“In the digital age, where anything and everything can be bought from just about anywhere, there is little differentiation between products and services. It means a business’ greatest asset and biggest distinction are its people.”—Marc Havercroft
In Marvel’s universe, The Avengers are a team of Earth’s five mightiest superheroes, who come together to protect the planet from imminent destruction. In business, there may be fewer explosions and costumes, but there are still five key roles that come together to optimize talent and scale a high-performance salesforce:
We’ll examine the responsibilities and special powers of each one—as well as typical pitfalls to watch for when it comes to talent.
Why pay so much attention to the talent-and-development skills of your highest leaders? One of the most important attributes of a modern business is the ability to attract and develop talent, and at Peak Sales, we believe that growing high performing teams is not an event but an ongoing business process.
The digital era has democratized access to resources and enabled copycats, making talent one of the only real competitive advantages left. Talent-driven companies win, meaning that talent informs strategy rather than the other way around.
According to Dominic Barton, talent is more scarce than financial capital, and the returns to employees have gone up dramatically. In the past, the difference in performance between an average and a top-notch production line worker didn’t justify a huge compensation difference. But today’s ROI on top performers justifies new ways of compensating, sourcing, nurturing, and retaining employees—and a “dream team” pull it off.
Sales organizations are no exception, where top performers produce a disproportionate return while below-average and average performers create drag on the team. Designing a talent management program that lets a top-performing sales organization scale up requires a team of Avengers … and each one plays a unique role.
A VP of Sales is the head of the sales organization and directly influences a company’s revenue, growth, and culture. And they are directly responsible for the talent acquisition, development, and retention of the company’s sales force.
Key responsibilities of a VP Sales:
- People management—Create a culture and environment of success through coaching, a sales process, and by holding talent accountable for performance.
- Talent acquisition—Drive hiring efforts year-round and personally recruit sales talent.
- Customer management—Set high-level strategy by connecting to the customer’s needs as well as understanding the market and competition.
- Business management—Align resources in the sales function, invest in technology and data infrastructure, and improve selling processes and channels.
A VP Sales’ typical talent-related mistakes:
Not personally developing a sales candidate pipeline. The VP of Sales should have an extensive network of sales professionals—ideally top performers—and must actively maintain relationships to identify potential talent to bring onto the team. They can identify needed outside talent and help them envision a career path at the company.
Spending too much time selling accounts personally, rather than leveraging their team. While some amount of oversight on high-profile deals is beneficial, a VP of Sales should free up their time to dedicate their time to high-level talent strategy.
Not allocating enough resources to sales support functions. It’s been found that dedicating about 50% of sales employees to support functions optimizes a sales team’s ROI.
Hiring by gut feel or “winging it” as soon as headcount is open. Successful long-term sales teams are built over time by using quantitative tests and rigorous, structured interview processes to evaluate candidates. A VP of Sales should collaborate with HR to design a rigorous program and contribute sales-specific insights to the process, such as interview questions and a list of skillsets, aptitudes, and characteristics that will set up a candidate for success.
The thought of HR might conjure images from the 1999 movie Office Space, the perfect picture of HR gone wrong, with mind-numbing processes and employees who feel like prisoners.
But today, HR is no longer a sleepy administrative department and Chief HR Officers hold key strategic roles. Coco Brown, CEO of The Athena Alliance, which works to place talented women in corporate boardrooms, says, “Some of the CHRO areas of expertise, once considered ‘the soft stuff,’ have become ‘the strategic stuff.’”
Some even argue that the CHRO should be elevated to the same level as the CEO and CFO, creating an ideal leadership group that prioritizes talent as much as financial capital. “One of the biggest investors in the world is BlackRock,” writes Dominic Barton, “and you go to the seventh floor of BlackRock and the person sitting beside (CEO) Larry Fink’s office is Jeff Smith, who’s the Chief Human Resources Officer. That’s deliberate.”
Key responsibilities of a VP of HR:
- Talent acquisition—Develop a robust talent acquisition strategy spanning employer branding to recruitment, assessment, and interviewing strategies.
- Compensation strategy—Design compensation and equity structures that incentivize and align behaviors.
