What and Who to Look For When Hiring a Sales Executive

The reality of every early-stage company is that there comes a time when you have to acknowledge the fact that your company needs a sales leader, and it’s no longer you. My assumption is that you’re a founder, or you’ve been brought in to “gently” take the company from the hands of the founder. But, either way, sales is currently a part of your role.

The operative word here is PART—part of a long laundry list of things like raising money, dabbling in marketing, managing and motivating people, and all the things that fit under the nebulous and ever changing bucket of “etc.” Sound familiar? If so, then it’s time to bring in sales experience, but what do you look for and who are they?

“What” you look for is dependent on a number of things, like your experience and interest in sales, the state of your product and if you’ve determined the market for your product or service. It may also depend on whether you have a sales process in place and what your funding situation happens to be. And then there’s whether you have a long or short sales cycle, and if you currently have sales people or you’re a one person sales team.

“Who” you look for is a bit squishier and more driven by your company culture and current team dynamics than anything else. Questions around integrity, what drives them, their focus, and leadership style are key in the “who” aspect of your hire.

To simplify getting to the “what” and “who” we’ve created a list of items that may help you design a checklist for this important addition to your team. Since the average sales professional’s tenure is about 19 months, you want to do everything you can to beat those odds, and that takes thoughtful consideration and a plan.

The following lists can help you create your own exclusive pros and cons list that leads you to the best hiring decision for your company.

What type of Sales Leader is right for your company? Who is the right sales leader for your company?
Can they recruit and develop a sales team?This is key in any leadership role, but pivotal in a sales leader. They must be able to not only identify top performing sales people, but they have to convince them to leave a job where they are likely making good money. They have to be able to sell themselves and your company. They must also be able to coach salespeople, helping them adopt successful sales behaviors that lead to outstanding results, while creating a level playing field by objectively evaluating each team member’s performance. Are they high integrity and are they motivated by all the right things?Many people think that sales people are just “in it for the money”, and many are, but the most successful salespeople make lots of money without compromising their integrity. This is key in a sales leader, as they set the tone and culture of your sale organization, and without clear boundaries you may have sales people who take shortcuts in the hopes of a quicker outcome. They also tend to be the first to leave when a sales cycle is too long or they find another opportunity that allows for a “rebel” approach. A sales leader without clear boundaries has not instilled solid values in the sale organization and you are ripe for issues both inside and outside your organization.
Do they have a sales process and is it tested?Any great sales leader has a process that is tested, but more important is that they are not a slave to that process, but are able to adapt their processes to reflect how customers are buying. They also must create analytics to ensure continued improvement across the sales organization. Basically, they must be open to adding, adjusting, and deleting aspects of their process and possibly reinventing the entire process. They must be life-long, continuous learners who never seem to settle. And they must be able to adapt proven processes to new scenarios and get their team to embrace and live with these processes as effective instruments for generating business and improving revenue productivity. Do they have a competitive drive and a passion for what they do?Running a sales organization in an early-stage company is no easy task. Whether an experienced consultant or a full-time sales leader, you need to find someone who doesn’t rest on their past laurels, but who is as passionate and driven to succeed at your company as they have been in the past. And I don’t mean succeeding at all cost, that goes back to integrity, but someone who approaches each challenge as a new opportunity to succeed in ways that far exceed what they have done in the past. They also need to be able to identify sales people with the same competitive drive, the same integrity, and the same focus on building a career not just hitting a few big wins and moving on.
Are they good at forecasting? Can they think in to the future?All executives need to be somewhat of a fortune teller, but sales leaders need to be almost psychic at projecting what their ability is to deliver on a sales goal. The keys to success in forecasting, and more importantly hitting that forecast, is knowing their people’s strengths, their individual levels of optimism, and what drives them; this coupled with an uncanny ability to anticipate what is happening, or about to happen, in their market and the economy stacks the odds in their favor and in turn, yours. This is a unique skill of a successful sales executive that is really worth drilling in on. How do they work cross departmentally? Can they manage up?When you are starting a company or in a small internal team of a larger organization this becomes a very important attribute. Having a sales leader who understands the importance of marketing and appreciates the value it brings, one who understands that a solid relationship with development is a recipe for product success, and one who has the ability to help all members of their team understand the importance of open, honest communication (remember, sales is your most direct access to the Voice of the Customer) allows you to trust and get many more items off your checklist than ever before. A sales leader who is not afraid to tell you that they are missing the mark, or about a bad outcome with a customer, is one that will also come to you with a plan and be hell-bent on coming back next week with better news. Those that are secretive and float around the halls never stopping at the water cooler are sales leaders to avoid.
Do they have domain expertise?This one is a tough one, as there are two solid camps around this question. Many CEO’s believe that a sales leader must have domain expertise to succeed. While domain expertise is a plus, I believe it is not as important as finding a sales leader with solid fundamentals. Top sales leaders can play in a number of domains and it is often extremely advantageous to have someone with a new or different perspective when you are bringing a new technology or service to market. Remember, the best sales leaders are creative, professional, articulate, adaptable, and most importantly life-long learners. Do you need a Director or VP of Sales?This question is driven by your sales experience. If you have solid experience implementing and driving a sales process, hiring and motivating a sales organization, are a “closer”, and want to “hold on to the sales reins”, then a Director may be all the fire power you need to start to off-load some of your sales responsibility. If you have had no sales experience (and what you are currently doing doesn’t count), then you will want more fire power by adding a VP to your ranks. And remember, if you are going the consultant route, you can get a VP with years of experience that will look and feel like part of the company, down to carrying your business cards and being listed on your website, for a very competitive price.
Do you need a full-time sales leader or an experienced consultant?The answer to this question can be driven by the stage of your company, its product, your funding, and your sales experience. If you are early-stage with no process and no sales team to speak of, and you have never hired one, then a consultant is the best way to go. You can secure higher level expertise and experience at a lower cost, allowing you to build a solid foundation for the future. The risk of a mistake is also minimized. If it doesn’t work out it’s a single conversation that allows them to find the door versus an employee that could take months to exit and that exit may even come with an associated cost. And if you have cash sensitivities, the decision may be solidified, as an experienced consultant can come in with solid processes, tested tools, years of experience, and hit the ground running at a fraction of the cost of a full-time sales executive. Do you have enough disposable capital to pay the salary of a full-time sales executive? (Consider: base, bonus, benefits, equity, etc.) If not, then a consultant is your best bet.

