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Hiring people for any complex project requires the person to understand the complexity of the task before proceeding. This is especially true when hiring enterprise-level account executives.

Only hire people who can see the big picture before they start painting it.

At a business meeting the other day we had to reveal something about ourselves that wasn't on our LinkedIn profiles. Mine had to do with the research I'm conducting for a Civil War novel. The main character in the book has an opportunity to meet Generals U.S. Grant and Custer during the closing year of the war.

The meeting where this semi-private fact was exposed was about redesigning a company's hiring process for account executives ("AEs") selling enterprise-level, big data software solutions. While not obvious, there is a connection between these apparently unrelated topics.

First the big picture: Grant could see it and Custer couldn't.

Before the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 began, Grant mapped out day-by-day what General Robert E. Lee would likely do. Based on this, Grant developed a series of planned offensive moves and countermeasures. In similar situations, Custer reacted in kneejerk fashion bravely but foolhardily, based on instinct and little preparation.

The differences between Grant and Custer offer remarkable insight on how to hire people in any job where planning is essential:

  • Grant: Only hire people who can see the big picture before they start painting it.
  • Custer: Hire people who look sharp, are extremely confident and can talk a good game.

Since the meeting was about hiring account executives, here are some ideas on how to pull the Grant approach off.

Applying General U.S. Grant's Military Planning Approach for Hiring Account Executives

  1. The best AEs (or any project leader for that matter) can visualize the big picture before it's drawn. The most important aspect of successful enterprise-level sales is putting a detailed business case together demonstrating why your product is the best in the class. This needs to consider the ROI, implementation plan, competition, the client's current situation and business and industry trends. You can ask the most significant accomplishment question to determine how well a candidate grasps and implements this approach.
  2. Figure out what you know and don't know. If you don't know what you don't know you won't be able to prove your company has the best solution. These are the missing pieces in the puzzle the AE needs to obtain before making the business case.
  3. Build a detailed roadmap to learn what you don't know. In most complex selling situations the sales team needs to get access to the information before they can make a comprehensive business case for their solution. Ask the problem-solving question during the interview to assess how well the AE figures this out.
  4. Identify and convince the decision-makers to give you access to the people who have the information needed. AEs need to convince those in authority that the impact of their solution is worth the effort to get the information needed.
  5. Collect the information necessary to fill in the blanks. While access to the right people is essential, getting the right information takes skill, insight and diplomacy. If not done successfully, getting the ultimate sale is not possible.
  6. Formally prove the business case. Once all the dots are connected and the missing pieces are found, it needs to be put into a business case and presented to the buying team. Typically this is a collaborative effort with the AE project-managing the entire process.
  7. Close the deal by repainting the picture. The best AEs use a sequence of events selling approach to get buy-in to the entire process ahead of time. This increases the likelihood the client will proceed with your solution as each stage-gate is successfully achieved.

Being an AE for this type of multi-million dollar enterprise-level sale is a challenging job requiring enormous skill and effort. Assessing people for these roles starts by capturing the entire process in a performance-based job description and using the Performance-based Interview to determine competency and fit. But, bottom line, the likelihood of success at the end depends on the clarity of the picture obtained at the beginning.

While we might disagree with General Grant's tactics, few would disagree that he clearly saw the big picture and then painted it with the best brushes he had available. This same lesson can be applied to hiring anyone for any important job.