Don’t Hire People Who Aren’t Great At Something Else! | A Sales Guy's Sales Blog Copy & Close
May 28, 2013 Keenan

Don’t Hire People Who Aren’t Great At Something Else!

I am well aware this post is going to rile some feathers. Yup, I know it’s controversial. I know some of you aren’t going to like it. It’s one of those posts that just touches too close to home for many. I get it.

With that said, I will also qualify this post with the statement that I have no empirical data to support my belief. Although I believe very strongly in my theory or hypothesis, I have little evidence to back it up so therefore if you don’t like what I say then you can dismiss it as being baseless. With that said, the argument is pretty sound.

I have been hiring sales people and sales leaders for years and overtime one particular, yet subtle, trend seems to surface quite often. People who aren’t great at anything outside of work, pretty much suck at work.  In other words, if someone isn’t good at something outside of work, at another effort besides their primary job, they aren’t going to be good at their job. I believe “A” players are “A” players outside of the office and their job is just another extension of their commitment to excellence. I have found a close relationship with people who are exceptional in their day-to-day lives to being exceptional at work. And people who are not exceptional outside of their profession are rarely exception in their profession. (The exclusion to my theory is professional athletes, musicians, actors etc, people who have dedicated their ENTIRE life to one pursuit.)  Outside of these people, those who are not exceptional at something in their personal life are almost never “A” players.


Being exceptional or being great at something takes time and commitment. Being great is NOT a haphazard pursuit. Exceptional people have learned what it takes to achieve greatness. They have learned to take a passion and turn it into achievement or performance. They know what it takes to focus on something and work through the growing pains of getting good. Those people who have become exceptional at something have that something inside them, that others don’t, that drives them to push, go further, explore, learn and develop their talents.

If someone hasn’t become exceptional at something in their own life, on their own time, expecting them to or believing they will be on the job is stretch. A HUGE stretch.  Being extraordinary at something doesn’t mean you have to be the next Tiger Woods. It does mean you are phenomenal at something, an awesome knitter, a killer rock climber, a heavily relied on philanthropist, a great golfer, a top of the class student, a brilliantly informed political wonk, a history buff, an extraordinary model airplane builder, a bad ass electric guitar player — it means you are better than MOST people at something, anything.

What does being better than most people mean?  Being better means that if you lined up 100 random people, you’d be better than 80 -85% of them, at least. It means that you’ve taken it beyond a hobby. It means you’ve committed to something as more than just a fun thing to do on the weekends. It means you’re intimately connected to it. Being better means you practice, study, learn, embrace growth and achieve an expertise most other don’t posses.

When people reach this level in any endeavor,  they carry that sense of accomplishment and success to other parts of their lives. Their body and mind are conditioned to trial and error. They understand the path to performance and growth. They understand what it takes to make it and set deliberate learning goals. They embrace failure as part of the process. The know how to self motivate. They aren’t afraid of sacrifice. They accept success is rooted in their own efforts and hard work. They’ve learned to deal with obstacles and nay sayers. They bring a creative energy to their environments. People who are exceptional in their personal life are far more likely to carry it over to their professional life.

When I hire, I look for personal stories or commitments to outside efforts and accomplishments. I want to know what the candidates are doing when they aren’t working. If they are sitting on the couch watching TV, I’m concerned. If they aren’t committed to something or if they have never been recognized in any environment outside of work for anything exceptional, 9 out of 10 times, they’re not an “A” player and I won’t hire them. They are a manager. They are a foot soldier. They are “C” or “B” players at best.

The few times I’ve hired someone or recommended the hiring of someone who wasn’t great or hadn’t been great at something else has almost always failed. Every time I kick myself.  Greatness outside of work is an unbelievably accurate predictor of performance. Is it a perfect predictor? No. It is far better at predicting who won’t be an “A” player. I have found that just because someone is great at something outside of work doesn’t mean they are an”A” player. But, it is fairly accurate at telling me who WON’T be an “A” player and that’s a great start.

Excellence, greatness and being extraordinary are NOT situational. They are states of mind. They are attitudes that are embraced and developed. If someone hasn’t embraced and developed a commitment to excellence and greatness elsewhere in their lives, you can pretty much be sure they ain’t gonna do it for you at work.

Don’t hire people who aren’t great at something else, because they ain’t gonna be great for you — just sayin’!

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  • Leanne HoaglandSmith

    Well said and sometimes common sense trumps empirical data

    Leanne Hoagland-Smirh

  • Thanks Leanne,

    It is a bit controversial as, the majority of people are not great at something. For whatever reason they’ve chose not to be and that makes a substantial part of the workforce B and C players at best.
    It will be interesting to see what the other comments look like.

    Keep on keeping it real girl!

  • Leanne HoaglandSmith

    Yes i will b. I wonder from a cultural perspective if this is a by product of everyone gets a trophy and the sense of being excellent (meritocracy) is no longer appreciated.

  • James

    Keenan, you’re right this is controversial. That’s because it’s bullshit so I’ll go ahead and call you on it.

