Recruiting salespeople who are adaptable, not just competent

Posted April 17, 2017 by


You obviously want a competent sales team, as that’s tied to the rest of your financial performance and metrics. But the definition of “competence” may be somewhat shifting in the sales function. You need to be recruiting salespeople who can adapt and adjust to a new environment fairly quickly. And that’s likely to require new approaches to thinking about, and measuring, candidates in our sales pipelines.

The value and quantification of sales

Sales is also one of the most trackable elements of an organization. While the ROI on a training program or employee engagement program could be more subjective, sales is often very direct. Salesperson A sold X-items for Y-total, and Salesperson B sold A-items for B-total. If Y is higher than B, we can infer Salesperson A did a better job in that time frame (typically a quarter).

At the intersection point of “crucial function” and “relatively easy to measure/compare,” we come to this question of whether hiring managers overrate competence.

Competence and adaptability

First: in this context, I define “competence” as conventional recruitment markers of success. For a salesperson, you’d measure their previous sales. For an entry-level salesperson, it might be GPA, college attended, etc.

One of the biggest arguments against hiring on conventional competence measures is that skill sets can be learned. Today, salespeople need to be adaptable. The idea of “adaptability” is that a salesperson could learn a new skill set (or learn how to sell a new product/service) within a relatively short amount of time, even if his or her background was in an entirely different industry. In essence, it means someone who is receptive or responsive to changing priorities at work.

Don’t hire brilliant jerks

There are some generalizations here. In a long-form article on Quartz a few years ago called “This is why people leave your company,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had this to say (see photo below): 

Don't hire incompetent salespeople

Certainly, some overly-competent salespeople are very nice, empathetic, and work well with the rest of the sales team. But insofar as sales is often an “eat what you kill” mentality that can become individualistic around bonuses, it’s possible that the most competent sales candidates you’ll find are these so-called “brilliant jerks.” And the cost to teamwork can be very high in those contexts. You probably watch Netflix, but if you want business vetting on Hastings and his company, it was recently called “a rocket stock for the ages.” They know what they’re doing on the team-building side. 

The issue of new revenue streams

This has implications for sales hiring when you bring in another concept: the desire of decision-makers for new revenue streams. Many companies in 2017 are judged on growth or growth potential, even more so than profits. One of the clearer paths to growth for a company is to develop new revenue streams. This creates potentially exciting (or not) choices for the end consumer, but it also means salespeople are constantly needing to learn new things.

An example: let’s say a company predominantly produces furniture. The margins are OK on the furniture, but the executives of this company want growth. So they decide to begin producing silverware, ovens, doors, and more items for the home. Now their sales team, which had spent a large percentage of time mostly selling furniture and the value therein, now needs to learn how to sell forks, ovens, and more.

In a situation such as that, pre-existing markers of success — i.e. competence — become less relevant, and traits such as adaptability, curiosity, and desire to learn become more relevant.

How do we measure for these skills?

Harvard Business Review once ran an article entitled “Curiosity is as important as intelligence,” and while you could argue with the basis of the headline, research has shown that curious people are better with ambiguity. Ambiguity, you say? One of the terms people are using for modern business is “VUCA,” which stands for:

  • Volatility
  • Uncertainty
  • Complexity
  • Ambiguity

We’re living in an ambiguous business environment and need curious people, but … how do we measure curiosity? And how do we make sure that, in so doing, we aren’t rooting our beliefs about curiosity in incorrect assumptions?

There are some approaches, many of which are rooted in the work of Todd Kashdan. The seven-item, two-dimensional Curiosity and Exploration Inventory has shown good internal reliability and incremental validity over and above most overlapping constructs of positive affect. Recruiters have endorsed using elements of this research in job interviews, as attempting to ensure a candidate’s curiosity can be a huge boon for your sales team.

You can also ask what some recruiters refer to as “the curiosity question,” which is this: “Tell me something new you’ve taught yourself in the past six months. How did you go about teaching yourself, and what was the result?”

An additional approach is to determine how curious a candidate is around your specific field. Ask them questions such as “What do you think the three most interesting things happening in this industry right now are?” Even if they don’t yet know your specific space that well, see what responses they formulate and questions they ask you. If they’re curious about how you make money and your different rivals, they’ll ask several questions and postulate ideas. If they simply respond with “Well, I hope to learn the field when hired,” it’s probably a less curious candidate.

There are interview questions geared at measuring adaptability, although one grain of salt is necessary here: these are often behavioral interview questions, and some recruiters are moving away from those types because they are too contingent on past behavior in a rapidly-changing business environment.

The bottom line

As organizations roll out new products consistently and disruptive threats emerge from upstarts, you need a sales team that can adapt and adjust to a new environment fairly quickly. If someone has had large degrees of success in a specific vertical but lacks this adaptive quality, it may not be the best fit for the current sales model necessary in orgs. 

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