Chasing Stars: Are Sales Skills Portable?

In Chasing Stars, Boris Groysberg analyzes the portability of performance when one company poaches a star performer from another company but it turns out that the results can be quite uncertain. His work focuses on whether top performing analysts at Wall Street firms can replicate their success at other firms. Groysberg concludes that it is the convergence of several factors which enable the outperformance, an idiosyncratic recipe that won’t be the same at another company.

In an earlier study to determine whether leadership skills are portable, Professor Groysberg focused on a set of GE senior managers who presumably would have had similar training before becoming CEO of another company. Here, he found there were certain variables that contributed to success in a subsequent leadership role, without which performance would be disappointing. For example, changing industries was negatively correlated with performance in the following role.

Clearly there are lessons that apply to hiring salespeople. Anecdotally, based on conversations with other sales professionals, the transferability of sales skills is increasingly difficult when one or more of the following conditions is present:

• An industry change, where specialized knowledge is not directly transferrable.

• A pronounced difference in the complexity of the buying process.

• A technical skills deficit.

For business managers, we recommend using a defined set of criteria when evaluating potential sales candidates, a structured framework that controls for subjective bias and evaluates candidates on a matrix of desired attributes, such as the ones shown in the chart below. It is an imperfect system but it helps shape the decision process.

It’s also worth revisiting Regina Hartley’s Ted Talk, where she advocates looking beyond the resume for a better sense of the candidate’s tenacity and determination.