So you’re considering hiring a VP of Sales for your startup. Are you sure you know what to look for?
After working with more startups than I can count over the years, I can tell you this much: most Founders think they know what makes an outstanding VP of Sales. But they don’t realize how much they don’t know about hiring for this crucial position.
Of course you’re looking for a smart VP of Sales with tons of experience under their belt. What you may not be looking for are all the other nuanced characteristics and traits that make someone the right fit for your team, the stage your business is in, and, ultimately, your startup.
And as I talked about in my post on the true cost of a bad hire at the VP level, making the wrong choice is a 7-figure problem, causing a seemingly never-ending headache, and setting your organization back for who knows how long.
The real kicker? You’ll have to start the hiring process all over again.
I would hate to see this scenario happen to you. So I’m going to help you find and hire the right VP of Sales for your startup today.
You’ll find key characteristics (which I call superpowers) to look for in your best candidates. Then we’ll discuss the top traits every VP of Sales for a startup should have.
So grab your notebook, and let’s begin with:
Understanding VP of Sales’ Superpowers
Most VPs of Sales excel in one or two specific areas. They have more experience in those lanes than experience in other avenues.
That’s what we refer to as their “superpowers.”
And I honestly believe you should identify every candidate’s superpowers before assessing their traits.
Because even if someone checks all your trait boxes — but they lack experience in your startup’s situation or needs — you’ll need to find another VP soon after your hire.
My dear friend Doug Landis lays the four superpower categories most VPs fall under well:
1. Deal Management
VPs in this category are all about being where the action of a deal is. They are relentless about the power of a pipeline and know the details like the back of their hands. They embrace being on the front lines with the customer to figure out what it takes to get the deal across the finish line.
If your team struggles with creating meaningful pipelines or getting customers to sign on the dotted line, finding a VP in this category may be a good fit.
2. Process Management
VPs with a process management background are hyper-focused on improving how things are done. They’re usually organized with lists and spreadsheets and lean into iteration to improve efficiency.
VPs in this category can be helpful if you don’t have systems in place, or they need work. They’re also a dream when you need to eventually scale your efforts without becoming a disorganized mess.
3. Company Management
Company management VPs are phenomenal communicators that focus their efforts on big-picture tasks to set expectations early and often up, across, and down the organization. They know what pieces of data to focus on and spend their time pinpointing what they can improve in both the short and long term.
They are master hypothesizers and like to test out their theories to find what works, all while keeping your startup’s goals in mind and at the forefront.
4. Culture Management
Culture management VPs prioritize building a team that’s excited, motivated, and committed to being there. They have a knack for galvanizing people and create a culture that’s so worthwhile, people follow them wherever they go. They’re invested heavily in their people, and their people in them.
Culture management VPs command an audience usually bursting at the seams with personality. They love to talk to people and engage. This makes them capable of wooing investors your way too.
Now you know…
So which of those superpowers does your startup need most?
Pro tip: Every single VP of Sales should be focused on the sum of their parts and the power of helping people. That’s the universal trait of all remarkable leaders, sales included.
Matching the Right Superpowers To Find Your Best Fit
Ideally, you’d love to have someone who possesses all four of those superpowers. And if you can find that unicorn, more power to you.
One of the biggest missteps Founders make is fooling themselves into thinking they can have it all. If you want to get to the next milestone, it’s mission-critical to understand your stage, the work that’s required now and the near future, and to identify the superpowers your startup will benefit most from as a result.
For example, if your processes need an overhaul because you’ve been doing the best you can piecing things together, hiring a VP with this experience will be the most helpful. And if you struggle to close big deals, a deal management VP may be the right hire.
As you figure out where your startup excels and where it could be better, you’ll quickly see which superpowers are needed most.
You’ll also need to consider the type of experience you’re looking for too, such as:
Outbound vs. inbound sales. Your startup either needs outbound or inbound sales closed, and your candidates probably don’t have experience in both. So which are more pressing?
Your VP should be able to prove themselves with experience in the one you need. And if you don’t hire based on this important factor, you may be setting your team up for failure.
Market segment. Do you truly understand your ICP (Ideal Customer Profile)? Every segment has its nuances. If you’re looking for someone to close a few million-dollar projects, hiring someone with experience closing dozens of thousand-dollar deals may not be best.
Narrow down specifics like these so you can weed out candidates who don’t fit the bill. Then you’ll be ready to dive deeper into the traits of those who do.
The Top 16 Traits a Solid VP of Sales for a Startup Should Have
Again, if you’re one of the lucky folks who comes across a unicorn who possess all these traits should be snatched up ASAP. But in the real world and in this market, you’ll likely find candidates who have some of these 16 traits more than others.
So your goal here is to identify the traits your startup needs most and rank them from high to low importance.
Then you can add this list to your VP of Sales hiring scorecard. You’ll score each candidate’s traits and assign weights to these scores based on must-have qualities vs. nice-to-haves.
You’ll want the top candidates to check off the most important, highest-weighted traits first. Everything after that is gravy on top.