If you are far enough along to have tested processes , have an existing sales team that needs a leader other than you, are ready to scale, and you have the financial runway to bring on a sales executive with an average price tag between $180-$300K, and your culture screams for a team member who is “all-in”, then a full-time sales leader may be the answer.

Do they fit your company culture?Everything we have talked about above drives toward this important question. Is your company culture focused, driven, and powering toward selling an initial customer at all cost? Or, are you more systematic, process focused, and methodical but still moving at a fast pace? Are you a micro-manager who has your hands in everything, or are you a hands-off manager who delegates effectively and depends on your leaders to deliver? The culture you have created, and are working to preserve or evolve, needs to be considered when adding any executive, or employee for that matter, to your team. Be sure that you are not just making a “gut” decision here, but validate that feeling and make sure you know what you are getting and that it fits your management style and your company’s cultural needs. Adding one new person to your team changes it forever, adding a leader has an even bigger impact.

So now you’re ready to create a profile for your sales leader, and design some solid questions around those attributes and experiences in order to weed through candidates. Whether you decide to do the search on your own or bring in a recruiter, knowing what you are looking for and how you’re going to go about finding it will be key to your success. You create strategic plans for numerous decisions involving your business; this decision should be no different and will be one of the most important decisions you make. When you finally find someone who seems to be a fit, has all the right attributes and experience, be sure and do as many reference checks as you need to in order to feel confident that you’ve made the right choice—and this goes for either a full-time employee or a consultant.

The sales executive you hire, regardless of whether they are a full-time employee or an experienced consultant, is in charge of your most precious and important assets: customers and revenue, so take the time to think it through and understand “what” and “who” your organization needs to be successful and then go find them.

Author: Kathi Jones, Strategic Partner

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