What I learned from Jack Welch about sales recruitment

What I learned from Jack Welch about sales recruitment

One of the most useful frameworks for assessing a potential sales hire is something I learned a long time ago from reading a book by Jack Welch, former CEO and chairman of GE.

CEOs of giant corporations like General Electric aren't usually much admired in the startup world, but ever since I've learned about this concept, it stuck with me, and has been a guiding principle in all my hiring decisions.

He had this quadrant in which he would place each of his hires, basically categorizing them by their skillset and attitude.


Let's look at each of these in more detail:

Capable and willing

These are the obvious rockstars. You want to have them in your organization, and they can really propel your company forward.

When you find one of these people, do the best you can to hire and empower them.

Incapable and unwilling

These are also easy - when someone doesn't bring the skillset to the table that's needed to get the job done, and they have a lousy attitude... you don't hire them. And if they're already part of your team, you fire them as quickly as possible.

Incapable and willing

If someone doesn't already possess the necessary skillset to create the results you need in your company, but they have a great attitude and are a perfect cultural fit... should you hire them?

This is a tough decision. Personally it's one of my weak spots, because I myself been in this quadrant for much of my professional life.

Why you should hire them:

If you provide them with the training and support they need to acquire the skills, and they learn fast enough, you've created a tremendous amount of value: for your company, for that person, and for society at large. These people will often also be the most dedicated employees to the success of your company.

Why you shouldn't hire them:

If they don't learn fast enough, or if the gap between their qualifications and what's needed is too large, they slow your company down.

If this happens, you need to intervene - otherwise it'll taint the performance culture in your startup. Others will see the leniency towards those who don't produce, and think: well, it's ok to not hit the numbers. That's not the kind of idea you want to spread among your employees.

If you're considering an incapable but willing person, consider these questions:

  • How much training, time and money are you willing to invest to bring that person up to speed?
  • How much training, time and money do you have to invest to bring that person up to speed?
  • Do you already have a strategy in place develop his skills?
  • Who will take responsibility for training him?
  • How will you evaluate his performance and provide feedback to the hire?

You can't answer all these questions with 100% accuracy - it's impossible to know what's required to develop talent. But just take a couple of hours to think this through and then make your best guess.

Capable and unwilling

These are the toughest kind of hires you can encounter. They have what it takes to deliver the goods, and they can hit their numbers. They're high-performers and can make you a ton of money.

But, they're dickheads. They'll have a negative effect on your company culture and your team cohesiveness.

What do you do with these people?

If you're a small company, you might feel you can't afford to be finicky. It's tough to pass on smart and talented people.


A little voice in the back of your head that will tell you:

"Yeah, this guy might be a highly qualified douchebag, but we need someone with his skillset, and none of the other candidates has this.

Just hire him to drive growth. We can keep looking for someone with the same level of expertise and a better attitude."

Don't listen to that voice.

Don't bring someone who's a poor cultural fit on board, even if this looks like a bad move on a spreadsheet.

This is even more important in your early hiring decisions, where a single bad hire can have a strong impact on your overall culture.

7 ways how bad culture fit hires can screw up your startup:

  1. If you bring in someone who treats others disrespectfully, schemes against colleagues to rise up the ranks, lies and closes bad deals to earn commissions or get on top of the leaderboard... these misaligned behaviors will spread throughout your company because other team members will conclude they're are acceptable, even if you verbally condemn them.

  2. Office politics can lead to separate fractions that are divided from your core company culture.

  3. A highly-skilled person has plenty of career opportunities. If they're not aligned to your culture, they'll probably leave your company as soon as a better option pops up, and you're again faced with the task of recruiting someone for their position.

  4. A study conducted by LeaderShipIQ has shown that 46% of new hires fail within 18 months. 89% of these hiring failures were due to poor cultural fit.

  5. Hiring mistakes cost tens of thousands of dollars (and when it comes to startups, sometimes even equity).

  6. They will demoralize your highly engaged and fully aligned employees.

  7. They can take away the joy you, the founder, gain from your own company. (Nowadays Tony Hsieh of Zappos is famous for his focus on workplace culture, but do you know why he made focus his number 1 priority? Because he had previously founded LinkExchange, a very successful company that grew to hundreds of employees and was worth hundreds of millions of dollars... but dreaded getting out of bed in the morning because the culture his own company made his stomach turn. He didn't want the same thing to happen with Zappos.)

There are plenty of other ways how hiring unwilling high-performers can cause havoc, but rather than making this into an endless list, let's focus on...

The benefits of a strong company culture

It's important to differentiate company culture from some mission statement or a written list of values that's never put into practice.

A strong company culture is incredibly valuable for a startup. It will inspire and motivate each team member to produce the best work they can, rather than just the required minimum. And its value increases exponentially when things go wrong (which they always do in startups).

Think of all the time, money and resources you spend on recruiting and developing people. It's a huge investment, and its ROI increases the longer your employees stay at your company.

How to assess culture fit of a job candidate?

The first step is to have a clear understanding of your own culture. What do you value as a company, and how do you reward it? Then to elicit what your candidate values, and compare the two.

When you're interviewing keep in mind that job candidates project a persona which is not a 100% accurate reflection of who they really are in their day-to-day life. It's your job to break through the facade.

Let's say a sales rep tells you he cares about always creating win-wins. Ask him to share a specific situation where he could have earned a big commission, but advised a prospect not to buy. Ask for details and see if it's a credible story.

If a job candidate has a hard time coming up with a couple of examples where his values affected his behavior, then you should question whether that value is actually important for his. If you get a sense that it's just empty talk and a person isn't really emotionally connected to a value, challenge them to convince you of their sincerity.

Questions that get a candidate off script

Ask questions for which a candidate isn't prepared, rather than just the typical "job interview questions".

The Zappos hiring process includes a lot of these, for example:

  • What is something weird that makes you happy?

  • What's something you've always wanted to do but haven't? After you answer: Why haven't you done it?

  • If you could be a super hero, what would you be and why?

  • Which one of our 'core values' would be most difficult for you to uphold?

  • What is your favorite curse word? Use it in a sentence about your last job.

  • If you were given $500 to plan a company event what would it be and why?

  • If you were a dessert, what would you be?

  • Describe a time when you had to break the rule to get the job done.

  • What question were you expecting us to ask that we didn’t?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?

"It’s not so much the number; it’s more seeing how candidates react to a question." explains Tony Hsieh, Zappo's CEO. It brings out the personality of a job candidate.

Hsieh also used to ask the limo driver who brought a job applicant to the office how he was treated.

Take every interview with a grain of salt

Every time I share advice on conducting job interviews, I add this disclaimer: there's only so much you can really learn from a job interview.

If someone seems to be a promising candidate, don't just hire them right away, but get to know each other in steps. I've outlined this in Hiring for startups: How to recruit the un-recruitable!

Have them visit the office, work on a small project together, and if it all seems promising, have them join your team on a trial basis for a number of weeks or months. Get to know them in different environments and situations before you make long-term commitments to each other.

And if you make a wrong hiring decision despite all the precautions... fire fast!