Here are the top 16 traits to look for in a VP of Sales for a startup:
1. They’re Aligned with Your Mission (and Genuinely Interested In It)
Alignment is the new loyalty. I believe so strongly in this that I’ll say it again: alignment is the new loyalty.
When someone is aligned with your company’s mission, they’ll fight to the end and won’t give up for anything. A VP aligned with your mission is also more likely to instill this passion and drive in others, especially those they manage.
They’ll easily inspire teammates when times inevitably get tough. Because, let’s face it: life at a startup is never smooth sailing for long.
Candidates can boast all the skills in the world, but if they aren’t genuinely aligned with your mission, they’ll crumble and walk away at the first sign of distress.
2. They’re Multi-Dimensional
Even though most VPs of Sales likely fall under one overarching experience category, the best ones are capable of adjusting and adapting quickly. And that’s because they’re multi-dimensional.
Having this trait is ultra-helpful for startups because they often lack the resources to hire all the people they really need.
So someone possessing this trait will be able to jump in wherever and whenever they’re needed. You’ll never hear them say, “That’s out of my pay grade/job description.”
3. They Don’t Adopt a Growth-At-Any-Cost Mindset
Be careful of VPs who interview with too much gusto when it comes to growth.
Yes, this can be tempting because it’s probably exactly what your startup could use. But adopting a growth-at-any-cost mentality will hurt your business in lots of unexpected ways.
For example, if your VP closes too many deals too fast, or their deals are simply too large for your team to handle, they’ll create a massive strain on your entire operation.
Besides the added and unnecessary work stress, you’ll also lose those new customers just as fast as you gained them. They may never want to try your brand again, thanks to this terrible first impression.
You may also lose the customers you do have because your team’s putting out a million tiny fires instead of prioritizing their needs.
So while you do want someone to help you grow, be careful with how fast they’re willing to do so.
If they only want to collect a higher bonus and don’t care about how this strains your startup, this person is not the right fit.
4. They’re Resilient
Like I mentioned earlier, life at a startup is full of ups and downs. A VP of Sales will have the resiliency to ride the good times waves and withstand the storms.
Having someone aligned with your mission can help ensure resiliency not just in them, but in the team they’re leading.
Resiliency is also crucial when your sales team experiences one “no” after another, which is another common situation.
How will your VP help them overcome this rejection, so they can quickly move on and close other deals?
Ask your candidates how they get through tough times to gauge this key trait during your interviews.
5. They Have a People-First Focus
Culture management VPs will always put people first. But it’s essential for VPs in other categories to also do the same.
While their focus may be on processes or company management, they can’t lose sight of taking care of their people along the way.
VPs without a people-first focus make turnover in your sales department more likely, as no one wants to work underneath them.
Your VP should be a coach first, in addition to managing people. They should make their team feel supported enough to excel at their job and hit those sales goals.
6. They’re Experts at Setting Expectations
A successful VP of Sales is focused on the big picture. But they also know how to break down this high-level view into manageable steps for their team to tackle.
These VPs set up their team for success by creating realistic, attainable goals. They don’t set unreasonable deadlines. And they create challenging targets so people don’t get complacent or bored.
7. They Possess a Learner’s Mindset
Would your candidate describe themself as a lifelong learner?
People in this boat are willing to learn from their mistakes, educate themselves on how to do better, and put this knowledge to good use. They’re also curious about learning how to improve.
This trait helps your team adapt and overcome obstacles instead of getting knocked down by them. It also prevents teams from repeating costly errors because someone is unwilling to adjust. And it encourages new ideas and innovation.
8. They’re Accountable
Accountability is another huge trait to think about. After all, if your VP can’t hold themselves accountable, how can they hold your sales team to your high standards?
Short answer? They can’t.
So it’s essential to ask your potential VP of Sales how they find the discipline to hold themselves accountable. Let them describe a situation in which they held someone they were managing accountable to.
That’s the only way you’ll know whether you can trust them to uphold your company’s standards and exceed the expectations you set for them.
9. They Don’t Crack Under Pressure
What do your VP of Sales candidates do in high-stress situations?
A VP will always face pressure to perform, and they can’t hide their performance when the sales metrics are on the table.
So it’s important for you to see their thought processes and hear how they work through stress.
During your interview, you may want to say:
How do you approach a high-stress situation?
Tell me about a time when you helped an employee overcome a stressful situation.
How would you handle [insert frustrating example situation]?
Watch out for any candidates who begin by blaming one of their employees for mistakes they had to “clean up.” Solid leaders take ownership of failures and praise their team for the wins.
10. They Have Strong Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Having a high IQ is important, but so is possessing strong emotional skills.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to practice self-control and self-awareness while expressing emotions and empathizing with others.
This trait comes in handy when working with salespeople, especially after they face tough, consistent rejections. You want your VP to put themselves in their shoes and understand what they’re feeling.
Active listening skills are also key to EQ. So if you can assess whether your candidates are great listeners during your interview skills, you can probably determine their EQ.
11. They Do Their Homework
You should find a VP of Sales who not only prepares for the interview, but continues to do their homework after they’re hired.
