, ambitious person.
    I would make a small change to this approach as I believe it’s important to hire people who are not only great at 1 thing, but are also well rounded. I would posit that Gary Kasparov would not make a great salesperson because his expertise is too narrowly focused. However, in my experience when you find someone who has a record of success and a palpable drive or ambition, you’ve got a winner. Thanks for the article Brian!

  7. I find the article and replies very interesting. The concept is hiring someone who has done something amazing. In nearly every case people discuss something related to sports or athletics. No one mentioned winning a National Science Fair, National Spelling Bee, or anything related to academics. Is this theory only related to sales candidates? If it extends to all executive management, I guess it is a good thing Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs all started companies, because they did not have the athletic achievement to get hired by this group.
    I think this may be a case of of people hiring people most like themselves, and not really having a profile of success predectors for their company.

  8. Indeed a requisite!! Anyone who has accomplished something definitely has the drive and confidence to work further and rightly so to set forward his own short-term goals (in line with the ones set by the company). There is no doubt to their being successfull or becoming an asset to the compay.

  9. Accomplished something Amazing. Leads to one of the most important questions you can ask no matter what the position.

    ‘Tell me about an accomplishment or achievement that your are proud or most proud of?’

    There are ways you can break this question down into different areas. Such as a part of a team, or individually?

    In many cases you may not think graduating from high school is a great accomplishment. But for someone with a disability or other challenges this may have been something absolutely amazing.

    You will be surprised with the number of people who can not come up with something.

    Why would you want to hire them?

  10. Overall i would agree. If someone has shown the tenacity, nerve and intelligence to REALLY succeed in one area, most of those traits will transfer to others. But don’t lean on too heavily. In the Michael Jordan example, he was given the chance to play baseball ONLY because of his success in the NBA. And by all accounts he was a grand failure in baseball. A GREAT ABC will not an XYZ make.

  11. There does seem to be relationship between successful sales people and successful competitive athletics- the skills, discipline, hard work, goal-orientation….
    I am unaware of similar relationships in other career disciplines, but would be interested in hearing about them if they exist.

    Meanwhile, there seems to a great deal of continuing emphasis placed on hiring the very best in any given field. I would think that if you are a for-profit organization and you advertise yourself as paying better than any of your competitors, you’ll be able to get the people you need relatively easily. If you don’t pay the very best (or have the best benefits, or work/life balance or something significant), why should you get the very best? Are we working in some sort of corporate Lake Woebegone, where all the companies are in the top 10%?


  12. I have a somewhat different view of this discussion. On a personal level, if someone asks me, ‘What have you accomplished that’s truly amazing?’, I’ll be somewhat uncomfortable answering that question. Humility, to me, is a desirable quality. If I feel I’m amazing, that pretty much throws humility out the window. A more appropriate question might be ‘What significant obstacles have you had to overcome in order to achieve a meaningful goal?’.

    From the standpoint of the interviewer, if someone tells me they’ve done something amazing, unless I’m blown away by it and truly feel it’s amazing, I’m going to think the candidate is too easily impressed with their own accomplishment.

    I want to hire people who overcome obstacles to achieve their goals. Whether or not the candidate is amazed by their own accomplishment is really insignificant, and possibly a red flag if it indicates that they lack humility. I want to know what the candidate has accomplished and then decide on my own if it is amazing or not.

  13. That’s an interesting approach to hiring. The examples of successful achievements seem to generally center around specialties that require large amounts of individual training and deliberate practice.

    While I have limited sales experience, I think I can see how that relates to work in a sales position. It also seems like this hiring strategy would also work well for programming positions and perhaps surgeons — roles where an individual’s contribution is a large percent of the end result.

    However, I wonder if the strategy would have good results for highly interdependent positions, such as a program manager or an engineering manager. I’m not sure if one’s dedication to individual study predicts success in directing and motivating others and making decisions with insufficient information.

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