This interview with Salim contained more revelations than any other interview for me. I hadn’t considered the impact which data-led, personality-driven hiring could have in an organization. That 2->7 years in role is the optimal performance range for a salesperson was likewise an eye-opener. As a result, I now think about my career path differently, and use psychometrics to accelerate performance and harmony in my current business.
Salim was highly open and candid about the system, and it’s obvious how much value he adds to his clients through his belief in the system and the results he’s delivered. A huge amount of value is likewise contained within.
You can read Salim’s full biography here
Jamie: Just reflecting on your career that has been mostly with the chemistry group, what have you found most fulfilling?
Salim: The most fulfilling is the element of trust. Chemistry is a highly trusting organization. I think feeling trusted and quite empowered, quite early on in my career; I felt that very early on, and I think it has been really fulfilling. That has given me lots of scope for personal growth, development, and lots of interesting challenges.
I think that this was the bit I have always valued most about Chemistry, and having worked in a few other places, it was not always typical to be given a lot of trust and empowerment early on in your career.
Jamie: Was that something you looked for in an organization you considering joining?
Salim: My reflection was, “Will I ever work for a big corporate organization?” I generally work for smaller, more agile start-up businesses and there is something quite innate in me that requires freedom at work, flexibility, and the ability to create my own path and not follow too much structure. I think it is something that I was not explicitly looking for before joining Chemistry, but certainly, something that I would look for it if I were to ever leave or look at other options.
Jamie: Your title is Client Partner; are you in sales?
Salim: We are a consulting business. For our client partners, much like the other consultancies, as you progress up the consulting tree, you tend to pick up more revenue, responsibility, and accountability. For example, senior consultants in our world are expected to pick up some immediate opportunities with clients. Client partners are relationship managers in the truest sense, but also from a commercial point of view. We are there to ensure that we are maintaining excellent project delivery, good commercial relationships with clients, and growing those commercial opportunities within the client base we have.
Jamie: What is the best thing about working in a talent consultancy?
Salim: I would say the best thing is that what we do is human.
I think what that means is that if we were just going in and fixing a process for a client or creating a cost-saving in X. Y, and Z way, that is great because you are clearly able to attribute quite a tangible benefit and value, but it does not necessarily have that emotional attachment to it. Whereas, what we are doing is helping clients think differently about the people they may need in their organization. We do that with data and insight.
There are so many enlightenment moments in the work that we do which is genuinely helping a sales director shift their belief – that actually, perhaps, shiny shoes is not the answer anymore when it comes to great salespeople. It could be that the CEO realizes that actually, their talent strategy means that they have to hire differently or think differently, and that will enable their business to grow in a new phase of its growth.
Most clients come to us in the context of change which might be, “We have got a problem, and we need to fix it,” or “We are facing new uncertain, unclear times, and we know we need to think differently about people and talent.” I have always found it very rewarding.
Jamie: What is the worst thing about being in talent consultancy?
Salim: Getting it wrong, and we do get it wrong; we get it wrong ourselves. Chemistry have mis-hired, which is funny because obviously, we are using data, science, and technology to be as predictive as we possibly can be but clearly, you can never be perfectly predictive, so the pressure or the frustration you feel for getting it wrong ourselves, or not getting it quite right with clients is huge. Our consultancy model is to be very close to our clients, and really understanding their context at a human level, so you form quite close connections, and when you get it wrong, it’s really painful.
Jamie: You talked a bit about the data and the science that goes into it, could you just give me a brief overview?
Salim: We have a piece of IP called the “5-Box Model.” This is something that our founder (Roger Philby, fellow interviewee) developed with the British Psychological Society about nineteen years ago. It all started with Roger; he was a head of sales at the time, and he did what most good head of sales do – which was find all his competitors’ best performers and try and recruit them.
He actually had some quite radical ways of stealing talent. For example, he parked a branded car in front of a competitor’s company car park so no one could get in, and they all saw it, which he said made him incredibly famous.
He would recruit people; those best account managers and account directors. He found that half the time they would work in his business, and half the time, they would not work well, and he did not understand why.
The question he was trying to answer is, “What is it about that individual in this context that means that there might be brilliant over there, but they are not brilliant here? What am I missing, because their CV is right, their experience is right, and they know this product set. It is not vastly different, but it just does not seem to be working for them here.”
