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Hire for grit, train for skill

What makes a great salesperson? When hiring a new salesperson, what are the characteristics that predict future success? As our older workforce ages into retirement and younger salespeople are required, these questions facing sales leaders will be more important than ever when hiring decisions are made.

Too often, salespeople are hired only to be later criticized and eventually jettisoned for lack of performance, leaving the question of predictability unanswered. My decades of experience have proven that there is never a 100% guarantee of any hiring decision, but there are ways to improve your percentages. West Point Academy faced a similar challenge.

Approximately 14,000 students go through the rigorous application process to be one of the 1,200 students accepted each year at West Point. Each applicant must graduate near the head of their class and demonstrate initiative through extracurricular activities. Finally, each application must be accompanied by a recommendation from a U.S. congressional representative. One would think, given the strident requirements to enter the academy, student retention would not be a problem.

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Instead, about 15-23% of cadets who are accepted do not graduate, according to recent data. To solve the problem, West Point called in psychologist Angela Duckworth. Her work was featured in a popular TED Talk and the publica-tion of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”

After studying not only the cadets at West Point Academy, but also teachers, salespeople, and other students, Duckworth concluded that the defining characteristics of successful people were not health, looks, or intelligence. The defining factor is grit. “Grit,” Duckworth said, “is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out…for years.”

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pioneered his concepts in logotherapy, his psychological theory that finding meaning in your future is the key to surviving difficult challenges. He wrote about his work in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Astoundingly, his “research” was based on observations he made of prisoners in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. He observed that people who could envision their future by finding meaning even in their abject circumstances were more likely to cope and survive the ordeal. Frankl didn’t know at the time that his work would later be validated by studies in neuroplasticity of the brain.

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Studies have shown that intentional firing of the frontal cortex through abstract thinking, future planning, and self-discipline rewires the brain and fosters intentional positivity. The work of Duckworth, Frankl, and scientists in the field of neuroplasticity provide answers that might predict better ways to hire salespeople.

Hiring experts will argue that the best predictor of future behaviors is past performance. That is to say, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. This means that answers to hypothetical questions during an interview—e.g. what would you do if…?—are not predictors of future performance. The salesperson will often have the right answer, but one that is not necessarily likely to match actual performance.

The only way to know what a performer will do in the future is to determine whether grit has been demonstrated in the past. It is for this reason that I have always placed high emphasis on past experiences in goal achievement as a primary predictor of future performance. The top salespeople are usually focused on high levels of personal achievement, and yes, this means they want to make money. But the desire for money is not enough.

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The best sales performers are those with a history of personal achievement and “stick-to-itiveness.” If you are a salesperson, develop grit by deciding on your plan of action and pursuing relentlessly. If you are a manager looking for your next generation of talent, hire for grit and train for skill. This approach might not yield perfect results, but it is the high percentage play.

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