    First off, I will agree that past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour. So if someone was great in the past there is a good chance they will be great in the future.

    But that is far from a rule of thumb. The evidence is actually against what you are proposing. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he writes about superstar financial fund managers that are hired away from their current firm to go work for a competitor. He shows that in most cases, once the superstar leaves their current employer, they no longer sustain their superstar performance.

    It turns out that a lot of their success WAS situational. It had to do with the relationships and resources at their current job that just couldn’t be duplicated at another firm.

    We see this in sports a lot too. Some team spends big money on a free agent in the off season and then he never lives up to the dollars on the new team. Environment matters.

    Also – go ahead an define greatness for me? Because I’m pretty sure that greatness is subjective at best, and is definitely measured on a sliding scale. Again, we see this in pro sports. On one hand, they are all great just to make it to the pros. On the other hand, once they are there and judged against the other pros, truly only a small percentage are what the typical sports observer would say is “great”. The Columbus Blue Jackers 4th liner is great at hockey in comparison to the general population, but he’s a long way from being great in comparison to all the players who’ve played in the NHL throughout it’s history.

    I know you’re a ski instructor, so I imagine you must have yourself classified as a great skier. So let me ask you this, what if Alberto Tomba decided to become a Sales Trainer/Motivator/Blogger etc? Should I assume that he must be better at this than you because, as arguably the best skier of all time, he was a more successful at it than you are? If I needed a sales consultant and it was down to you and him, should I lean towards him because of how good he is at skiing?

    See where I’m going with this? Unless you happen to be Wayne Gretzky or Alberto Tomba, there is ALWAYS someone greater than you at something, and there is no objective way to determine what great actually is.

    What if Alberto Tomba did become a Sales Trainer, but he charges 10 times more than everyone else. What if he simply won’t return my call because he’s too busy? Same thing applies when trying to hire people you perceive as A players.

    At my current company, I’m probably a B player. Not among the best sales people at the company, but in the top half in terms of performance. When I occasionally talk to recruiters from other companies, I realize that in some cases I already make more than what their top performers make and they consider me to be a potential A player, and in other cases I discover that my income would barely compare to what the C players are making and they would consider me to be a risky hire.

    That makes me an A, B and a C player all at the same time, depending on who you ask!

    My advice to you would be to ease up on the hard and fast judgements of people into categories like great/not-great, or A B and C and start realizing that people are a) very variable in their skill sets, b) subject to their skills improving and changing over time, and c) influenced heavily by their environment.

    Less black and white, more shades of grey.

  • I’ve recently had this conversation a few times with a couple colleagues, too.

    Some bosses don’t want their employees to do anything outside of work (be it moonlighting or on a community charity board) because they want them focused on their job and the company they work for.

    But really..? Would you rather have an employee that goes home after work and sits in front of the couch the rest of the night watching the Bachelorette or Family Guy eating potato chips? Orrrrrr someone who is active, getting out and using different parts of their brain with other experiences?

    I think you would choose the latter. Great article, Keenan! I actually just wrote a post about this the other week that should publish later on this week.

  • Nice to see u in the house Devan!

    I wouldn’t hire a sales leader that thought that way.


  • I am going to disagree on this one.

    There are lot of people I now who are great at one thing and that’s all such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc.

  • Tammy McCrea

    Hi Keenan, just discovered your great site via Linked in. Anecdotally, I totally agree with you. I came across this old post that hits on the same idea: It’s true: how you do one thing, is how you do everything!

  • Tamara Schenk

    Great blog post, Jim! I experienced the same and I think it’sd more and more important in this century. We need people who are all “in”, who are enagaged with their full personality and their entire passion. Those often make a huge difference in terms of value creation, not just the numbers…
    But they cannot be “managed” pretty well, they need servant leaders…

  • Trish Bertuzzi

    Yup controversial…I happen to disagree with you and I think it is the “old” mindset of …let’s hire kids out of college who were on sports teams because they are team players and competitive. That rarely worked out in sales – they walked around waiting for the Captain to tell them what to do and never grasped the reality that the only person you are competing with is yourself.

    I think the selling landscape has changed so much that the number one trait to look for is curiousity. Is your candidate curious enough about the world (and their potential buyer) to spend the time it takes to learn how to help them build a better business? In this age of trusted advisors as sellers that combined with great writing skiils (for email, content and social media) is what tells the tale.

    Many ways to skin this cat and is in all else in life there is not one size fits all strategy. Thanks for listening.

  • Hey Trish!

    Great comment and as usual, good insight . . . especially the selling landscape has changed. It has and curiosity is CRITICAL. I think there is a good post in that part of your comment?

    I’m curios, what do you “disagree” with? That those who are great at something else won’t be good in their job? Or those who AREN’T great at something outside of work will be great at the job?

    I also agree with your assertion that hiring kids out of college just because they were athletes wasn’t the sharpest of ideas. However, my point is don’t hire just because someone played a sport, it is to look for folks who have demonstrated greatness somewhere in else in their life anywhere in life.

    Success is a state of mind that should be present in all situations, not just one.

