Hiring The Right Chief Sales Officer – C.S.O.

10 Apr

Have an opening for your head of sales?  This role is tricky!  Why?  Because very few functional heads need analytical thinking skills balanced with lateral thinking skills.  Because very few leadership positions will have such a rapid, and long lasting impact on your company’s revenue.  Because your company’s credibility with your existing customer base will be dramatically affected, based on the impact that this person has with your account managers.  Because your peak performers will judge the culture of your company based on their impression of your hiring decision.  Because your struggling reps will either improve or hide out, based upon their perception of this person’s leadership style.  Because the other members of your senior leadership team will either focus on their own functional role or pay too much attention to sales effectiveness based on this person’s credibility.  If you’re still with me read on because I’m going to share some competency information with you and suggest some guidelines for your consideration.

But first let’s agree that this year and 2010 are going to be a challenge.  What is obvious is the changes in the economy.  What is less obvious is the changes that will take place with buyer preferences, attitudes and buying processes.  Your sales organization will have to adapt to these changes rapidly.  Here are a few of the changes that will need to be addressed:

  • Lead generation programs will have to be addressed
  • Sales rep access to information and collateral will need to improve
  • Sales and Marketing will have to better aligned, this must be non-negotiable
  • Sales processes must be revised
  • Sales team communication must be improved
  • Buying process analysis must be rapid yet thorough
  • Field sales structures must be revisited
  • Channel strategies reviewed
  • Sales tools must be reviewed, reworked and sales reps retrained
  • Sales compensation plans will need to be revised

Okay, I admit you’re not going to get to all of these…but if you do none of them you may be up the creek.  So which ones are critically important?  Your new CSO will need to rapidly assess the organization and differentiate between important and critical.  How can you ensure that your candidate will be effective in moving the organization in the right direction?  Getting nervous?  Good, that’s what I wanted.  But let’s simplify the process.  I propose a list of 8 competencies where you can focus your selection process.  Four are technical skills and four are leadership skills.

The core theme of the sales leader role is to create an environment where the needs of customers and clients permeate all endeavors.  The head of sales understands how the effectiveness of their organization drives shareholder, employee and client satisfaction.  They are able to spontaneously and fluently communicate strategies, while continuously using gap analysis to change course.  They apply limited resources where those investments will yield the greatest return for all constituencies. 

Technical Competencies

  • Analytical Thinking – This skill is not solely used to decipher the sales pipeline.  Analytical thinking is also used to understand a situation by breaking it down into smaller pieces, or tracing the implications of a situation in a step by step way.  When the CRM pipeline is ineffective in producing reliable forecasts this person must be able to find the root cause and move to fix it.  Just yelling louder will not help.  They must be able to break down a complex task into manageable parts in a systematic way.
  • Lateral Thinking – Frequently there are more than one cause of a problem and more than one solution to that problem.  Lateral thinking allows a person to juggle more than one root cause and several potential solutions and come up with a strategy that will employ more than one tactical plan.  If the lead generation program is not working there are probably several issues that need to be addressed.  Lateral thinking skills will help you avoid investing all your resources in a one path solution.
  • Ensuring Implementation – Admit it…things don’t always go right.  Someone needs to monitor to ensure that strategies get implemented, that the work is actually getting done and done well.  They need to act decisively to fix problems when they occur.  One of the most overlooked practices is to communicate well with all relevant parties to ensure they understand their role in implementation.
  • Collaboration with Others – If your sales head is truly a CSO then chances are they will serve on your senior management committee.  They will need to work with others in shaping their plans and understand how their decisions will impact other functions.  They need to communicate directly, interact effectively, honestly and persuasively.

