Hiring Salespeople: Cracking the Code
Having been in sales management for the better part of two decades has given me exposure to personality tests on myself but also to the administration of them on others. Some jobs hang in the balance of what results these tests produce, so their importance is not understated. Logic would prevail that traits like extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, charisma, intelligence, and emotional stability would all be desirable conditions to exist in a salesperson. After all, their profession consists of going out and talking to total strangers, gaining their trust, and persuading them to part with their hard-earned money.
Even when a pressing need exists for a product or service, natural skepticism from the customer’s exists anytime they are confronted with another human being asking for cash. So, looking for people that fit such a profile should be straight-forward, as we all know individuals who are “the life of the party” that everyone wants to talk to and be around. However, we know that anywhere from 50-70% of all new sales hires will not last a year. According to Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, most hiring failures are a result of a lack of coachability, low levels of emotional intelligence, motivation, and temperament. In fact, in his research on 20,000 new hires, of which 46% failed within a year and a half, 89% of the time it was for personality deficits, not skill deficits.
I don’t care how motivated you intrinsically are – if you are beaten down at work every day – you will fail. Conversely, I have seen a lot of “average” skilled people that have been given coaching and support progress beyond the highest hopes I had for them. I have also seen people that failed to work for me but went on to succeed elsewhere. I have failed at some places and set sales records for others. The only difference was an environment that skewed behaviors and skills either positively or negatively. But, aren’t great leaders supposed to overcome all obstacles?
Evolutionary theory argues that traits become ingrained in a species when they are critical to survival. The fact that we are here today as a species shows the success we have had in passing down desirable genetic properties. This evolutionary achievement would seem to have assured that only dominant traits would have survived generation after generation, as each successive time period should have weaned off the weaker links. But does that hold true for personality traits as well as physically adaptive ones? It seems reasonable that behavior like extroversion would be desirable for species survival since that could provide one with additional procreation opportunities, as that characteristic tends to socially dominate and create beneficial links. So, why aren’t we all extroverts?
Even though the brain grows after birth, the number of neurons don't necessarily increase. Many die off because they're not needed. In fact, both before and after birth, about twice as many neurons are created as ultimately end up surviving in the matured brain. Essentially, the developing brain is a battleground - the cells that are the most electrically active survive. Synapses that are not used wither away (like the synapses carrying auditory information to deaf people). A synapse is eliminated even if it is being used to some degree if its neighbor is much more active. Strong activation of a synapse makes those nearby weaker and can ultimately eliminate them altogether. You have to “use it or lose it.” So, what does all this mean? When you're born, you're pretty close to a blank slate, and then a lot of learning takes place. Early experiences are important, not because it makes a more efficient circuit, but that it creates a base for subsequent learning. Context is important.
In trials of children and young adults from middle-class or affluent families, looking at both identical and non-identical twins raised together and apart, they found the 50 percent of intelligence not accounted for by genes was determined by environmental factors. Twins raised in poverty scored lower on intelligence tests, although the middle-class subjects did not score worse than the affluent ones. In other words, for the case of general acumen, both genes and environment contribute, but when taken to the extreme, the environment will win out. In contrast, behavioral traits do not appear to be influenced much by genes. Food preferences are largely determined by early experience. Sense of humor is another. Identical twins raised apart tend to not find the same things funny, whereas they do share a sense of humor with their adoptive siblings. We also now know that the environment can actually influence gene function in brain cells. Every cell in your body has encoded in its DNA, the information to make every cell encoded in the human genome.
If you were able to identify the exact personality traits that would benchmark the position you are seeking to fill, along with the ideal environment created for them to excel in, you’re still not done. There’s another side to every coin, and there are “dark sides to bright traits. If you had conducted a hiring search looking for a rational, extroverted, agreeable, and emotionally stable salesperson – and found one - you may not have considered the unintended consequences. Highly conscientious people are risk-averse and can delay decision-making processes. Extroverted people tend to not accept input from colleagues nor do they share credit. Those that are agreeable by nature also tend to avoid conflict, and those that are emotionally stable tend to be boring, as their “vanilla” disposition can lead to others not trusting them as they are hard to “read” emotionally.
In the Big-5 Personality test, I scored highest in Neuroticism, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, I also scored relatively high on Agreeableness, which is a perfect illustrator of the dichotomy of most people’s personalities. While I certainly can feel negative emotions in certain situations and environments, I also like helping others, believe in them, and trust them. None of my characteristics are to the extreme.
Based on the evidence, I think the best you can do is look for people to be part of your organization that would best respond to your leadership style. If you are a leader, you need to understand the culture of your organization, as well as the context that your followers will have to exist in. While understanding personality traits is important, the secondary exercise of determining the environment those features will reside in is the determinate factor in success or failure.