    Trish what do you think? If you had 100 potential hires in front of you, 50 were great and excelled in something outside of work, they other 50 didn’t excel at anything outside of work. Which group do you think would have the highest performance?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Trish and never apologize here for disagreeing. I love the debate and discussion. It’s how we grow and learn.

  • Agree Dave, no question. Like most things, it’s not all or nothing. That being said, if you had 100 lawyers, doctors, engineers etc. I’ve got money that says more of the great ones will be great at something else in their life too.

  • Thanks Tammy great post!

    My two favorite lines:

    “how you do anything is how you do everything.”

    “Your “character” or “nature” just refers to how you handle all the day-to-day things in life,”

  • Dave Brock

    Interesting post and very interesting comments. Not surprisingly, I agree and disagree. I think you are confusing some issues around mastery and competencies for high performance sales people.

    I think you are saying, “There are behaviors, attitudes, capabilities, experiences that are critical to this job I’m recruiting for. If I see these displayed in other parts of what they’ve done, previous jobs, life experiences, etc; they are likely to transfer these to the sales role I am recruiting for.”

    We do this all the time, it’s a great practice. It doesn’t guarantee high performance, but it reduces the probability of low performance or a mishire.

    So we can do this and get A players.

    But “greatness” is different (at least to my mind). Greatness and mastery, in whatever the chosen area, requires an intensity of focus, commitment, and time that most times excludes greatness and mastery of multiple things.

    The fact that you exclude athletes, musicians, etc. is a great indicator of this challenge.

    Let’s use athletes as an example. Take Decathletes. They are outstanding, well rounded, great performers in 10 sports. They are never the greatest/masters in 10 individual sports. World class specialists–sprinters, distance, vaulters, shot putters, etc. always outperform the decathlete in the individual sports. (Sure a decathlete may be great in one, but not 10).

    Likewise, in skiing–which you know far better than I, downhillers, slalom, and freestylers are specialists. The very top performing downhillers are not the very top performing freestylers.

    So here’s where we run into the problem of defining greatness. Is greatness the “Best 100 yard sprinter in the world,” or the “Best decathlete in the world.” Greatness and excellence is situational and contextual.

    So you are choosing a definition of greatness that is close to the concept of the “renaissance person.” Very good in multiple areas, agile, nimble, flexible. If that is what we agree upon as greatness, then I can agree with your premise. But once we add the specialization component, the model starts to fall apart.

    We see this in sales. I firmly believe a “great sales person,” is contextual and situational. Since the sales person does not operate in isolation, a lot of the sales person’s greatness depends on the people/company around the individual. I’ve seen truly extraordinary sales people fail in lousy companies, yet thrive in outstanding companies.
    Selling, particularly complex B2B sales, is increasingly a team sport. Greatness as an individual contributor may not translate into greatness as part of a team–just try harnessing a lone wolf.
    So, I’ve wandered quite a bit in this discussion. I can agree and I can disagree. It all depends on a context, and I don’t believe you can generalize as you have. Implicitly you have a context–when I buy into that implicit context, then your conclusions are valid, but……

  • Dave

    Interesting post and comments. I agree with some points but not others. A players are A players because of their character, personality and disposition towards pushing themselves to pursue and achieve excellence. However I think that they might only ever achieve excellence in that one thing since that happens to be where their character and personality most perfectly intersect with their skills, abilities, and knowledge.

  • Sam

    Dumb point of view. Works great when making broad selections such as screening for graduate schools or MBA programs. But after a few years in the workplace work performance speaks for itself. Anything else is pointless. I know championship golfers and skiers who suck at their work. In fact more often than not, people who excel at other things deliver mediocre performance at work. Be my guest and hire them…!!

  • Good points Dave. In your scenario I think the wild card is “commitment.” Those who are committed and have a disposition for pushing themselves will excel in the job, where those who are committed to the job but are not familiar with the pursuit of excellence will not excel in many cases. Excellence and achievement are learned. Thus my thesis.
    Thanks for joining the conversation Dave.

  • marc zazeela

    Very controversial.

    Who decided that you can’t excel at just one thing and be the best at it?

    Suppose I am the best sales person in the world (I’m not). And suppose I devote every waking moment to becoming and remaining the best. How will I also excel at something unrelated?

    Often times, being the very best takes such a huge commitment in time and energy that nothing more is even possible.

    Making hiring decisions, or other important decisions, based upon a single and simple thought does not make much sense to me. Should you immediately disqualify someone because their interests and abilities are narrowly focused? Seems like you would be disqualifying some pretty good candidates.

    There are very few hard and fast or black and whites when it comes to human psychology and behavior. Why create them artificially?

  • Hey Marc,

    I decided it. 😉

    With the exception of the most highly talented, as I call out in the article, the Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonns in the world, most people who are excellent at one thing, are very, very good at other things.

    The drive to excel isn’t singular. It’s horizontal. I’ve found that for the most part, those who are good at one thing, are good at multiple things. Their personal inclination won’t let them just be average.

    But, hey that’s just my opinion.

    Thanks for the comment, good points.