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What I’ve Learned from 1,000 Interviews

“Nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategy”  -Lawrence Bossidy, former COO of General Electric. In the span of two years, I’ve interviewed over 1,000 sales candidates — and hired less than 50. As any sales

“Nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day, you bet on people, not on strategy”  -Lawrence Bossidy, former COO of General Electric.

In the span of two years, I’ve interviewed over 1,000 sales candidates — and hired less than 50. As any sales leader will tell you, hiring is the #1 priority. Why did I hire less than 5 percent of the candidates? Because every bad hire is two steps backwards, and drains significant resources from the existing team.

What separates the welcome aboard from those sent off with a “thanks, we’ll be in touch”? Let’s dig in.

Passion is everything.

Why passion? You can determine a candidate’s desire to succeed in thirty minutes or less. Simply, you’re looking for those who care versus those who do not.

How does one identify passion? Can one identify this often overlooked attribute, or is it an intangible buzzword? Over the course of 1000 interviews, I’ve learned how to gauge a candidate’s level of passion via various proxies — and am pulling back the curtain.

The Power-Law & Human Performance

Human performance doesn’t follow the Pareto’s principle (commonly known as the 80/20 rule). John Bersin illustrates, human capital does not follow a Normal Distribution rather aligns with the Power-Law (a long tail curve).

The Power-Law implies that people who outperform the average will often generate 3x the value of those at the tail end of the curve.

What does this mean for hiring? Finding people who possess hyper-performance attributes will lead to long-term value creation.

Ideal Candidate Profile (ICP)

New customers come from the actions of past customers. –Eric Ries

In recruiting, we can apply the same technique and the characteristics begin to become statistically significant after your first few hires (applying the 100 Rule from Part One).

Understand your hyper-performers — look for trends, similar experiences, and any commonalities that emerge:

  • University background
  • Internship experience
  • International travel
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Technical skills
  • Past failure
  • Prior employer

In working with sales teams across a broad spectrum of industries, I often hear unique characteristics that hiring managers look for in their candidates (eg. exclusively baseball players, specific colleges, only those with door-to-door experience).

My advice, test your assumptions with more than one individual. Basing performance on a small sample skews your perspective.

Emotional IQ Spectrum

Self awareness is shaped by experience.

That’s the hard thing about hard things—there is no formula for dealing with them. –Ben Horowitz

Knowing and identifying one’s failures is the first step to self-improvement. Using your ICP, dig deep into how a candidate’s experiences shaped their level of self awareness.

This process involves three crucial steps:

  1. Form a foundation of empathy through sharing your own challenging experience.

  1. Tap into an experience from the candidate that evokes a level of sincerity (e.g. their move cross-country, their backpacking trip around South East Asia, the short stint on the resume that was probably a learning experience).

  1. Listen — body language tells a story, so make sure it’s the right one.

This process is only possible if you meet the candidate in-person. Self awareness is exposed at higher levels when you can share eye contact and really connect with the individual. In my experience, emotional intelligence is the difference between an average performer and your future VP of Sales.

Interview Sourcing 101

Sourcing and retaining top-talent requires rigor in the interview process. Investing in the front-end of the process helps you maintain high team retention, instead of going quick and dirty only to fire due to performance or cultural fit in a few months. Taking time to hire increases your odds of securing the best hire. Consistently hiring the best hire means that, in each round of interviews, your talent pool becomes better and your future candidate base improves in quality, raising the bar for as each new round.

Drawing from Greylock Partners, I apply the 100 Rule across all hiring decisions.

Reaching 100 candidates per position requires a broad set of recruiting channels:

  1. University job boards (FirstJob, AfterCollege)
  2. Agency recruiters
  3. Recruiting marketplaces (Gogohire, Hired)
  4. LinkedIn (set up saved searches for potential candidates and promote your jobs with sponsored ads)
  5. Recurring referral network effect (hire top-talent and they’ll refer an endless network)
  6. Corporate job board (invest time with HR to ensure the the positions and branding align with your candidates)

Recruiting is often considered a function of Human Resources, however leading hiring managers who care and are passionate about the growth of their team embrace the process.

Phone Screen meet In-Person

Tijd is Geld (Dutch idiom for time is money). How long do you spend on phone screens? Thirty minutes? How long do you spend meeting a candidate in person? Thirty minutes.

Don’t be lazy. You’re in Sales. Take the time to invest in candidates and they’ll invest in you.

Meeting interviewees in-person provides the candidate with the opportunity to meet you, shake your hand, assess the office culture and more importantly demonstrates your investment in the relationship. For hiring managers, meeting candidates in person gives you insight into their preparation (prepared questions, competitive analysis, etc.), allows you to see their ability to think on their feet, and lets you gauge their passion to work with you.

In the same way you’re building meaningful relationships with your future customers, candidates deserve the same experience.

“Our whole philosophy became ‘let’s take most of the money we would’ve spent on paid advertising and paid marketing and instead of spending it on that invest it in the customer experience/customer service and then let our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth’ and that became the whole business model.”

Tony Hsieh (the Founder and CEO of Zappos) mentions customers, however, this applies to candidates too.

Listen to their story. Tell yours. Every interview is an opportunity to create a fan and a customer.

Sales is a conversation

An interview should not be an interrogation. In the same way your future customers don’t want to play a game of twenty questions, your next hire would prefer you to treat them like a human.  

Making a connection with a candidate requires a two-way dialogue around their background, experiences and applicable skills. This requires investment from the interviewer into beyond just the accomplishments from their prior job.

From my experience, making the candidate feel comfortable and welcome is the first step to open communication – subtle cues to a candidate to indicate that their interest in working on the team is as important as mine.

  1. In the subject line of meeting invite, flip the model: candidate to interview hiring manager
  2. Meet in person — show you care
  3. Build rapport by digging into their background: where they grew up, what do they do outside the office, what they’re reading, where they’ve travelled, etc.
  4. Greet them at the door, and pay the same courtesy as they leave
  5. Make sure you provide time to answer their questions, not just your own

Bottom line: If you’re pulling teeth during an interview, you’re doing it wrong.

The Road Doesn’t End Here

We’ve explored why passion is a good gauge of performance, learned how hyper-performers will impact your team, created a framework for an Ideal Candidate Profile, and delved into the basics of interviewing 101.

For those in hiring roles, take ownership. Leave resource allocation to Human Resources, and invest in talent to create future leaders. Conversely, if you’re going for that hot job: focus on the details, share your experiences, and develop a relationship with the hiring manager.

About the Author

Blog ImageDaniel Barber is the Director of Sales Development and Operations at ToutApp, where he is building the newly formed Pipeline Development team. Funded by Andreessen Horowitz and Sigma West, ToutApp is centered on the sales person, and provides the ability to test and optimize content delivery at the individual and collaborative level. Prior to joining ToutApp, Daniel led the worldwide Sales Development team from $100M to $200M at Responsys (acquired by Oracle for $1.5B in December 2013).

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