The 5-Box model is all about decoding people through the lens of psychology and science and looking at things that are hard to change and quite innate in someone; things like their intellect or cognitive ability. Their ability to process information, their personality, and their innate characteristics shape their behaviour, and then their motivation set, both intrinsically and extrinsically.
Extrinsic ones might be money or family. What we know about that combination is that it informs your natural working behaviours and it informs this speed and likelihood of you developing new behaviours.
What we also know is that behaviour is ultimately performance in most organizational contexts. For example, take the case of a financial planning company; if I am networking at a high level, I am likely to be performing better than others who are not, but my ability and propensity to network is rooted in my combination of intellect, personality, and motivation.
Some people just do it, and they do it without thinking, without being asked to do it, and some people do not. Data helps you understand why or what might be driving them.
Then the other data is based on experience, so clearly there is a bunch of knowledge, tools, and skills that you acquire during your career over time and through practice and behaviour which are also there to support their natural behaviour. You can be brilliant at communication in person, but if you do not know how to write a proposal, you might not be able to get a deal
over the line. Our work and that methodology has been all about understanding the specific context which drives performance, in a specific client organization: predominantly that has been the salespeople, whether that is leadership or individual contributors.
We find some core traits that seem to exist regardless, and you can find some unique traits that seem to be more about the specific industry and the specific culture of the organization.
Taking the financial planning context, their high performers are really strong in abstract reasoning; the ability to process patterns and shapes. We do not see that in other salespeople in other sectors. We typically see salespeople as being really strong in verbal reasoning; the ability to process written and spoken communication in the moment, and not so strong in numerical reasoning.
We work for a pharmaceutical company, and all of their highest performing salespeople are introverts, which did not fit the hypothesis of their senior stakeholders. They thought it was going to be the outgoing people. These were field-based salespeople, who are selling to pharmacists – but pharmacists have a physical barrier between them and the rest of the world in pharmacies,
so the naturally introverted people had a better level of interaction and engagement from a normally introverted pharmacist. They did not lead with the relationship, they led with content and commercials, which what made them high performing in that context.
Put them in a telecoms company, then extraversion becomes quite a critical piece because you are interacting with senior business leaders, and you need to be excited and energized. There is subtlety in the specific sales environment.
Jamie: You mentioned that the majority of what you consult on is sales talent – is that because that is what organizations are primarily asking you for?
Salim: We started in that telecoms space so that naturally tends towards sales and service. I also think that the pain of getting it wrong is far more obvious and clearer. Your ability to measure the impact of it is clear, more so than when we have worked with, for example, finance teams. In terms of hanging specific metrics on whether you have the right accounts payable manager, versus have you got the right account manager; the second is easier to define. There are different sets of languages of metrics that relate to those two roles, and it is far easier to know that you are hiring the right account manager. It’s more difficult to know whether you are developing people in the right way.
In other functions you tend to lean more on their experience; if you are not ACA, or ACCA, or CEU accredited, you are probably not going to become a finance director in a top 100 organization.
However, you can probably become a sales director without any formal training in sales because you have experienced it. You just have to have the right behaviours, attitudes, and drivers to get yourself there.
Jamie: Are there specific skills, which are universal to salespeople, that you would need to have to want to go into sales?
Salim: Yes. The first one we see that is almost like a baseline and essentially aligns to the personal development capability.
What we see in differentiating high performing and low performing salespeople is their level of curiosity, their willingness to learn and to challenge themselves. Great salespeople are often activist-learning types, so they learn by doing, and not by theory. They are happy to practice, learn, iterate, and improve.
Some of that might be rooted in personal ego and personal motivation, i.e. that drive for money, and therefore if I am not good at this, I am not going to earn as much money.
What we find is, regardless of the driver of that capability, people who are higher in personal development are better at other capabilities. It unlocks other capabilities, and it is a foundational differentiator when it comes to performance. When you build up from that some of the obvious ones come out – communication, clearly, but there is actually another bit, the professional confidence, but really we call it “showing up” behaviour cluster, which is all about inspiring and engaging communication; the ability to influence.
There is an important difference depending on the industry and sector, so selling services versus products, for example.
Selling services is all about win-win type influencing, so using more emotional intelligence, versus with a product they say where you could probably still lean on the features-and-benefits-type selling approach where influencing is key, as well as personal confidence.
