Building a Hungry (and Foolish) Sales Team

By Peter Sander

How do you recruit and manage an effective sales team? They don’t really teach it in business schools. Yet it’s one of the most challenging facets of business life.

Why is it so elusive? Because it’s a “people sport?” Because it defies the linear, structured discipline of the typical business exercise? Because the only people who “get it” are people who have come up through the ranks and built their “proven track record” in sales one brick at a time?

How do you build and maintain a really and truly effective sales team? What is the secret sauce? Would an extraordinary, “think different” leader like Steve Jobs have a different and better approach to the task? Would such a leader build a team that was really any different than any other, able to execute and deliver better than any other?

You knew this was coming… and I think the answer is obvious: Yes. In my humble opinion, had it been his duty, Steve Jobs would have built an “insanely great” sales team.

Of course, as we all know, Steve Jobs was really a product guy. He loved the gadgets and the whole experience surrounding them. He loved the process of innovation. He loved the dynamic of dealing with other really smart and creative people who had really smart and creative ideas and could turn them into really smart and creative things that customers would buy — “Real artists ship,” as Steve would say.

He wasn’t so interested in the business stuff. He was good at it, but he didn’t care for the financials. He was good at it, but didn’t care for the administration, the legal and organizational aspects of running a business. He was good at it (as we all now know from listening to his gripping Macworld pitches) but he really didn’t want to manage other sales or marketing people.

But suppose for a minute Steve Jobs was your VP of Sales and Marketing? What kind of team would he build? How would he manage it? In my view, Steve would have:

1. Recruited people with broad talents and experiences. Not business people, not necessarily former salespeople. Instead, smart achievers with diverse educational backgrounds and experiences from all walks of life. Chemistry majors. Philosophy majors. Auto mechanics. People who turn diverse experience into success. Okay, maybe a few business majors too.

2. Recruited pirates. Pirates are people who can function toward a common goal with minimum structure and direction. People who can consistently exercise independent initiative and judgment; who can find a way to get the job done with no excuses and without a lot of HQ help. As he said himself: “If you don’t want to be a pirate, join the Navy.” Steve Jobs’ sales team would have been no Navy.

3. Recruited people who “get” the vision. Most salespeople are required to deliver the message and deliver it well – and are trained to do just that. In contrast, Steve would have started at the beginning with the customer and the vision. People who don’t get it, live it, and breathe it would have been asked not to apply. Why? Because you can’t effectively evangelize something you don’t believe in. You can fake it, but that oozes through eventually. Yes, there are some very effective actors and actresses out there, but isn’t it easier to sell something you believe in? Sales training for Steve Jobs would have been four parts vision, one part how does the product work — conventional “drive home the message” training not required.

4. Not cared a bit about style. What you wear, how you interact with customers, whether you follow a strict pitch or protocol likely wouldn’t have mattered. It would have been all about connecting with the customer and getting the job done. Letting smart people be themselves and interact with other smart people in a smart way is more comfortable, less time consuming, more genuine, and ultimately more effective.  Substance over style.

5. Made it “fun with a purpose.” Finally, to keep his team interested, Steve would have paid them well – but would not have expected pay alone to motivate or retain. He would have expected his sales team to get just as excited about “changing people’s lives” as he was. And, for good measure, plenty of pizza would have been delivered in person for any team making a big deal.

Steve Jobs would have built and treated his sales team like any other team of smart people. Steve knew that smart people do smart things when they’re treated like they’re smart.

Peter Sander is a researcher, business consultant, and former marketing program manager for a major Silicon Valley tech firm. He is the author of 33 business books on innovation, marketing, economics and investing. He has an MBA from Indiana University and lives in Granite Bay, California. Find his book What Would Steve Jobs Do? or e-mail him at
Originally published: Feb 1, 2012

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