When asked to recommend candidates by executives that are looking to build or expand their sales and marketing team, the first step I take is to determine the organization’s priorities. A question that often comes up is whether experience, in either a vertical industry or horizontal technology, should trump cultural fit, current skills and potential? In this post, I’ll first take a look at whether this approach works, before providing you with 4 easy steps to build a world-class sales and marketing team by hiring based not on what candidates already know, but how quickly they can learn and adapt.

Are Skills or Experience a Better Indicator of Future Success?

An old saying from the pre-Internet days is that “you won’t be fired for buying IBM.” This expression dates from the days of selling mainframe computers, when IBM was the standard (and therefore safe) choice. In the world of technology hiring, many executives act as if they believe that “you won’t be fired for hiring the candidate with the most industry experience.”

There’s long been debate among hiring managers and recruiting experts about whether skills or experience are a better indicator of future success. I didn’t want to be limited by my own views and experiences, so I took a look into academic research on the subject. I found that a 2008 study by Nancy Rothbard, Associate Professor of Management at The Wharton School showed that the advantage of prior task-relevant knowledge and skills diminishes the longer an employee stays at the new firm.

“Over time as individuals become socialized into the new firm, the amount of prior work experience they brought with them matters less for the skills they demonstrate on the job.” – Nancy Rothbard, Associate Professor of Management at The Wharton School

Prof. Rothbard advises that “If you have a strong culture and a clear strategy in doing things that differ from your competitor, you may want to think carefully about whether you want to hire for experience or whether you want to hire people with less experience and invest more in training them in your model. If your competitive advantage is the culture of your company, you want to be careful about bringing in people with a long tenure in their occupation or industry and think about how that prior experience is going to bring positives as well as negatives to the firm.”

Why ‘Agile Learning’ Should Trump Experience When Building A Sales and Marketing Team

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
― Alvin Toffler

Why 'Agile Learning' Should Trump Experience When Building Sales and Marketing TeamsHow can experience be a hindrance, rather than an asset? In the world of technology, the only constant is change and the best weapon for success is the ability to anticipate change and adapt before everyone else does or risk eventual stagnation and extinction.

In any industry that’s subject to change—and most are these days—you’re better off building a world-class sales and marketing team by hiring based not on what candidates already know, but how quickly they can learn and adapt.

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As vice president and chief marketing officer at Emerson Electric Co., Kathy Button Bell, stated in an interview in Frost and Sullivan’s Sales & Marketing eBulletin:

“I don’t think brands or companies are nimble — people are. So I would say that the most important thing is to hire talent that, as I like to call them, are agile learners, which is a Korn/Ferry turn of phrase, who are extremely flexible, quick learners, undefensive, willing to take on unknown challenges. You’re seeing that as the only option you have, especially in the B2B/industrial marketing world.”

– Kathy Button Bell, vice president and chief marketing officer at Emerson Electric Co.

Isn’t Industry Experience More Important in Sales?

Many sales leaders look at the hiring process for sales as 50% sales skills and 50% industry experience. Why do they weight industry experience so high? It’s just another example of short-term thinking: If you’re under the gun or behind the curve on generating the next month/quarter/year sales, then hiring someone who brings their own Rolodex® of industry contacts seems like a surefire way for them to ramp up to speed quickly and get your sales back on track.

As Dan Perry, Principal at Sales Benchmark Index, wrote in a recent post titled Should You Hire Only From Your Industry?:

“The trend over the last 20 years is to hire [sales] people from your industry. Most VPs feel if they do this their ramp time is quicker. The hire can be more productive in a shorter amount of time. And with the quarterly number looming, they need sales quickly. They also don’t have to spend their precious time training them. These hires might even bring some clients over to your company. This is short term thinking which will hurt long term results.