How you build confidence in me, which therefore builds confidence in the person I am selling to, so that “showing up” cluster becomes critical. Then there is a split if I am honest and again it depends a little bit of product. You have the insight salespeople, they are the people who use research and stories. Then you have got the thinking salespeople who use data. In my experience, insight salespeople often win in many areas because they are to build on the data that you can use to inform your business strategy, and telling a bunch of stories around the impact you have created seems to work.
This isn’t always true, though. In another context, data modelling works better. We profiled nine hundred partners at a huge consultancy which was fascinating. It is a massively high IQ, massively low EQ, as you can probably imagine, but they lead with the intellect. The power of their intellect is why people spend millions and millions of pounds with them. Critical thinking is a predictor of success for them, of course.
Some traits, which I think is quite interesting, are universally helpful. One that you do not necessarily always expect to see, but we measure, is called compromise. Individuals are highly compromising, and highly accommodating of others, might be happy for them to lead conversations or interactions and not necessarily be the loudest or the most challenging in the room.
High performing salespeople are low compromise, so they are willing to lead. They do not require lots of input from other people to make things happen and can guide the course of interactions themselves.
When we think about it, low compromise means that I am starting in the position of authority in that conversation, so I am not responding to what the client needs explicitly, but I am guiding them and leading that conversation, and then taking them on a bit of a journey to then challenge their thinking.
We see that a lot in consultative sales profile.
Often people think, “Oh, well good salespeople are nice, they build relationships quickly, and they build rapport quickly.” There is something more there, a bit of subtlety to how they are navigating, driving, and holding that conversation to lead clients to their content.
Jamie: That sounds a lot like Challenger theory?
Salim: Yes. We wrote a response to that which is “The challenge of the Challenger.” I think it is a model that still stands true. However, our approach means that there are some things you can generalize, and there is always going to be things that need context and are organizationally specific, which I think for our clients is the magic. For example, with a financial services firm, we are going to build a process which means that they will use things like diagrammatic reasoning and abstract reasoning as an explicit benchmark to assess candidates’ stats, whereas that wouldn’t work for others.
Jamie: How long does it take to test an individual?
Salim: A test of three of the psychometric parameters takes about an hour and a half. What you can then do is further bolt-on depth after that. What we often do is behavioural event interviewing, so one of the bits that we tend to find in sales recruitment or sales selection is it is easy to focus on experience and skills. In a competency-based interview, it is used as a little bit of an indicator: “Tell me about a time when you have influenced the clients to get to the right outcome” or “Tell me about a time you created a ‘more’ scenario.”
The reality is that we can all give an example of when we have done something, or at least fabricate one. What we don’t know is whether that is a consistent behaviour of mine or just something I have done once. “I worked brilliantly with a team” but actually the majority of the time I might not. Instead, we use behavioural interviewing, which is about trying to understand consistently applied behaviours in an individual, and at what level they do it, and why they are doing it. One of the things that we often fall into our insights with clients is that is the behavioural insight and behavioural profiling, which looks like a much more lengthy process.
We are looking to understand what an individual does. They call it the laddering technique of why, why, why will get you to true intent. At the surface level, I might say I did something to build the relationship, but “why” might actually be because I need that relationship to get my commission.
There is a different driver there than just saying, “I like building relationships.” Behavioural profiling becomes a critical overlay as well, which is often a two hours interview.
Jamie: Are there any particular motivations you see in top performers consistently?
Salim: Competition and one of the things we measure is called “compete.” It goes one of the two ways – competition with self, which becomes more of a driver of that personal growth behaviour, or competition with others, and you tend to see the split depending on the length of a sales process and the type of engagement. You see a high level of competition with others in telesales-type environments. You have to make 80 calls a day. You have got to get X amount of leads, which is the baseline to compete, and the drive to win becomes really important.
What else do we see? They are the main ones, and then you have technical leadership versus general business leadership. There is some split when you get into specific organizational contexts. The other one that we do see a pretty consistently is around autonomy, which is about having control over your own destiny. It is about enjoying environments where you are left to be in control of the outcome, and you have to drive the course. If that is the profile of a client’s high performers, that comes with a consequence, which often could be that this group is quite hard to manage because they are quite demanding or self-interested or challenging.
What we do not want to do is replicate a model that is not sustainable. You might have some critical things we were looking for, but there is a consequence to amplifying only those individuals and think about it narrowly as well.
