How to identify high-potential young sales talent
As May approaches and thousands of college and university students enter the workforce, you are faced with an amazing opportunity: hiring a rookie that could turn into an all-star.
In professional sports, high draft picks are endlessly analyzed and coveted because of their relatively cheap salaries and high potential. In the business community, we don’t do nearly as much to determine the upside of a rookie. Most employers actually spend considerably less time interviewing and vetting a new graduate than they do a much more seasoned and proven professional.
Our clients tell us that they struggle to know what to look for in a new graduate specifically because of the candidates’ lack of proven work performance. How could they possibly know if the young, bright, well-dressed person in front of them is going to be the future CEO or a complete disaster? For every young person who worked their way up from the mailroom to the boardroom, there are dozens of examples of people who flame out in their first few months.
All hiring has an element of risk. As employers, our job is to minimize that risk through intelligent decision-making. At the Sales Talent Agency, we believe strongly in hiring young employees—more than 50% of our employee base is under 30 years of age. We’re also the founders of The Great Canadian Sales Competition, Canada’s biggest national student competition in 2014/2015. We’ve developed for our clients and ourselves an expertise in how to find, attract, choose and equip young people for long-term employment success.
Here are four critical things you need to consider when analyzing that shiny young prospect.
Drive not ambition
You can train on a lot of things, but you can’t train work ethic. Hiring a young person without a big engine significantly limits your upside. But how do you measure drive? There are a thousand predictive performance assessments on the market that claim to be able to predict drive through a 10-minute online form. But it’s critical that you look not just at potential, but also proof.
Most well educated young people show ambition—they want to be managers, millionaires, and entrepreneurs. Instead of focusing on these bold aspirations, you need to ascertain whether candidates have the work ethic and resiliency to do whatever it takes to achieve their ambitious goals. Here are some questions you need to be asking:
- What age were they when they had their first job, and how long and well did they do it?
- Was the part-time job they chose gritty and demanding (like door-to-door sales), or was it easy and unimpressive (like filing papers at their mom’s law firm)?
- Can they point to a particularly challenging goal that they set for themselves— educational, professional or even athletic—and explain how they dug deep to achieve it?
The right amount of emotional intelligence
While unempathetic people can thrive as entrepreneurs, artists and tyrannical dictators, they make terrible employees. You want people on your team who are going to be thoughtful and pragmatic. These people will follow you and help you improve the rules and processes of your company. They will be a little more patient and considerate of their colleagues, clients, boss and suppliers. They will represent you well because they actually care about how they are perceived!
But it’s possible to go too far the other way when hiring for empathy. While you do not want an employee that wants to win at all costs and will crush everyone internally and externally to do it, you also do not want an overly sympathetic and soft touchy-feely person who breaks at the first sign of adversity.
Here’s how to strike the right balance:
- Don’t look for someone who only wants to win, look for someone who refuses to lose. This may sound like semantics, but you will know the difference when you see it.
- Ask them about a time when the candidate made a mistake. People without empathy have huge trouble finding fault with any decision they have made—they will start off articulating a major fault, but if you keep digging they will find a way to blame someone else along the way.
Curiosity, not existing knowledge
A big engine (drive) and an optimal personality (emotional intelligence) should be the cost of entry, but the VIP section should be reserved for candidates who also have a high level of business curiosity.
It is a little much to ask for business acumen from a 22-year-old, but you should at least see indicators that it will develop along the way. Curious employees will learn more about your company, products, processes, challenges, clients, industry and future, and will become that critical expert that can thrive in any situation. Here’s how to find curious candidates:
- Ask that World’s Best Interview Question: “How did you prepare for this meeting with me today?” You want to see more than just a parsing glance at your website. Curious people will have dug into your industry and personal profiles. They will have read your articles and know what your value proposition is.
- Give them an assignment to complete that requires research. Look for signs that they were energized by the exploration exercise and did not find it a chore.
A long term outlook
Young people jump jobs. Not all of them, but enough for it to be a major part of your decision making: more than 50% of new graduates spend less than 18 months with their first employer out of college. Because it can take a few months or more for a new graduate to be trained enough to provide real value, a short-stint new grad hire could lead to a negative ROI. Here’s how to avoid being a stepping-stone:
- Make sure they actually want to work for you. If you have reason to believe you are their Plan C, they will leap from your job eight months in to gain employment with their Plan A/B.
- Build and present a three-year training program that shows clear learning, scope and financial progression.
- Live up to your employment promise. If you sell them on the excitement of your company and then sit them in a corner entering data all day, their short stint is your fault.