There isn’t a job out there that’s tougher and more important for executives than finding, retaining and growing top talent. Even with a lot on his plate, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, focused primarily on acquiring talent for the rapidly growing company. In a well-known quote, Welch said: “I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”
One of the toughest positions for VPs and founders to hire for is the outside sales leader. Bringing in outside sales leadership is inevitable for every growing company, so it’s critical to get it right.
What makes finding sales leaders so difficult is that if most salespeople are good at interviewing, effective sales leaders are even better! Great interviewing allows people through the door who might not be ideal for your company or your company right now. The average tenure of a VP of sales is 18 months, which makes it the most-often-to-fail executive position.
What those looking to hire need now, may not be what we need six, 12 or 24 months from now. In the early stages, your company needs more scrappy leaders as you figure things out. But as you grow, you need strategic leaders who can execute and continue to scale. How can you get it right? Try focusing on these two areas to up your odds:
1. Hire for Your Stage of Growth
You will need a different type of sales leader at each stage of growth, so it’s important to really think through the day-to-day responsibilities of the leader you need for the first 18-24 months. Then, you can follow that up by finding a person to get you into the next stage of growth. Think long, incremental steps, rather than lightning growth. To simplify this process, take a look at the stages of sales VPs that Echosign founder, Jason Lemkin mentions in his talk at the San Francisco Sales Hacker Conference:
- First VP — The Player-Coach and Brand Evangelist. This person will help you manage less than 20 representatives and get you to around $1 million in revenue.
- Second VP — The Make it Repeatable Guy/Gal. This VP is the person who has managed a big regional team can repeat the successful sales processes of the first VP on a larger scale up to $10 million in revenue.
- Third VP — The Go Big Specialist. This VP is the person who will bring your company into new markets and manages multiple sales teams up to $40 million in revenue.
- Fourth VP — The Dashboards Master. And finally, you have the Grey Haired Veteran. He or she has done the complete rodeo beginning to end multiple times. This person knows the adversity your company will face and how to avoid the pitfalls of business growth in multiple markets, globally.
It is unusual to have a leader who can successfully scale through all four phases listed above. Jim Herbold and Sam Blond are the exceptions and not the rule. Prospective sales leaders reading this may be disappointed with this outlook. But this is how it works even in the rapid-fire growth companies of Silicon Valley/Alley.
2. Buckle Down for a 3-6 Month Search Process
Don’t ever settle. Make sure you have a buttoned up hiring process, trust your gut and make sure your sales lead hire is someone you can work with for the next two years.
If you only check the references that are given, you’re bound to only get what you want to hear. They are almost always positive and never paint the complete picture. Instead, ask for a full gamut of references from previous bosses, colleagues, and most important, customers. Two of each should suffice.
Only if all these stars align should you pull the trigger. It’s going to take time, so buckle down and be okay with passing off candidates if they are missing even a few of these check boxes. The right candidate is out there and you will be glad you waited.
Overlooking these two hiring rules are by far the most common mistakes that are seen across the board from large and small companies. Why? Because that extra workload is being handled by someone who wants to get it off their plate immediately. Leaders are incentivized to rush the process so they can offload the work. Many executives find this out the hard way by having to hire and fire multiple sales leaders in short spans.
In large companies, it can take a year for a team to recover from the lost morale and shock of poor leadership. Smaller companies fare better, but still take huge financial and morale losses.
The key then is to learn these lessons without having to live through them. It’s usually best to promote from within but when you have to go outside, live by these two rules to find the right sales management rockstar.