Big-picture thinkers know how to look past sales quotes to make sure their efforts are helping the company grow. They continually research ways to make an impact within and outside their department.
This trait may be trickier to gauge, but you can uncover how well candidates do their homework during your interview process.
Ask them a few questions to see how well they researched your brand story, product/service, or industry. See if they’ve considered your potential short- and long-term plans, based on trends in your market.
You can also scope out whether they came prepared with notes and key talking points. And did they ask thoughtful questions and relevant follow-ups? These are all good signs.
12. They Seek to Understand and Listen More than Talk
Active listening is another must-have trait you don’t want to gloss over. I mentioned this point earlier in the emotional intelligence section, but it’s worth repeating on its own.
Being able to really listen goes a long way in sales. It’s also a necessary component for building relationships and fostering empathy.
Active listening also refers to reiterating what someone says to ensure that it was heard correctly. This reduces miscommunication and keeps everyone on the same page.
You can quickly gauge this trait during your interviews by seeing whether your candidate spends more time talking than listening. And if they sum up and repeat what you said correctly, you can bet they’re on Team Active Listening.
13. They Know How to Hire, Onboard, Support, and Retain Their Team
Because a considerable amount of your VP of Sales’ job is devoted to hiring, onboarding, and keeping your team happy, you must discuss these skills during your interview process.
Ask candidates how they go about hiring, what their onboard process looks like, and how they describe their retention strategy.
Another point to consider here is how they handle feedback.
You don’t want someone who just waits for performance reviews to roll around to let your team know how they’re doing. You should find someone who knows how to give great feedback daily and weekly.
Someone who can effectively lead regular one-on-one meetings to hold people accountable and motivate them is even better!
Ask these questions now, so there are no surprises later.
14. They Measure What Matters and Make Data-Driven Decisions
How does your potential VP of Sales measure and track their team’s hard work? What will they do to fix underperforming results?
While you could give your VP specific metrics to focus on, it’s better to find someone who already does this on their own. That means less hand-holding for you, so you can focus on higher-level tasks.
Another point to consider is how they plan to make decisions.
Do they go with their gut instincts, or are they data-driven?
It’s nice to have gut instincts, and you definitely don’t want to ignore those, but it’s also crucial to make intelligent decisions based on the data sitting in front of you.
These questions should help during your interviews:
- What metrics do you plan to track?
- What happens when things go unexpectedly or underperform?
- Describe your decision-making process.
These answers will give you a peek at whether you can predict your future VP of Sales’ next moves or if you’ll need to just trust them. And if they’re in the latter camp, do you and your team actually trust their instincts?
15. They Are Master Strategists
It’s undeniable that your startup needs to hire a VP of Sales who can take charge — not someone who waits around for your constant instruction.
If you don’t hire an independent self-starter, you’re better off hiring an assistant because your VP of Sales will only cause more work for you.
So a better approach is to find someone who can strategize for you and with you.
This powerful combination ensures you’re both on the same page and can productively bounce ideas off each other.
That’s why you may want to give more weight to master strategists on your hiring scorecard. But how can you uncover this trait in an interview?
By asking potential candidates how they plan to tackle the following tasks:
Strategic thinking and planning (the more straightforward, the better)
Goal-setting, including measuring and adjusting as needed
Creating repeatable processes and scaling them
No one knows your business better than its Founders — but you shouldn’t always have to do the heavy lifting.
Each candidate’s answers here should give you the confidence to hand off these tasks and expect nothing but greatness. If you don’t feel that burden lighten, keep interviewing until you do.
This last trait is one that’s often overlooked and it’s a big mistake.
16. They Excel at Cross Functional Collaboration
The VP of Sales that you hire shouldn’t have a sales against the world mentality and, instead, they should realize how your company functions as an ecosystem.
This means that you want someone who can build and implement plans that create win/win outcomes across the entire organization, not just in their sales department.
So your VP of Sales would not only know how to play well with others, but they’d also be master communicators who can work well with your marketing, customer service, operations, and other important departments.
Being able to function collaboratively with their own department and the rest of them at your company will ensure that their success benefits your entire organization and doesn’t just create a win for your sales department.
And that’s the key to cross functional collaboration.
Final Thoughts and What to Do Next
You now have the top traits and characteristics to look for in your startup’s next VP of Sales. Don’t you feel smarter and more prepared?
From here, write down these traits and rank them in order of importance for you and your business.
Next, add some weight to your must-have traits that you absolutely won’t compromise on.
Then, reorder your list and add each category to your hiring scorecard.
All that’s left to do is interview your candidates.
Make sure to bring your hiring scorecard to every interview. You’ll have a checklist of traits to look for and a completely objective way to rank each candidate’s fit for your startup.
All this extra legwork is totally worth it, as you’ll boost your chances of finding that VP gem your team needs and won’t make the mistake of hiring the wrong person.
I talked a lot about creating a hiring scorecard and how to use it. But if you don’t know what that is, the benefits of using one, or how to create a hiring scorecard, hit me up or join me for Thursday Night Sales to discuss.