How to Avoid Hiring the Wrong Sales Leader

Last week the owner of a mid-size staffing firm told me he had recently made a bad hire to lead his sales team.

​The Vice President of Sales lasted just five months in the job. Five months and thousands of dollars later, the owner was left with a disengaged sales team ready to quit.

I’ve seen this again and again in small to mid-size staffing agencies. The owner grows the business to the point where it is no longer possible to manage the sales team alone, and there are no qualified internal candidates, so he decides the time is right to make a significant (and typically expensive) hire from the outside.

If you’ve ever hired a sales leader from the outside yourself, you know it’s always a risk. And the risk seems to increase in direct proportion to the level of position for which you are hiring.

And if your top candidate comes from a global staffing firm, he or she has likely amassed some serious knowledge about current best practices for driving performance in a sales organization. It’s no surprise that owners become enamored of strategic thinkers who confidently promise to grow the business significantly.

It’s easy to be oversold. After all, who better than a sales leader candidate knows how to sell himself into a job?

Here’s what to do during the vetting process to avoid a disastrous mismatch.

Be completely transparent about the daily behaviors you expect of an employee in this role.

A Vice President in a smaller staffing agency is not the same job as one of the same title in a national firm. If your firm is under $20 million in revenue, chances are the hire you really need must get into the trenches, perhaps hiring, training, coaching, establishing metrics for, and doing one-on-ones with business development managers. Someone who, beyond helping you develop the right sales strategy will be fully engaged in the tactical _work required to bring in new accounts. If the candidate you are talking to has been overseeing sales strategy from 30,000 feet for the last several years, it is highly unlikely he will step back in time and be the _sales manager you really need – despite what he says during the interview. I call this the “feet up on the desk” sales leader hire. Make sure to provide a detailed job description and specific growth goals. Ask solid candidates for a 30-60-90 day plan to make those goals a reality. If the plan doesn’t detail the activities above, keep looking.

Be honest about the support that will or will not be available to the candidate once on board.

For starters, how much leeway will you give your new sales leader to make decisions, both big and small? The more hands-on the owner, the greater the struggle to relinquish control of being the final decision-maker. Detail with the candidate where you intend to stop and he starts in terms of making decisions, and what types of decisions require your involvement. Also, if there is no marketing group to create a lead generation campaign or a proposal team to respond to RFPs, make candidates coming from large firms with vast resources available to aid in their success aware that they won’t have that kind of support in place and will be responsible for making it happen. If there is no budget for investments this year, be up front about it. In short, don’t oversell the opportunity. These details help you avoid hiring someone who wants to spend money you don’t have who will ultimately feel constrained and disillusioned in the job.

Have someone who knows your firm well talk to your final candidate before extending an offer. A peer manager, a trusted outside advisor who knows you and the culture you have created at your firm, or even a member of the sales team the potential new hire will report to are good choices. It amazes me what sales leader candidates will tell me that they didn’t disclose to the owner when we talk – all because I’m an independent third party. Don’t position these discussions with your candidate as formal interviews, but just a conversation. Ask those you choose to engage to vet the candidate for cultural fit – defined as “how we do things here.” Then when you debrief after the interviews, ask for straightforward feedback. Do they believe this candidate will fit in well? Poor cultural fit is the biggest reason an outside sales leader fails. That usually happens because new sales leaders want to make more changes than you are comfortable with and too quickly. Even if you believe your sales organization needs an overhaul, you may find yourself resisting too much change in the short term – especially if the changes represent a radical departure from the way things have always been done.

In summary, being transparent with sales leader candidates about the realities of the job you’re hiring for, and involving others in the vetting process, you’re much more likely to hire the right person who will partner with you in taking your staffing agency to the next level.

Bingham Consulting Professionals LLC

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