I guess we have all seen them (or perhaps even been them) in real life: The senior executive or star sales person who brings in the majority of a company’s annual sales. They share a small set of defining characteristics, being:
- Well-connected, both internally and externally;
- Intellectually strong;
- Charming and extroverted;
- Possessed of a nose for large deals, which they generally win.
My favourite example is Yoel Zaoui, formerly co-head of global mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs. According to news reports, Mr. Zaoui was instrumental in closing deals with total value of USD 300bn during his tenure. As remarkable as he is, however, our contention is that you should no more use Mr. Zaoui as a blueprint for a strong sales organization than you would use a lightning bolt as a model for your urban power grid.
Some of the world’s most impressive sales organizations—ABB, Siemens, Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft come to mind—are specifically and consciously designed to minimize the requirements for geniuses like Mr. Zaoui. They are organizational machines built to deliver great performance based on good, but not stellar staff. They are examples of the power of rational structure, solid processes, and methodologies that work almost irrespective of the people employing them.
There are four reasons why you, as a CEO or sales executive of a high-tech company, should start building such a machine:
- The pool of sales stars out there is very small. By the time you apply the selection criteria of industry background and your salary budget, the probability of even finding them is vanishingly small. And if you did, there is even lower probability that he or she would want to work for your early-phase company.
- Sales stars are not scalable for two reasons: i) They will generally want a lot of space and there is seldom space for more than one such person; ii) They do not grow on trees, so you will probably not be able to build up a bench of such star material.
- A star-based sales force increases organizational risk. Ideally, you want to build performance and resilience into the sales organization. When it is based on a high-performing individual, your sales organization, and your entire company, could unravel just because that person leaves.
Besides, some of these stars come with personality traits that are ultimately intolerable. The Jordan Belfort character in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) may be an exaggeration, but let’s face it: Nihilistic selfishness, greed, and sociopathic excess make an interesting movie character, but not a helpful and productive employee.
To summarize, high tech sales and management should:
- Start to build your sales organization early;
- Stay on the boring side when recruiting for sales positions;
- Generate performance from rational processes, methodologies, and structures, not on the unscalable star-qualities of gifted individuals.
This is not to say that if a rainmaker walks in the door you should show them out. Clearly, a stellar salesperson gives you terrific upside in the early growth phases of your company. All we’re saying is that if you want consistent long-term growth, you should treat such people as icing on the cake, not the cake itself.