9 Lessons every Founder Can Learn from Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Marc Benioff on Recruiting Outstanding Sales Executives

By Igor Sill, Geneva Venture Partners, January 28, 2019

“Today we welcome Igor Sill to Fetcher’s blog. Igor is a Silicon Valley tech executive and venture investor who worked with Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, Marc Benioff, co-founder of Salesforce, and Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple & NeXT. In this guest post, Igor distills common leadership traits these three legendary founders share: the ability to identify, select and recruit exceptionally talented sales leaders. Here’s a look into their hiring strategy.”

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work closely alongside three extraordinarily gifted CEOs: Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff and Steve Jobs. Though each one was very different in his respective approach and leadership style, they all had several characteristics in common, especially in hiring and selling. While every operational aspect of a high-growth business is important, revenue generation tied to customer satisfaction is clearly a critical backbone of business today, and the one most prone to causing a company’s demise if poorly executed.

As a wise company founder once said, “A business absolutely devoted to customer service will have only one worry, profits, as they will be embarrassingly large.”

Ellison, Benioff and Jobs all recognized that “nothing happened until someone sold something”, and that sales was a central part of a lasting organization. Hiring the wrong sales executive is one of the most common and painful mistakes a CEO can make, and can even lead to the death of an organization. Hiring the right talent, at the right flex point, is worth its weight in gold.

Here are 10 lessons I learned over many decades working with some of the most driven, innovative leaders of my generation:

1. Right candidate, right role, right time
At the early stages of a startup, the CEO needs to fully understand the role of each incremental executive team member. As an example for hiring the Head of Sales: it’s tempting to hire a big name Chief Revenue Officer or SVP Sales when what’s really needed at the time is a qualified, execution-capable sales “rainmaker”. Don’t make the mistake of hiring an additional coach when the team really needs a player.

Also avoid a mistake by hiring someone who was successful in an environment that is completely different than the one they would be entering. There is a huge difference in hiring someone from established players where they stepped into a large sales team and managed with diplomatic, organizational finesse (managing managers), versus someone who can scale an existing sales organization, versus someone who is capable of generating the initial sales and building customer traction from the ground up.
A good question to ask yourself is: what stage of growth am I truly in, and is my market strategy accurate?

2. Seek out intellectually curious, inherently driven leaders
These are the “type-A” overachievers with an inbred “fear-of-failure” personality. “A” players hire “A” players, and “B” players hire “C” players. You can spot these prospects through asking deep questions about their company’s mission, and how they sought to fulfill their company’s vision. Look for strategic thinkers seeking to improve their employer’s systems, processes and results. Ask what they actually accomplished while in their roles. Look for accurately articulated, team-oriented descriptions, versus the “I did it by myself” syndrome. Ask how they developed and scaled their teams. Look for people striving to continually improve themselves and their personal reach. The genius of Steve Jobs’ hiring philosophy: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

3. Look for evangelistic “believers”
Find the sales leaders who deeply believe in your mission. They can articulate the full value proposition to your customers and display a burning passion for your company. Ask your candidate to pitch your company and its products to you as if you were a customer or a recruit. You’ll get a quick sense of their preparation. Well placed passion is a key ingredient for a long term successful hire. As Marc Benioff says: “the secret to successful hiring is this: look for the people who want to change the world.”

4. Hire ethical, high integrity players
Ask behavioral questions pertaining to such sensitive topics as revenue recognition, customer promises, hiring preferences, etc. This is well worth taking some time to fully explore with every prospective new leadership hire. Seek out candidates who are employed by highly ethical and successful companies. They’ll likely bring similar values to your company.

5. Compare the candidate’s credentials against your existing management team
Take another look at your team’s experience and pedigree. Make sure that you are augmenting your team with superstar additions; people that they will respect, admire, and say to themselves, “We were able to attract her here, wow!” Highing stars is such a great morale booster and the opposite holds true.

6. Diligently check references
You learn so much about a company, its management style, processes, and the prospective candidate’s work ethic via reference checking. A good way to verify a candidate’s credentials is to ask for organizational structure within the candidate’s last position during the initial interview. Take accurate notes of names and titles mentioned. These will generally not be the same names provided as references. If the candidate deserves serious consideration, first ask for a list of references so that you have permission to check references in general, then pursue those individuals who worked closely with your candidate to verify their style, ethics and outcomes. If you locate a peer within the organization, ask about the company’s compensation scheme, salary, bonus, incentives, stock options, etc. This will give you a good sense of what a comparable level professional at the same company earns, versus what you may have been told during the interview. If there’s a significant discrepancy, ask your candidate why. Be wary of embellishments.

7. Always Be Closing… the candidate!
Once you’ve identified your top candidate, make the offer a time sensitive priority. Present the offer in person or on the phone. If possible, invite the candidate and their partner out for dinner. If the candidate is looking to resign from another position first, consider inviting them to the office for a strategic planning session before as a way of gaining deeper commitment. Use all the resources available at your disposal to land your ideal candidate, including your executive team, board, investors and advisors.

8. Invest in onboarding
Once your candidate joins, invest time in describing the company’s mission, and articulating current processes. Check in once or twice during the orientation period to ensure that all is going smoothly while building trust. Let your new hire shadow sales calls and demos as soon as they arrive so that they can quickly learn the product or service and get a sense for the problems your company is trying to solve for your customers.

9. Seek referrals from your best hires
Once you’ve hired your superstar, ask for recommendations of other potential employees. The newly hired executive will likely point to the top achievers within their previous companies. It’s a highly effective vetting process to recommend someone you already know. Superstars typically know other high achievers. Remember, “A” players attract “A” players!

The author, Igor Sill, worked directly with Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff, Jeff Walker, Tom Siebel, Bernard Liautaud, Umang Gupta, Evan Goldberg, Marten Mickos (MySQL), Steve Jobs (NeXT/Apple), Samir Arora (NetObjects/IBM) as well as many other CEOs that utilized this hiring model during their respective company’s pre-IPO high growth period. Igor now consults at Geneva Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley BoD & C-level recruitment, investment and M&A venture advisory firm, utilizing some of the same performance metrics and growth processes used by Oracle and Salesforce for its investments in technology startups.

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