The Trouble With (Recruiting) Sales Directors

The below is an interview given to Sales Director Magazine:

1) When head-hunting Sales Directors what things do you look for?

People often cite Sales Directors as the most difficult C-Level discipline to interview and recruit for; the argument being that professional sellers are highly adept at controlling interviews and selling their own F.A.B (Features/Advantages/Benefits) whilst handling any objections about lack of fit/suitability and either diminishing them, or down right ignoring them!

I disagree. Sales people are typically more engaging and will often be of a mindset they see the ‘F.A.B’ of new opportunities whilst being more open to discussions about onward career progressions. The better the sales person, the better the Opportunity Engineer!

When headhunting sales people, the same broad rules apply for other C-Level appointments. From an initial search and background perspective it is all about relevance. People will harp on about ‘Transferable Skills’. I’ve never seen transferable skills that are as effective as actual skills – if you need to highlight your skills as being transferable, they typically aren’t – especially within sales.

There are two main elements of experience for the recruitment of Sales professionals. 1) Selling the same or a similar/relevant product. 2) Selling into the same or similar client base. If they have both, they work for a direct or indirect competitor so there must be a reason why this new role is more attractive than their current one (and therefore question their motives for leaving….!)

We will typically take both a vertical and horizontal assessment of the role and use that as the basis of our search strategy. What other sectors/businesses have a similar target audience or require the same (demonstrable) level of technical knowledge.

What other sectors/businesses have a similar sales cycles or sales process/methodology. What other sectors/businesses use a similar product or operate in the same territory. Interrogating these and drawing up a universal target list is one of our greatest means of refining a spec with our client, introducing lateral thought.

We handled a role for a Polymer Compound Manufacturing business. The role was to set up an operation in the Far-East, both DTC but also through distributors. The appointee would also need to be supremely technically proficient, ideally holding a PhD. Rather than solely looking for competitors Sales leaders, the key drivers for the search were therefore the PhD coupled with ‘fire-starting’ commercial acumen but also knowledge of and experience of working in the Far-East or APACMEA region.

Beyond the background/experience/skills it becomes the person. It really is all about the person. It’s an obvious statement, but Sales Directors are the face of the business. They are the ones that typically make or breathe business commercial performance. The Sales Director therefore has to be a true and positive representation of the business. First impressions have to be bang-on, their ability to engage must be class-leading and their ability to build and develop relationships excellent, whilst also being the source (or conduit) of all product/service information. There is no surprise that the majority of the best Sales Directors are physically fit/attractive, personable, engaging and people that you would naturally want to be around.

Assessing Sales Director starts on the very first contact. If on that first call, or first meeting, the person sounds lacklustre or less than energising or engaging, they are unlikely to be pursued. If they can be energised about themselves, how can they be energised about the product they are selling?

2) As you are dealing with CEO’s & HR Directors day in and day out, what would you say is most important to the majority when hiring for a new sales director?

CEOs and HRDs are typically start off being excited about hiring a Sales Director before becoming petrified. Generally, CEOs and HRDs want a fire-starter. They will see this appointments has ‘the’ hire to save/drive the business. They will want someone that comes in with immediate gravitas, immediate leadership…and immediate impact/wins.  However, approaches, expectations and therefore key drivers become different dependent on whether its a CEO or HRD. Even for CEOs there are two distinct camps.

Entrepreneurial CEOs have typically been the defacto Sales Director for the business (if they haven’t directly come through that route), therefore the route to recruiting a ‘replacement’ Sales Director is fraught with pitfalls. Seldom does a Sales background CEO truly and genuinely want to hand over the company’s Sales mantle. I have had countless examples where a CEO is ‘stepping back’ from being actively involved in Sales, we’ve recruited a ‘replacement’ and they have lasted minutes as the CEO won’t truly let go. One specific example was a well known Manchester CEO who recruited one of the best Sales Directors I have ever interviewed. Within just one month, the appointee had increased sales by 20% followed by 30% in the 2nd month. The CEO got spooked and effectively demoted them and fitted a career-straight-jacket, such was the bash to his ego. This nature of person doesn’t *really* want a Sales Director, they want a Sales Manager that will follow instruction and continued the CEOs work under the CEOs guidance. They will typically seek to hire someone from a direct competitor, someone who is stepping up into the role, someone who they can effectively mentor and feel is following the strong work, culture and heartbeat of the business they have started. This can be seen as being controlling, but this of often the most positively motivated recruitment processes.