- Retention—Implement mechanisms and initiatives to retain top talent.
- Succession planning—Ensure a strong leadership bench and facilitate executive transitions.
- People, culture, and the future of work—Keep up with shifts in the workforce and the changing nature of work.
A VP HR’s typical talent-related mistakes:
Focusing on the operational side of HR rather than the strategic side. An HR function can get lost in the weeds of transactional processes. A VP of HR should have the capacity and sensitivity to operate in the inner circle of the CEO and CFO, and advocate for talent being as central to company strategy as finances are.
Not delivering on sales hiring goals fast enough. A VP of HR must search for external sales talent with curiosity, tenacity, and outside-the-box thinking to meet hiring goals on time. They need to support the VP of Sales in developing a talent pipeline that’ll help them adhere to growth models.
The CEO of a company is responsible for its overall business performance, and acts as the highest level of authority for key decisions. The CEO can be a huge asset when it comes to recruiting sales talent—they have visibility with the community, press, investors, partners, and customers, and as such should act as talent scouts.
Key responsibilities of a CEO:
- Own the company vision—Unite all company efforts with a consistent vision.
- Balance resources—Allocate and prioritize resources between departments and initiatives.
- Invest in culture—Actively cultivate culture, because like a garden left untended, a company culture will form regardless. A CEO must evoke core values and shared attitudes to help it grow in the right direction.
- Oversee performance—Measure company performance, deliver on goals and vision, and implement strategies to increase shareholder value.
- Communicate on behalf of the company—Drive messaging to employees, shareholders, partners, the press and public, and regulatory entities.
- Lead executive team—Maintain responsibility for the outcomes of the executive team’s decisions and evaluate their work.
- Scout talent—Identify and attract top-performing talent.
A CEO’s typical talent-related mistakes:
Not personally participating in talent acquisition. The CEO should actively scout for sales talent in their network, cultivating those relationships and contributing candidates to the sales hiring pipeline.
Blocking the VP of HR from the top circle of executives. For talent to be a central asset and competitive advantage, a CEO should elevate the head of HR to a strategic position in the upper echelon of leadership—rather than making it an afterthought.
Deprioritizing sales compensation and hiring forecasts. A CEO must work with Sales, Finance, and HR to create a sales hiring forecast that supports the company’s growth … and then adhere to it. To follow through on the plan, the CEO must allocate and protect resources to appropriately compensate top performing sales talent, which helps both hiring and talent retention.
A Chief Financial Officer is the company’s spokesperson for all financial matters and performance. When it comes to talent, a CFO manages a company’s investments in people. This means that CFOs and heads of HR should be highly aligned: finance oversees the investment, while HR delivers on it. Too often, they’re disconnected, but a talent-first company must have a CFO who is on board.
Key responsibilities of a CFO:
- Financial performance—Report and analyze high-level performance.
- Optimize use of resources—Perform cost-benefit analyses and identify strategies to optimize financial performance.
- Managing the company’s financial risks—Identify risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.
- Forecasting—Generate forecasts for finances, growth, and future risks and trends.
- Regulatory compliance and taxation—Ensure that the company is compliant with government regulations and tax responsibilities.
A CFO’s typical talent-related mistakes:
Budgeting too few resources to support talent acquisition efforts. In a talent-first company, CFO’s must prioritize talent initiatives when allocating resources, invest in the sales force, and adhere to hiring forecasts. (ZS Associates found that organizations that hire sales teams based on analytical models exhibit higher short-term and long-term profits, while companies that hold off on expansion compromise their standing.)
Acquiring and retaining top-performing sales talent can be particularly costly, but the best sales organizations still design compensation plans around top performers, using competitive base rates as well as accelerator and product volume bonuses. CFOs must also budget for employee referral programs, outside talent acquisition specialists, and technology that assists in sourcing and vetting candidates.
Being resistant to releasing talent. A dilemma that CFOs often face is knowing when to let talent go versus wanting to “rescue” them. This is often evident in situations involving high performers who don’t work well in the team, or likeable individuals who just aren’t performing, or employees who have been passed over for a promotion. A CFO must decide whether to retain and develop the individual, or to release them, but a release often does not come soon enough, to the detriment of team productivity and morale—especially in sales organizations.
