How startups are driving growth by hiring for potential over experience

If you had your pick of two candidates for your next account executive opening, who would you choose? The person with a few years of experience as a sales rep, or someone with a few months as a BDR?

The candidate with experience might seem like the safe bet, but the potential of the second candidate might be the secret sauce your sales organization needs to succeed.

While it might initially feel more comfortable to be cautious, the cost of hiring for experience over potential is high. It’s more expensive to pursue highly experienced candidates, who almost always come with higher salary expectations.

According to Indeed, the average candidate looks for a role for about five months, but experienced candidates are often snapped up much faster — in weeks or even days — making it harder for you to compete for them.

“This is partly because it’s much easier to assess experience than potential,” noted Ben Chatfield, co-founder and CEO at Tempo. “When high-potential candidates are applying for roles and competing against more experienced people, they can often be overlooked. This is a huge missed opportunity.”

When you look at a resume and find that a candidate has already done what you need someone to do in the role you’re hiring for, you probably feel that this means you’ll spend less time training them and see a return on your hiring investment faster. But that’s not always true — making hiring for potential a savvy move.

Experience doesn’t always mean the best fit

While an experienced candidate will bring with them expertise and insights from past positions, experience doesn’t directly correlate to quality or being the most qualified. Experienced candidates can be tough to break old habits out of, that slow down your pipeline or disrupt the culture you’re building. They could also bring outdated practices that won’t advance your sales org or help you meet your targets.

It’s not always an either/or proposition, of course. Experienced candidates can also have great potential for more growth — but relying on experience as your sole hiring criteria can hurt your sales team in the long run. Meanwhile, a candidate with less experience can have more grit and resolve to excel in their role.

“Every new hire must have the drive and determination to advance both the company and themselves. Growth is expected,” noted Ben Slater, vice president of marketing at Beamery. 

“When you’re looking at candidates, it’s critical to evaluate not just where they are, but where they’re going and how fast they’re getting there. Trajectory (or growth) should be a key part of your assessment process.”

Key sales hire qualities to look for beyond experience

So what qualities will help you determine a candidate’s potential for the position? In any position you’re filling, there are several things to look for:

 – Culture fit: How well will they work with the team you have today? How will they change it for the better or add to it?

 – Determination to succeed: How have they handled tough situations in the workplace in the past?

 – Flexibility: Do they show that they’re willing to see challenges as opportunities? Are they coachable?

 – Approach to learning: Are they open to the training you require? Are they eager to expand their knowledge about your industry?

 – Career goals: Where are they headed next? Do they show a thirst for growth?

Resource: Get your guide to essential soft skills startups should hire for.

Hiring for potential and then supporting an employee as they grow and learn often promotes loyalty. In 2021, one of the top reasons employees quit was the lack of opportunity for advancement.

“If you hire based on potential you’ll open up a brand new talent pool that others may not be considering, turning hiring into a competitive advantage,” Chatfield said. “Many companies are still searching for industry-specific experience in sales when in reality that stuff can easily be taught. Attitude and ability to learn are far more important.”

If you demonstrate through your interview process that your organization values growth and advancement, you’ll attract those high-potential candidates and help make sure they stick with you as you expand.

Attracting Millennials and Gen Z to your team

Today’s younger workers, Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Gen Z (born 1997-2012), are hungry for the flexibility and modern culture startups often offer, moving away from old-school corporate norms. 

According to a Gallup survey, Millennial and Gen Z employees want to work for an organization that cares about their well-being and to be coached and developed, rather than strictly managed — another strong reason to hire for potential.

“The members of the generation now entering the workforce are looking to build varied, multi-disciplinary careers and value learning above all else,” Chatfield said. “Simultaneously, everywhere you look, both digital and soft skills gaps are widening. This generation can fill those gaps as long as companies can recognize their potential.”

Employees who are eager to learn as they go are a big asset to a startup, making attracting them a priority. While 90% of employees in a 2022 EY survey said they wanted a flexible work arrangement, 35% of employers said they wanted a full return to the office. That’s a disparity startups can take advantage of.

Globally, the number of startups grew in 2020, adding 4.4 million new businesses, a 24% increase over 2019. Stand out from the crowd to attract and retain candidates with the best potential by offering your team the flexibility to work on an altered schedule that works best for them.

Show candidates that your company cares about their well-being and that there’s room to develop personally and professionally with your company — in a way that suits their changing expectations. 

Hiring for potential benefits your company and the candidate

There’s not a talent shortage — you’re just looking in the wrong place. By focusing on hiring for qualities that demonstrate a candidate’s potential and thirst for development, you can stock your sales team with go-getters that will bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to their roles.

If you treat them right — with flexible work options and a clear path to learn and advance in their careers — you’ll have a sales team that stays with you and contributes incalculably to your company’s growth.

Looking for high-potential candidates for your startup? Explore more with Tempo.