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.