Leadership Competencies

  • Using Business Expertise – Not all aspects of managing sales output and velocity are tactical or short term.  The possession and use of professional expertise is critically important for anticipating what the sales results will look like in the future.  The incumbent will be most valuable if they can understand the economic and market conditions as a basis for action in a variety of organizational contexts.  This is where the arguments arise about the importance of company tenure, industry knowledge vs. functional knowledge.  In some cases breadth of knowledge is more important than depth of knowledge.
  • Identifying with the Needs of Customers – There are several sources for customer need information.  Market research, upward feedback from the field and direct interaction are all critically important.  The organization cannot rely on one source for customer intelligence.  The CSO must continuously analyze situations from the customers perspective.  Without this talent the organizational view will become myopic.
  • Coaching & Developing Others – The only way for the top sales officer to effectively lead to organization is for them to continuously gain credibility with their direct reports.  Having ultimate authority will have a short shelf life.  The leader should be adept at recognizing each team members unique strengths and development needs, address and resolve performance issuess directly and rapidly and help identify alternatives to overcome obstacles. 
  • Leadership Credibility – The entire organization is customers of the CSO’s leadership.  Customers have been known to revolt.  The CSO must have a conscious knowledge of the skill and will of their direct reports, and have a purposeful use of various leadership styles they are willing to employ in order to get things done without harm to the company and organizational culture.  This is a difficult and hard to find skill set.  Knowing when to use directing, guiding, supporting or delegating leadership styles is as much an art as a science. 

First, my apologies for the length of this article.  Second this competency model is designed for most business to business sales organizations.  Your company/industry may need a slightly different set of competencies.  But do yourself a favor, for each competency you add, please take one of these off.  Trying to recruit around a competency model with more than 8 desired skills makes the process nearly impossible.

For larger companies – Hiring a top sales officer is a challenge that will have a dramatic impact on the health of your company for years, maybe even decades.  If this article has built up your confidence then I have done my job.  If it has lowered your confidence then don’t get discouraged, there is plenty of help available.  There are plenty of consultants and coaches that can help you through this process.  Once you open that door however you need to ferret through a lot of helpers to find someone who will be of help.  I would highly suggest finding someone who has actually had CSO experience. 

For medium sized companies – You may not be able to find or afford someone with a complete skill set.  Your current stable of talent may be strong but do you have the time for on the job learning?  If you cannot attract or afford a true CSO then I would suggest promoting from within and contracting with a past CSO war horse to help coach your candidate.  This approach should help your high potential candidate accelerate their learning dramtically.

For smaller companies – You will probably not need a true CSO.  I would recommend finding a great sales manager and have them report to the CEO or COO.  But don’t delegate leadership completely to the sales manager.  If you do not have adequate time to manage them perhaps you can find a coach to help them.  If your company is not large enough to warrant a sales manager I would recommend finding a sales management coach to help you run the sales group yourself.  Frequently the skills that made you successful as an entrepreneur will not be the best skills to employ running a group of sales people.

If you made it all the way through this article then you’ll probably make a great hire.  Precisely defining what you are looking for is half the battle in making the right selection.

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5 Responses to “Hiring The Right Chief Sales Officer – C.S.O.”

  1. Charlie Brickley April 10, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    Greg,
    Great Article. However, I would add a few points:

    1. The CSO needs to advocate/establish a Sales mentality that permeatates throughout the entire enterprise.

    2. Revenue Generation (Sales) has to be a top goal for senior manaqgement.

    3. Senior Mangement must openly support the
    CSO or find a new CSO that will be openly supported.

    Without the above mentioned conventions in place, a CSO will have a difficult time creating the environment necessary for the Sales organization to lead customer projects (net new, upsell and cross-sell deals), thrive, and produce long-term company growth. Without these in place, the CSO will spend most of their time in turf battles and/or bandaid fixes that will sap a company’s ability to increase its market presence, i.e., Revenue enhancement.

    Again, great article.

    Thank you.

  2. Dan Caldwell April 13, 2009 at 11:43 pm #

    A very well thought out article, and one that I could not have done myself. My style is a little different. First – I always call them VP of Sales. CSO gets them mixed in with the CFO, CTO, COO, etc. Just a personal thing.

    I have been mostly in smaller companies, so you should know who your target customers are and lead generation is not necessary.

    However – your points on leadership are timely and on point. In all candor, there were a lot of successful companies who had tremendous growth until 2000. Now those that may have been successful during the good days think they are ready for the big game. Just because you made quota every year and rode a company to a billion dollars does not make you the ideal candidate for VP of Sales.

    We need better sales leaders across the board. I guess I miss the days when Regan was president……

    A courageous article – Dan Calwell.

  3. heykeenan May 2, 2009 at 8:26 pm #

    Greg, good post. Your Outline is excellent. Yes, I forgive you for the length. I like the comparison of technical v. leadership competencies.

    A great follow up post would be a how-to. Providing insight into the development of a process to identify, assess and hire to these competencies.

  4. Beaudify July 17, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    This text is priceless. Where can I find out more?

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