How NOT to Hire Your Next VP Sales: Avoiding Superficial Evaluation Factors

Recently, I was invited to consult at a company where the previous VP Sales had led a failed coup d’éta to oust the CEO.  The CEO wanted to discuss hiring a new VP Sales.   As an executive search professional, the VP Sales and VP Marketing niches are my bread & butter – especially in advanced technology (SaaS, IOT, Industry 4.0), real estate development, and heavy construction & engineering. 

I won’t tell you the city this happened it because it makes no difference.  This isn’t a new situation for me.  I’ve seen this before.  I understand the gravity of the situation and appreciate the sever circumstance that result in a palace coup. 

So, in my most affable manner I said to the CEO, “so, tell me the story. What brought us to this point?” for the next 45 minutes, he proceeded to tell me about the six VPs of Sales that he’d hired over the previous five years that he’d been there as CEO.  Why they were all f***ups.  To a man what was wrong with each and every single one of them.  Why he was hiring me, for the search, etc. etc. 

Getting to the end of his monologue, the CEO adds, “there’s a bit of a twist here Dave.  I have the opportunity to sell the firm, or hire you and you bring in the right VP of Sales.” Looking at me he asks, “What would you do?”

No pressure.

Without hesitation I respond, “Sell the firm.”

“What? Why?”, he asked.

To which i replied, “honestly, the fact that you don’t know the answer to that is disturbing enough.  So, we are never going to work together. If you haven’t figured out by now, why YOU keep hiring the wrong VP Sales, and none of your board members have questioned it – after six VP Sales have turned over in five years – the issue isn’t with the technology nor the six VPs of Sales.  But the fact that you don’t understand that you are the common denominator tells me that you should probably sell the company.”

Before departing, he took a moment to thank “me for my time” pointing out how ‘stunningly arrogant’ I was.  NO harm.  No foul.  I probably deserved it. 

A few weeks later though he did indeed sell the company for enough money to cover the investor’s initial stake.   Turned out I knew one of the investors.  He was relieved that he at least got his money back.  Therein lies the rub. The CEO enjoyed some fame in the local business press for a few weeks and this helped elevate his business savvy to near ‘God like status’ and landed him a new gig at a startup.  Those Founders were none the wiser, for the real story which will never make the business press, as the details of the sale were kept secret.  This is often the case when there is nothing to really brag about – no point embarrassing investors or staff.  

But what a shame!

That’s what I thought.  What a shame.  There were some serious lessons to be learned here, by others, in what not to do when hiring a sales executive.  this could have benefited a wider community. As you know, I’ve written extensively on the qualities of successful leaders and what’s required from leaders today in order to thrive in a 4.0 World.  So today instead of talking about what he should have done, let me point out some of the signs for you to watch for that may signal you’re about to hire a vice president sales you’ll end up firing in a few months.

NOTE: I apologize sorry if this reminds you of a former colleague or boss, but I want you to feel uncomfortable, so you don’t hire an empty blue suit in to your venture. So that you go beyond assessing a vp’s sales ability to respond to my want-to-be client’s “sell me this pen” or “why should I hire you?” questions.  Or any of the other traditional folklore questions which have never worked and would see any competent vp sales prospect laugh in the interviewer’s face.

Avoiding Superficial Evaluation Factors

Have you ever heard the term empty suit? It describes an executive who is incompetent. They don’t know what they’re doing. And yet, all too often, these empty suits wind up in positions of great power.  (NOTE: I’m truly sorry if this reminds you of a former colleague or boss but I want you to feel uncomfortable so you don’t hire an empty blue suit in to your venture.)

There’s one simple explanation for this: Whoever hired the executive based their decision on superficial evaluation factors. These include characteristics like:

  1. Charm: You know who was charming? Ted Bundy, that’s who. And you know who wasn’t? Steve Jobs. The point is, a charming personality is never an accurate predictor of success in a role (unless, of course, that role is “serial killer” aka Dexter). If you find yourself being swayed by a candidate’s winning smile, beware.
  2. Industry experience: We’re not saying industry experience is a bad thing. We’re just saying that depending on the size of the company and its growth stage, it may not be critical. Rather than focusing on industry experience, make your decision based on a broad range of factors, including the core attributes discussed in a previous post.
  3. Pedigree: Yes, prestigious school credentials are a nice-to-have, especially when they come with a built-in network of high-profile executives. But they won’t guarantee success. Keep the candidate’s credentials in proper context, and of course, fully vet them before making an offer.
  4. “Golden boy” references: These are references from industry leaders who have worked with the candidate, but only indirectly. In other words, although they may know the candidate, the candidate has never worked directly for or with them. If a reference can’t give you specific details of a candidate’s contributions, then their testimony is essentially worthless.
    • One easy way to rule out “golden boy” references in advance is to check the candidate’s LinkedIn recommendations section. If the reference appears there, then they may be legit.  If not consider asking the candidate why.

The truth is, these superficial evaluation factors provide minimal insight into a candidate’s abilities. The same goes for first impressions. Indeed, according to Laszlo Bock, former senior vice president of people operations at Google (he’s now a senior adviser at the company) and author of Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google to Transform How You Live and Lead, typical interviews are a waste of time because 99.4% of the time is spent trying to confirm whatever impression the interviewer formed about the interviewee during the first 10 seconds—an impression, by the way, that has virtually no basis in reality.

In his book, Bock goes on to review a 1998 study by Frank Schmidt and John Hunter that examines 85 years of research on how effectively different types of assessments actually predict performance. They found that:

Information gleaned during unstructured interviews could predict only 14% of an employee’s performance. (A structured interview is one in which each candidate is asked the same series of questions, making it easier to assess and compare their answers. An unstructured interview, in this context, is one that is more free-flowing—although the phrase is also used to describe those moments between “official” interview sessions, such as during a coffee break, over lunch, or walking down the hallway to the next meeting, when the candidate’s guard is down.)

  • Reference checks could explain 7% of an employee’s performance.
  • Years of experience factored into 3% of an employee’s performance.

So, what was the best predictor of a candidate’s performance?

How effectively they completed a job-related task, at 29%. That’s why, as part of Perry-Martel’s Inside-Out Approach, we recommend you have your final candidate deliver a job-related presentation before you close the deal. 

Here’s why the Candidate Presentation Interview needs to become an integral part of your interview strategy for executive level roles.

The Candidate Presentation Interview

By the time you’ve finished an executive search which may have lasted for several weeks or months, you’re likely completely convinced which candidate is the right one for the job. But the truth is, you’ve never actually seen him or her in action. That’s why we recommend you ask them to prepare and deliver a formal presentation before the search committee.

If you’re looking to fill a role in sales or marketing, ask the candidate to prepare a 20-minute presentation for a fictitious new account. For non-sales and marketing positions, ask the candidate to present his or her 30-/60-/90-day plan.  When we’re key note speaking, my partner Anita Martel and I often highlight why the Candidate Presentation Interview  is critical by referencing  Stephen Curry  and the Nike Factor which you can read about later through that link.

The Candidate Presentation Interview is important, but it’s not a test. There are no right answers. Yes, what the candidate says during the presentation is significant. But what’s more notable is how he or she prepares for the presentation. This will give you a fairly accurate snapshot of thier work habits and leadership style. Specifically:

  • Did she or he ask for the right amount of help or guidance? If, during the presentation, you notice obvious gaps of information that could have been filled had the candidate asked, it may indicate a working style that’s, well, stilted.
  • Did she or he act like a lone wolf or an armchair general? Is being a lone wolf or an armchair general an asset or a liability in the role you’re staffing?

Watch closely and take notes. You’re not looking for perfection, but you do  want to assess whether the candidate is prepared, convincing, credible, logical, and compelling. These are the same factors your customers will consider when they do business with this candidate!

After the presentation, the Search Committee meets to compare notes. Find out the following:

  • Does everyone feel the same way about the candidate?
  • Are the reasons for their selection or disqualification of the candidate appropriate?
  • What further questions (if any) need to be asked?
  • Do the candidate’s goals and skills align with the requirements of the role?
  • Based on the candidate’s presentation and his delivery of that presentation, do you believe he’s sincerely interested in the opportunity?

The candidate’s presentation offers insight into how the candidate thinks, strategizes, organizes, handles pressure, communicates, presents, and thinks on their feet.  Now, along with the referencing you’re about to do, you have enough information to make a hiring decision for the VP Sales job, avoiding superficial evaluation factors.