What CEOs are Looking For In a Sales Leader


As a senior sales executive, you struggle every day to stay on the right side of the inflexible law of supply and demand. Yet, nowhere does the imbalance of way too much supply and far too little demand become more profound than when you go hunting for a job as a chief sales leader, especially with a major global enterprise.


To be the one who can fill that very limited demand for talent, prospective candidates must put themselves in the shoes of the chief executive conducting the search and understand what their top priorities and metrics are, says George Norton, a partner who specializes in top sales position searches at Chicago-based executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles.


With retained search firms like Norton’s, employers pay one-third of the total cash compensation for the job in advance. For companies with $500 million in sales or above, packages for chief sales leaders begin at around $300,000 in base pay and bonuses and then move up into the millions.


“When clients are paying that kind of money upfront, they aren’t looking for anything less than ‘A’ players,” Norton explains. “They’re looking for Kobe Bryant to show up or Lebron James and having Kobe as the backup if you can’t get Lebron.”


To rationalize the recruitment process for CEOs, Heidrick & Struggles has attempted to inject a degree of science into what is often a subjective exercise based on qualitative differences between candidates. Many CEOs feel uncomfortable making the choice because they lack a background in sales, so metrics help give the process structure, Norton explains. “We put together a score- card” to help them compare candidates, he says.


Here’s Norton’s checklist of the basic hard-core and softer competencies CEOs at top-tier organizations are seeking in a chief sales leader:


  • Experience, both in scale and scope. That includes industry domain expertise with “hopefully a nice Rolodex in that industry.”
  • A solutions orientation versus a product orientation.
  • A very disciplined sales process.
  • C-level gravitas, which means communication skills and a comfort level to walk the halls with top global executives.
  • The ability to be a collaborative team player.
  • A talent for being both motivational and inspirational.
  • The intestinal fortitude to remain positive and calm in the face of challenging situations.


In recent years, CEOs have added a new must-have skills set, Norton says: CEOs want candidates who know how to think strategically. How would you attack the marketplace differently? How would you integrate the Internet and social media into the selling process? Do you have experience selling into some of the target growth markets in Asia Pacific and Latin America that so many companies are focused on today?


Norton specializes in searches for the technology industry and business services companies enabled by technology. In those areas, CEOs are also looking for knowledge of the cloud, data mining and analytics. And even companies outside of these industries are beginning to seek such expertise. Sales operations skills also are in high demand across the board.


If you think you have the right stuff to fill these big shoes, it’s time to do a very tough personal assessment to evalu- ate your chances, says Norton. “Take a good inventory of what you bring to the table, matching it up against that scorecard. Understand your top five attributes and know what your value is out there in the market. When I was a sales leader, I could be very myopically focused on mak- ing my own numbers and couldn’t tell you where I stood, so you may need some coaching or mentoring,” to help answer those questions and get an objective appraisal of your potential.


For the top-drawer searches in sales, you’ll most likely be dealing with a retained recruiter. Keep in mind, Norton counsels, “we’re working for the client; we’re not working for the candidate. Obviously, you wouldn’t be good at this if you didn’t bring some balance to the two, but it is an important distinction.”


What that means is candidates who want to be in the mix have to make it their business to get in front of the right partners at search firms well before positions open up. When search firms call, smart executives call back whether or not they are interested in the opportunity being offered, according to Norton.


“This is a way of getting educated about what’s happening in the marketplace,” Norton says. “Listen to the opportunity and try to help out with ideas if you’re not interested. We won’t forget that.”


If you make it beyond the first round of review with any of the top-tier recruiters, you’ll still have to endure a long vetting process. The average search takes 147 days, with 80 percent of searches ending in someone being hired.


With Heidrick & Struggles, a candidate first undergoes an intensive 90-minute interview. The search firm also will insist on talking to bosses, peers and employees with whom the candidate has worked, and it will solicit people in the industry that are not on the candidate’s list to comment on the candidate’s reputation.


To make sure you get the initial call that could kick off the process, make sure that executive search firms have your up-to-date resume and LinkedIn profile on file, even if the recruiters have nothing at the moment to offer. “Get your CV into us and then forget about it,” Norton says. “We don’t care if you’re in the market or not; we’ll find you. We build our funnel and pipeline on an assignment just like any other sales leader or team would do.”


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