July 15, 2015

A number of companies and hiring managers love to hire former college athletes.great-athletes-make-great-salespeople

Their logic is based on the assumption that anyone who has the work ethic and grit to succeed as an athlete at the highest levels will successfully transfer those same attributes into the equally challenging world of sales.

And that may well be true . . . the athlete may very well have a great work ethic and a high need to achieve and succeed. He is probably also very competitive, which we also like to see when identifying and selecting high-potential sales candidates.

But be careful, because there is another ingredient that needs to be in place for that spectacular athlete to succeed as a salesperson.


The Final Ingredient: Optimism

Now, you might assume that great athletes must be optimistic. How else could they muster the dedication and commitment it takes to compete athletically at the highest levels?

You actually might be surprised by how many top athletes are actually not optimistic by nature and, in fact, channel their low optimism into their relentless need to get bigger, faster and stronger. You can see this work its way into bad decisions that can sometimes occur when athletes turn to potentially harmful supplements in the short term, even though they can have terrible long-term side effects.

A burning need to achieve. Highly competitive. But deep down operating more out of fear than optimism.

That is not to say that an athletic salesperson cannot be innately an optimist. They absolutely can be. But the point is that the correlation is not automatic . . . it is not 100%, and if you hire a great athlete that is not high in optimism, the chances of disappointment, underperformance and, ultimately, turnover are high. Let’s take an example.


The Middle Linebacker

A middle linebacker shows up that has had not only an outstanding athletic career, but has sustained high performance at one of the most punishing and grueling positions in sports. One would intuitively think that if someone could succeed in the toughest position in sports, he should be able to easily succeed in the “much less demanding” world of sales. But let’s look a little deeper.

As a boy and a young man, this fellow has always been one of the biggest, strongest people in his world. He is used to outperforming everyone. He never gets rejected.

Now he shows up for work. But this time he is playing a different game, a game in which many of his natural attributes mean little. Now he has to live by his wits and, most of all, he has to absorb and rationalize rejection.

People who are low in optimism do not deal well with rejection. They take it personally, and it is very hard for them to bounce back quickly and jump into the next sales opportunity with the confidence they need to carry the day.


The Hardworking, Non-Athlete


Let’s look at another example.

You have a candidate, he is not an athlete, but he too has a high need to achieve which has been demonstrated by the two jobs he held while putting himself through school.

One of those jobs involved some selling and while he was routinely rejected three out of four times, his industry’s norm, he did not even think about that. He needed to generate income for his education and concentrated on the fact that he knew he needed to make four calls to close a deal. Rejection was just part of the game.

This candidate might very well be a better investment than the accomplished athlete, obviously depending upon other important variables to be vetted during the interview, but the optimism piece is critical and is too important to be assumed via a stereotype.


Assessing for Core Aptitude

The NFL has an interesting way of assessing top prospects so that teams can make informed decisions prior to drafting and signing athletes.

They invite them all to participate in what is called the Combine. This is an annual event when prospects are invited to a workout facility, and are assessed for key aptitude strengths and weaknesses that data has shown are critical to succeeding as a professional football player in a given position.

For example, in order to succeed as a defensive back, the athlete needs to be able to run fast enough, both forwards and backwards, and jump high enough, to cover the receivers who will be coming at them game after game.

The trouble is that without testing for these traits, which cannot be taught beyond a certain potential, although an athlete might have succeeded in college under different circumstances, their weaknesses will be exposed in the pro game against other top athletes.

The Combine strips away the other variables, the college team’s stature or competition, for example, and gathers raw aptitude data about the various athletes the teams are considering.

If the aptitude is in place, the teams can then apply subjective criteria. They know they are starting out with certain core traits that must be in place as a foundation.

In sales, these key traits include Need for Achievement, Competitiveness and Optimism.


In Conclusion

Great athletes often bring all sorts of good things to a company. They can be smart, inspirational, energetic and great door openers and ambassadors for a company and/or a brand. They can also be outstanding salespeople, but not just because they are great athletes.

Jumping to that conclusion without deeper assessment is a high-risk hiring methodology.

Sales aptitude needs to be measured by administering a sales assessment test and conducting a behavioral interview.

When it comes to hiring great athletes, whom you hope will become great salespeople, the best of both worlds is definitely possible, which is delightful but not necessarily probable, so be sure to bring science, data and objectivity to the sales hiring process.