Non-Sales Background CEOs will usually seek something very different. The best CEOs will always play to, and recruit into their own areas of weakness. These CEOs will place the ultimate importance onto the Sales Director appointee. They will want someone who is going to lead an evolution or even a revolution. They will want someone who can match them for charisma and impact, someone who has immediate gravitas and will in turn teach, coach and educate them. They will typically be open to a more ambitious Risk Profile. They will be the most open on background and direct experience understanding that the primary pull is typically to get that energy and commercial intellectual fire-power around the boardroom table. They will often be the ones that will opt for more unusual routes/backgrounds wanting to see a broader variety of individuals.

HR Directors typically adopt a different approach again. The HR Director/Sale Director relationship if often the most diametrically opposite around the board table. The greatest personality clashes we see for Sales Directors are with HR Directors (Finance Directors being a close second). If at the top of their demograph, both will have the businesses performance (“the P&L”) as prime focus, but the levers each can employ will be very different, diametrically opposed even. Both, if at the top of their game, will be highly commercial; but whilst most Sales Directors will be ‘gung-ho’, dynamic, direct, capitalist, impulsive, (calculatingly) risk-taking solution-finders..their board-level HR colleagues will be more analytical, more cautious, more humanistic, more socially & equality aware and more measured in their ability to take an overview of the entire organisation – they after all are responsible for the business’s most important asset/resource, it’s people. HR Directors will therefore typically seek someone who is a far more calculated risk. They will often seek an even closer fit to the current business/products/services. They will be wary of a ‘new’ and will often cite “don’t mess it up” as the primary focus.

CEOs and HRDs alike will however agree on the most important aspect of what they are looking for in a Sales Director. A leader rather than a Manager. Someone who has the ability to turn a vision into a strategy…. then deliver that strategy.

3) How does your Chemistry Fit methodology work when it comes to sales directors.

Recruitment is typically 90% chemistry fit. With Sales Directors this is even more the case. The right Sales Director will become the face, personality and custodian of the business’s external personality. Choosing the Chemistry Fit that embodies what your business stands for, and what you want it to stand for is absolutely critical. So many of my contemporaries follow an easy/lazy route of merely searching in obvious talent pools – direct competitors; negating the fact that every truly competing business has it’s own USPs….and it’s own personality. Blindly steal a Sales Director from a competitor, and you will merely import their personality and tranche into your business, seldom with success (this is VERY different for operational roles!). Understanding that Chemistry Fit with your business is absolutely critical in any regard, but more than ever with Sales Directors.

The flip side of this is that the recruitment of a Sales Director is dominated with a major issue – any good, performing Sales Director will never (need to) look for a new role. Any good, performing Sales Director will be hugely valued by their employer, will be suitably remunerated and will have a clear personal and career development path ahead of them (unless the employing business is raw foolish). In order to procure a high-performing Sales Director, you will therefore need to find a hook….and a real unique selling point that supersedes short-term earning.  The answer…? Chemistry fit. It works both ways. In the same way as there was a ‘spark’ when I first met the woman that would become my wife (the ’Thunderbolt’ as Michael Corleone experienced in The Godfather pt.2), when a business finds a true Chemistry Fit in any exec, there is a two-way Thunderbolt. The Sales Director that is high performing, highly rewarded and has a high-achieving future ahead of them, will give all that up when he/she finds that perfect Chemistry Fit with another business and it’s Board of Directors. Chemistry Fit is everything.



7 Comments on “The Trouble With (Recruiting) Sales Directors”

  1. Great article Gary, very insightful. Working in HR, I’ve often been challenged by the recruitment of Sales professionals, especially seeing the motivations from others in the management team, your answers help give clarity as to others perception of such a role. Thank you

    Do you offer a service to answer other specific questions on this kind of process?

  2. Great blog as always Gary and interesting views, none of which I can disagree with. You are so very correct with your chemistry point. I have 25 years in Sales, now in general management and importance can never be underestimated.

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