THE BLOG
05/24/2013 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013

Can't Find the Right People? Maybe Your Business Model Is Busted

You're sitting around the conference room table with your fellow executive team members staring at a list of symptoms. Sales are flat or even falling. When you start to dig into root causes, you immediately notice that your company has promoted star salespeople to new areas of responsibility. Now those stars' shoes seem impossible to fill.

The company has brought in person after person, but all of them crash and burn. The pattern is the same no matter what you try:

  • New people come into your company full of energy and optimism. You tell them they're going to be rock stars. They believe you. After all, they were high performers elsewhere.
  • For the first six months, the new folks drink from the fire hose. They learn your products and services. They get to know people. They settle into their territory or account base. Everyone is still in an optimistic version of "wait and see."
  • For the second six months, you get the distinct impression that these previously successful people had been donors in a confidence transplant surgery. While they try to disguise it, you can tell that they're now quietly questioning whether they were ever that good after all. Their activity levels drop as their fear and uncertainty rises.
  • For the third six months, they've moved to a new mental place. They blame the company. It's not their fault that they're struggling. The training isn't that good. Their manager stinks. The compensation rewards the wrong things. The product is weak.
  • The new salespeople quit or get fired. After a long enough period, the leader gets fired too. And so the wheel turns. You've just wasted a couple of years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Any time a job defeats a succession of otherwise qualified people, not only is something busted with the job, something is probably wrong with the company's business model. If you look at why you keep failing to fill your star spots, you'll see the following:

  • The business model is built around the heroic efforts of a certain group of people, who have to figure out how to attract, win, and retain customers in spite of the company. Because the company hasn't made it easy.
  • A few stars -- maybe up to 15 percent of the people in those roles -- have actually figured out how to be those heroes. This gives the role and the model some face validity since someone's figured it out. After all, if no one could figure it out, the company would be forced to change or go bust immediately.
  • You've made those freaky few the template for success. "Hey, Brandon can do it. Let's just look for more Brandons!"

But it doesn't work. If you want to grow and if growth requires more people playing this critical role, you simply won't find enough of the freaky few who will want to come work for you. Even if you do, it's only a matter of time before you'll find yourself hostage to them. They'll know they're the freaky few and whether they're senior executives, hot-shot programmers, or front-line salespeople, they'll know that they have you. Get ready for a regular series of offers and counter-offers from other companies as the geniuses exercise the power of being in demand.

So if you find yourself stumped by the question, "How come our salespeople (or developers, or whatever) keep failing?" stop playing around with the stuff on the edges. Ask the more fundamental questions:

  • What is it about how we do business -- how we attract, win, retain, and grow customers -- that makes it so hard for normal people to do this job?
  • What changes would we need to make to our overall model to make this job -- and all of our jobs -- fit for consumption by normal human beings?

Addressing those questions isn't the sales leader's job or heaven help me, the recruiting team's job: it's the job of the whole leadership team. Holistic problems require holistic solutions. And that's the job of the leadership team -- to see the whole, own the whole, and manage the whole. When you do that, scale can happen. Until then, you're at the mercy of the geniuses.