Vetting an Internal Candidate for the Sales VP Role

Last month a reader inquired about potentially promoting their current sales manager to VP of Sales. They wondered about the risks involved.

Together with my colleague Stan Davis of Standish Executive Search, I provided information about the difference between the two jobs to help them make the decision including:

  • Sales Managers - have direct supervisory responsibilities such as problem solving, running meetings and disciplinary issues.
  • Vice Presidents of Sales - take part in the leadership of the company through influencing people, enacting change, and developing and deploying talent.

Determining a sales manager's readiness and suitability for the VP role requires planning and asking impactful questions - of both the candidate and yourself.

Don't Hand Them the Job

Forget about your sales manager's tenure with the company. Disregard successes in their current role. These factors qualify them for consideration. Interview this employee for the job. Handle the process the same as if you were hiring from the outside. Hold multiple interviews over a period of weeks.

Think it Over

Prior to starting the dialogue with an internal candidate ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I structure the interview process?
  • What questions will I ask?
  • Will I have them take an assessment to determine their appropriateness for the role?
  • What questions will I ask the reps they currently manage?
  • What questions will I ask other executives in the company?
  • Which combination of factors will I use to make the final decision?
  • How will I handle the situation if I realize they aren't right for the job?
  • What will I do if they accept the job and it doesn't work out?

Answer the questions. Plan ahead. Doing so will increase your confidence level in the selection process.

Consider Other Applicants

Speak to outside candidates - especially if this role represents a new position for the company. It always helps to have multiple applicants to compare and contrast.

Bring in candidates currently in the role of VP of Sales that you know through industry or professional contacts. Speak with a recruiter to learn about other qualified individuals.  

How do outside candidates respond to your questions? Do their responses differ greatly from those of the internal candidate? If so, how? As outsiders, how might their perspective differ? Do they make up for lack of familiarity with your business with a deep understanding of the role?

If you know you need a VP of Sales and you conclude the internal candidate isn't quite ready or qualified, you have other contenders to consider.

Interview Questions

Determining a candidate's fit for the VP position involves asking the right questions. What's appropriate for this level position? Stan Davis suggests questions like these:  

  • If you could structure this job any way, how would you structure it?
  • How do you get the best and the most from people?  Please give some examples of how that's worked in the past.
  • When people fell short of the potential you expected, what did you do to turn that around? Where you couldn't turn it around, what might have made a difference?
  • If the company was launching a new product, what would you do operationally to ensure the success of that product?
  • Was there a time when you created a plan and then put it into place? What was the outcome?
  • Have you ever mentored and developed a promising employee? How did you go about that?
  • If a salesperson really messed up with a valued customer, what course of action would you take to rectify that situation?

Stan adds, "Sales managers are accustomed to keeping score through dollar volume, pieces and parts, and profitability. These questions help determine their ability to evolve from that mindset to one of leadership."

Decision Time

Whether you offer the position to an internal or external candidate, ask yourself:

  • What sort of training / coaching / professional development will I offer them?
  • What goals will I set for their first 90 days?

Final Thoughts

Hiring internal candidates can be tempting.  It sometimes represents the easier choice.  Other employees see you promote from within.  After close inspection, though, the in-house applicant might be underqualified or not quite ready.  Take the time needed to make the right decision for the employee and the company.