Jamie: Could a salesperson reverse-engineer the process, and evaluate his own skills to find a company – is it possible to do it the other way around?
Salim: The world of psychology started in the corporate world in private organizations, which meant that typically organization judged individuals. There is now an emerging trend of people self-diagnosing, and we have seen this in the world of recruitment; the power is starting to become more balanced.
The selection process now is not about me but selling myself to you. It is about us collectively discovering whether this is a place where I can be brilliant, which is a completely different framing. If you are fairly new to the world of work, the more self-awareness and the more tools you have to reflect on what really drives you and really energizes you, I think you become more powerful in your job search.
There is an emerging consumer trend with psychology and psychometric tools, which is more about what type of organizations or sectors, might be a great fit for you, based on the fact that you are generally extroverted or generally quite open or whatever it might be. There is not yet loads of rigour behind it, but it is certainly something Chemistry is looking to develop in terms of communities.
I think the challenging thing about psychometric tools is about how you make them truly accessible. They are quite rooted in education qualifications and established practitioners. A lot of psychometric tool providers will not let people and organizations use them without full accreditation for training, which is totally understandable in terms of best practice. Making it accessible to someone at scale is the challenge, and I am not sure anyone’s fully cracked it yet, but we are certainly trying because I think that would be the key to equipping people for a career. The validity of your output might change in the first five years of your career; because you might not know yourself well enough.
Personally, I got it wrong in my first three jobs. I could not quite understand why but it felt wrong, that is the only way I can describe it. I have since been able to reconcile why, whether it was the culture, the specifics of the role itself, the environment, and the leadership, but I actually think there is still some value in going through those experiences.
Jamie: What does an organization need to have a great sales culture?
What we often get to feed into an organizational design; the way that roles are structured. For example, if you have got a bunch of people who are driven by autonomy and independence and you have got a complex bureaucratic hierarchy that might not be good, or if you got people who are driven by personal growth and progression, an unclear progression path would be bad.
How do we engage with its group of individuals in a meaningful way, even if our trigger points are subtle linguistic triggers; if you are a highly competitive team, then how does that layer into your language to get you engaged?
The obvious bit is about reward and recognition. Now what we have see in the highest performing sales cultures and sales organization is that there is such a clean thread between organizational strategy, the reward, and the recognition that salespeople have.
They are very clear and what the organization is trying to do and how I feed into that, and therefore I am rewarded in line with the outcomes my business is trying to drive. We have seen that at Chemistry; we have gone from being rewarded by invoice revenue, which in small organizations is important, so how much we invoice for in month for a particular piece of work because that helps us with cash flow and is a better incentive for driving behaviour.
There is the leadership angle, which I think is a really important one because the best salesperson is not the best sales manager, the majority of the time.
I think organizations are still in the habit of promoting the best salesperson because usually my best salesperson is ambitious, willing to grow, competitive, and wants to be the best. They are pushing you for promotion and asking for more, and that is a great thing, but more does not always mean linear progression makes sense, When you look at the traits of sales leaders, they do not line up with the traits of high sales performance.
The typical route would be that your best sales performance takes over a leadership role, so organizations that recognize that there is clearly table-stakes credibility that you might need to be a good sales manager, i.e. “What are you telling me to do? You have never done this before; it might not work.” However, sales managing requires a different profile, a different type of that empowerment and coaching to those individuals – the sales leadership and the environment they create are important.
We have seen cultures where there are a bunch of frustrated sales managers because they just want to be salespeople. Personal ego means that they might not want to admit to that, but that clearly has a massive impact on the quality of the sales team, and because we then see this trend of compression; where the manager wants to be close to the action all the time because that is where they really get their kicks. They step all over deals, they get in the way, and they look after stakeholders where they might not need to, and it ruins the culture.
Jamie: What advice would you have for aspiring salespeople generally?
Salim: I think finding the thing that you are passionate about is really critical. Interestingly, I do not think the thing that you have to be passionate about needs to be what you are selling. You need to be passionate about what that enables you to do. I have a friend who works at sales at a major technology company. He is not that passionate about what that company does, but he is passionate about how it enables him to achieve some personal and career milestones that will give him financial success, and that will enable them to retire at a certain age. There is an outcome that he is passionate about, and he anchors it personally back to that consistently. As long as the organization is good at recognizing that and rewarding him and support him in the right way, then all is well. I think finding, recognizing, and being clear as to what you are passionate about is important.