– Dan Perry, Principal at Sales Benchmark Index

Lee Salz, CEO of Sales Architects, also exposed this falacy in a post titled One Type of Salesperson You Should Think Twice About Hiring:

“Changing vendors isn’t exactly a simple exercise and most customers won’t follow a sales rep just because they like that person. So, if you’re hiring a salesperson away from a competitor thinking it’s all of a sudden going to double your bookings, you’re probably in for a rude awakening.”

– Lee Salz, CEO, Sales Architects

Aren’t Most Marketers Hired Based on Skill?

Most marketing executives tend to vary the weight they place on industry experience based on the area of marketing. When hiring designers and event planners, for example, function-specific skills tend to receive a higher weight, while industry and/or horizontal technology experience is considered more important for product marketing managers.

Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results When Building Sales and Marketing TeamsAt the top, however, the majority of CEOs look for a marketing leader with a decade or more of experience marketing to their target industry or marketing their specific product or technology. This implies that industry knowledge is difficult to acquire or that past success in a given vertical ensures (or at least increases) the chance of future success.

As financial prospectuses are all required to state, past performance does not guarantee future returns. Hiring your competitor’s chief marketing officer increases the likelihood that your next marketing strategy will be the one your competitor has already implemented. It also increases the odds that your prospects will soon be wondering what makes you different from your competitors.

[Tweet “Hire your competitor’s CMO and you’ll likely replicate your competitor’s marketing strategy”]

4 Easy Steps to Hire A World-Class Sales and Marketing Team

Since experience is no substitute for cultural fit and the ability to rapidly learn and adapt, how can you modernize your hiring process to identify better sales and marketing candidates? Here are 4 steps that won’t take a huge investment in time and will pay off in both the short- and long-run.

1. Assess Your Culture

If you haven’t assessed and documented your company culture, you should step back and do it before you start adding to your team. One of the best examples of this is The HubSpot Culture Code. In this case, HubSpot uses it’s culture not only as a recruiting tool, but as a strategic weapon.

2. Determine Desired Skills

A list of desired skills is an essential part of any job description. A good way to ensure you haven’t overlooked any essential skills is to review online job postings for similar positions and incorporate relevant skills and terminology into your own job description.

3. Create a Skills Assessment Exercise

Most hiring managers will devote a substantial part of the interview to asking questions about the candidates skills. Except for positions where the candidate is expected to show a portfolio (e.g. designers), I’ve found very few hiring managers go beyond a candidates verbal answers or, at best, examples of their work. To truly assess how a candidate works, how they handle ambiguity, and how they respond to changing requirements, I highly recommend creating a skills assessment exercise that is specific to the position. Here are a few examples:

  • PR Manager: Ask the candidate to write a Press Release. Provide background materials (written, video, audio) and allow them to interview you and ask questions. Focus not just on the final product, but how they got there.
  • Event Manager: Ask the candidate to research and propose a venue and theme for an event. Allow them to ask questions and focus on their thought process and the thoroughness of their approach. Throw in a realistic ‘curve ball,’ such as a last minute surge in attendees or a problem with the venue to see how they handle unplanned changes.
  • Sales Rep: Mock sales calls are a good way to see how your sales candidate will approach your prospects. Make sure to agree beforehand on what they will be selling and the parameters of the call, e.g. inside or outside sale, cold-call or referral, first call or follow up.

4. Create a Deliberate Assessment of Cultural Fit

Cultural fit is often left to the interviewers gut instinct, which tends to reward candidates that share the interviewer’s work style and personal interests. However, it should also be deliberately assessed. Some companies emphasize employee referrals to source candidates, since your employees know your culture and are not likely to recommend people that they don’t feel comfortable working with or that wouldn’t be a positive asset to their team.

In any case, to determine whether a candidate is a good fit for your culture, make sure to include cultural fit interview questions in your interviews (see, for example, Dharmesh Shah’s post titled 5 Quick Questions To Help Determine Culture Fit). To take it a step further, consider inviting final candidates to participate in gatherings or activities that are unique to your companies culture.


Did you enjoy this post? Please let me know in the comments! I’ll be reading them all.

Photo credits: No Strings by Emery Way,

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