Staying process-oriented instead of shifting focus to growth. Too many CFOs are still process-oriented. Modern companies must recognize that the new role of the CFO is to drive value and strategy. CFOs should adopt technology that automates old processes, freeing them to think more strategically. They should also use their processes and models to give other departments, like HR, access to data-driven, high-level insights.
The Board of Directors
The Board of Directors is a group of individuals elected to represent the best interests of a company’s shareholders. They meet several times a year and have a unique responsibility to oversee important talent-related initiatives.
In the past, a board of directors’ involvement in talent was focused on electing a quality CEO and managing the people on the board itself. Today, with talent as a central competitive advantage the board’s talent responsibilities extend beyond a company’s highest leadership positions. They’re responsible for the company delivering on talent objectives as a whole.
Key responsibilities of a Board of Directors:
- Review financial results—Oversee company performance and shareholder value.
- Monitor leadership—Evaluate the performance of executives and managers.
- Decision making—Vote on strategic decisions proposed by the leadership team.
- Maintain integrity—Help the company demonstrate integrity at a high level.
- Set direction—Participate in the creation of long-term goals and strategy for the company.
- Governing talent objectives—Hold the company accountable for delivering on talent-related goals and mitigating talent-related risks. Boards must be directly involved in reviewing talent strategies and programs, as well as workforce KPIs, talent risks, demographic trends, recruiting pipeline, retention performance, and succession plans.
A Board of Directors’ typical talent-related mistakes:
Neglecting retention strategies. Talent retention is a huge risk that warrants board oversight. Externally-hired executives have a failure rate of 30 percent to 40 percent after 18 months—an incredibly high and costly risk.
Boards should mitigate this by evaluating onboarding programs, monitoring the success rate of external hiring, and ensuring that all employees have a clear idea of the company’s strategy and their own career growth opportunities within the company.
Forgetting that talent is a key risk area of the business. The risks don’t just stop with retention: businesses are vulnerable to reputational hits, legal breaches, and adherence to regulatory constraints. Boards should review talent-related risks and mitigation strategies twice a year. They should also compare retention and attrition to industry benchmarks, monitor talent pipeline, and make sure to do “talent due diligence” during mergers and acquisitions.
Not holding management accountable for talent KPIs. Boards should review talent-related performance regularly, including:
- Pipeline for critical roles and sales talent
- Strength of the succession bench
- Leadership capabilities that will be required in the future, and how current capabilities match up
- Employee engagement
Ignoring broader workplace trends and demographic changes. Boards must be aware of demographic changes and consider their influence on a company’s approach to talent. For example, has the company seriously considered the effects of:
- The broad range of ages in the workforce. With Boomers staying in the workforce longer and Gen Y redefining the future of work, significant life events (like starting a family) can happen at many ages.
- Different nationalities, cultures, and abilities in workplaces, and the need to make work environments inclusive and supportive of all individuals.
- Gender equality, especially in terms of pay gaps and leadership gaps. Women today make up 50% of the workforce, but only 22.2% of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women.
- Technology’s effects on the way people collaborate, work independently, and interact with confidential company information.
Under-developing board members. As market forces and workplace trends change, so do the required skills of the board. A company should bring in expert trainers for its board members and outside facilitators board discussions. It should also ensure that the board itself is diverse and inclusive.
Not being directly involved in succession planning. A board should have a process to identify and vet succession candidates, and ensure that the company offers training to develop and nurture internal candidates before they need to step up.
A company’s ability to scale its sales team depends on its leaders being focused on a talent-first organization. Are all executives allocating appropriate resources to talent initiatives? Are they thinking big when it comes to talent strategy, and measuring hiring performance? The most successful companies recognize that talent is the main way they can compete—and to attract and nurture that talent, they need to have their Avengers assemble.
Eliot received his B. Comm. from Carleton University and has been honored as a Top 40 Under 40 Award winner.
He co-authored Sales Recruiting 2.0, How to Find Top Performing Sales People, Fast and provides regular insights on sales team management and hiring on the Peak Sales Recruiting Blog.
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