Happily, in the past several years startups are increasingly recognizing the value of strong sales enablement and sales productivity teams. So it’s no surprise that I hear a lot about high-growth companies building onboarding programs to enable successfully scaling their sales organizations and sustain their growth. What’s disappointing, however, is how little I hear about the hiring profiles of the people that we want to put into these programs.
Everyone loves to talk about onboarding, but everybody hates to talk about hiring profiles. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like talking about a machine — how it works and what it produces — without ever talking about what you feed into it. Obviously, when you step back and think about it, the success of any onboarding program is going to be a function of both the program and people you feed into it. So we are we so eager to talk about the former and so unwilling to talk about the latter?
Talking about the program is fairly easy. It’s a constructive exercise in building something that many folks have built before — so it’s about content structuring, best practice sharing, and the like. Talking about hiring profiles — i.e., the kind of people we want to feed into it — is harder because:
- It’s constraining. “Well, an ideal new hire might look like X, but we’re not always going to find that. If that one profile was all I could hire, I could never build the sales team fast enough.”
- It’s a matter of opinion. “Success around here comes in many shapes and sizes. There is not just one profile.”
- It’s unscientific. “I can just tell who has the sales gene and who doesn’t. That’s the hardest thing to hire for. And I just know when they have it.”
- It’s controversial. “Turns out none of my six first-line sales managers really agree on what it takes — e.g., we have an endless debate on whether domain-knowledge actually hurts or helps.”
- It’s early days. “Frankly, we just don’t know what the key success criteria are, and we’re working off a pretty small sample.”
- You have conflicting data. “Most of the ex-Oracle veterans we’ve hired have been fish out of water, but two of them did really well.”
- There are invariably outliers. “Look at Joe, we’d never hire him today — he looks nothing like the proposed profile — but he’s one of our top people.”
That’s why most sales managers would probably prefer discussing revenue recognition rules to hiring profiles. “I’ll just hire great sales athletes and the rest will take care of itself.” But will it?
In fact, the nonsensicality of the fairly typical approach to building a startup sales force becomes most clear when viewed through the onboarding lens.
Imagine you’re the VP of sales enablement:
“Wait a minute. I suppose it’s OK if you want to let every sales manager hire to their own criteria because we’re small and don’t really know for sure what the formula is. But how am I supposed to build a training program that has a mix of people with completely different backgrounds:
- Some have <5 years, some have 5-10 years, and some have 15+ years of enterprise sales experience?
- Some know the domain cold and have sold in the category for years whereas others have never sold in our category before?
- Some have experience selling platforms (which we do) but some have only sold applications?
- Some are transactional closers, some are relationship builders, and some are challenger-type solution sellers?”
I understand that your company may have different sales roles (e.g., inside sales, enterprise sales)  and that you will have different hiring profiles per role. But you if you want to scale your sales force — and a big part of scaling is onboarding — then you’re going to need to recruit cohorts that are sufficiently homogeneous that you can actually build an effective training program. I’d argue there are many other great reasons to define and enforce hiring profiles , but the clearest and simplest one is: if you’re going to hire a completely heterogeneous group of sales folks, how in the heck are you going to train them?
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 Though I’d argue that many startups over-diversify these roles too early. Concretely put, if you have less than 25 quota-carrying reps, you should have no more than two roles.
 Which can include conscious, deliberate experiments outside them.