I care about the client outcomes, which is good and a bad thing for me, it means I get too close sometimes. It means I am not impartial all the time – I do not quite go native, but I am certainly able to balance a client point of view with my own, and that is not great when you’re negotiating complex multi-year deals.
I think the passion bit becomes key, and I think perseverance becomes really important. Sales is a challenging world to enter and survive, but typically when you look at tenure and performance, you tend to see a two-year slow incremental increase, then the second to seventh year is the peak performance window within a specific organization and then post seven years, you see quite a significant downturn. Clearly, a lot of attrition happens in years one and two, so organizations might be losing lots of great potential in there because people do not persevere and there is a breakthrough moment in those first 24 months which then enables peak performance for those next four, five, six years.
When you look at that from a career perspective, our clients often worry about good and bad churn. That might help them predict that even though this person is high-performing, they are close to that seven-year window and whether that might start to drop off and actually a change would be good for them.
Jamie: That might indicate that on average that it is worth persevering in the first two years, but is it definitely worth considering a move after seven years?
Salim: Quite possibly. There is a subtle difference from sector to sector, but it is something we see quite consistently. There is the odd industry like financial services where actually that tipping point is more like 15 years, but you can understand why when you look at that sector, in the world of wealth management and their client black books, which you have got to cultivate over time and you acquire them and hold onto them, so it keeps people in an organization.
Jamie: If you had your career again, what would you do differently?
Salim: I think there are a few times I could have been braver in sales conversations with clients because there are times where I have conceded quite quickly. I think that that is me going native. There are certainly times I wish I’d been braver in terms of the decisions I’ve made and how firm I have held the line with clients. I am an interesting salesperson in the sense that I am super curious about the business I work for, how it works, and how it makes money, and that is probably more true because I am in a small organization, so it is easy to see. I often balance more in my head than just getting a sale done, like, “What is right for Chemistry? What is right for the client? And what is right for me?” I try to find a good balance between those things, but it has not always been easy.
Jamie: Could you tell me a case study of how rethinking sales hiring has made a difference for an organization you work with?
Salim: We did a piece of work with an information company, and we took a science-based approach to their hiring as a consequence of thinking differently about their profile. Their context was changing, and they were going from selling books and encyclopaedias and content to digital solutions; they went through that transition a few years back. That required a different type of interaction. There is a shift in the sales context, and a shift in the conversation and they were in the middle of that shift. Some people had taken to it well, and some people had not.
We find particularly tenured salespeople are more settled into habits, and behavioural change becomes much harder when you have those habits.
Understanding what drove those successful people to embrace change and thrive in it helped them redefine what they look for in the selection process, so then there was more consciousness, and more openness to new ideas, new thinking approaches, openness to different types of conversations, and emotional intelligence, which all became critical to their hiring process.
What is interesting about emotional intelligence is that you have to be a bit emotional to be emotionally intelligent, quite naturally. That is often jarring with the idea of resilience, which is something that people often talk about that they need in salespeople – they need to be very resilient, but resilient people tend to be able to shut off their emotions in a very practical way, or they do not feel them as strongly as others. It is often jarring that those who are highly resilient may not – and this is not always true – may not have natural emotional intelligence. They do not feel the same way as others, so they do not necessarily walk into a room and feel the emotions in it.
Take the consulting example. Consulting partners do not feel in their interactions, so what they have learned is to ask a bunch of questions that help them understand the feelings of others. They will never figure them out, and they will never truly empathize, but they can sympathize, and that is good enough in that context. That’s becoming quite an interesting piece. Finding that right balance between EQ, IQ, resilience, and emotional intelligence became key for this company.
For the information company, the amount of multi-year deals went up thirty per cent, and one of the best stories was the increase in true diversity in their sales force. As a consequence of looking differently at people, they hired many more females, and the first multi-year deal that was signed in their world was by a newly hired female. It moved them away from a managing bias.
We look for safety when we are making decisions that we are not comfortable about. The average sales manager is not a great recruiter, because it is not their job. They are doing it ten or fifteen per cent of their time because they are busy. When you are doing things that you are not comfortable with, you tend to look for safety, 9 times out of 10. Safety is what you know, what you experience, and what you understand. You look for shared experience, so what was really interesting is adding science and interrupting that process to remove manager bias, which was validated because it then increased revenue. They exceeded their target revenue by 110% that year.