Justin Roberts, VP of Sales at Lever, Discusses New-Hire Ramp Camps, Placing Team Members on a Color Wheel, Pushing Salespeople Past Breaking Points, and More
For Justin Roberts (LinkedIn, Twitter), lightning struck twice. At Salesforce and then at Box, he led sales teams during periods of rapid growth. His leadership style is colored both by a relentless pursuit of ever-bigger goals, and a unwavering focus on collaboration. He is excited to see a reflection of his customer-focused vision embodied in the products he’s sold over the last 11 years, most recently at leading hiring software provider Lever. In a wide-ranging discussion, we touch on topics like onboarding, communication, delegation, motivation and performance metrics. Roberts opens up his managerial toolbox to explain the efficacy of color wheels, the concept of a ‘ramp camp’ and his tendency to fault on the side of over-communication.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the most important characteristics you look for?
There are two dimensions to hiring for high performance. The first dimension is searching for typical sales qualities: people who are driven, intelligent, competitive, motivated, and have hustle. The second dimension, which is perhaps more interesting, is testing for people who are analytical, creative, problem solvers, and product-oriented. By product-oriented, I mean they understand the product that we’re selling, understand how products work, and how to use product to solve problems. That’s a little more difficult to identify. I like to ask real-world examples. “I’d like you to take my through a time where you solved a difficult problem.”
“I want to hear a step-by-step account of how they approached the problem to see how they break that problem down into pieces and ultimately settle on an approach.”
It gets at something that’s outside your normal, “I made 100 calls a day, it resulted in 50 demos and ultimately 10 closed deals”. I want to identify someone who can look at a product their company is building, envision how that could translate into making money, and ultimately how to sell it to a customer base.
After an initial discussion, we’ll give promising candidates a homework assignment.
“For most of our inside account executives, we’ll give them a demo pitch, so they’ll actually have to turn a case study into a slide deck that they’ll present to us. We want to see how they approach the discovery phase, how they process the information they’re given and formulate that into the presentation.”
For some of the more senior-level roles, we’ll give them a problem that we’re actually facing today. If we’re launching a renewal strategy, we’ll give them two or three quarters worth of data, and ask them to recommend a new process. We’re actually testing more for their analytical and creative skills than their problem solving. For us it’s great, because before we make an investment and bring someone in, we can actually see how they might solve a problem that’s pretty important to us. We don’t expect them to solve the entire problem, just to see how they approach it, prepare, and set about solving it.
About a week before their first day, we create a 4-week ramp plan for every new team member, and send it out to the new hire as well as the rest of the team. So the new hire knows exactly what is expected of them for the first 4 weeks, and the team knows what the new hire will be working on and how they should help. We then outline a specific task that the new hire needs to complete every week. For instance, a new account executive might shadow 4 or 5 different team members as they do demos, first locating upcoming demos on team members’ calendar and then asking to join.
“We have what we call a ramp camp for the first two weeks. New hires, whether they’re engineers, or marketing, or sales, all come together to be brought up to speed, based on a schedule that’s outlined in the onboarding document.”
As part of the ramp camp, we give every new hire a project. Not a huge project, something like competitive intel or finding an approach to a challenge that we’re facing, that requires them to interview lots of other team members with whom they’ll need to develop relationships.
At the end of their second week, we have them present that project to the group. I think it’s really helpful for the new hires, because they’re not coming in and just sitting at their desk waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They actually have, for the first month at least, a real detailed project map and a great idea of what their day will look like.
Our CEO just recently completed a mission/vision/values exercise. We present it to every new hire during ramp camp, so they know the mission, the vision of the executive team, and the five core values we try to instill in our new hires.
“We also have them take a color test. It’s a means for separating team members by how they prefer to communicate. Some people are very direct and like direct feedback. Others might be more analytical, and have different feedback needs. Each style has a corresponding color.”
We determine where people sit in the color spectrum, and then share it with the rest of the organization. We have the big color wheel in the office. It has everyone’s face paired with a color. At the end of the 2-week ramp camp, we have them wear funny hats with their color on it. We have a larger company meeting, with speakers, where they’ll learn about our marketing strategy, deep-dive into different features of our product. Our CEO does a session on a day in a life of our customer — the recruiter. A lot of our new hires, and not necessarily just sales, but engineers, and product, and marketing, have never been in the world of recruiting before. So for two hours, they learn about the challenges that recruiters face every day so they develop that empathy and understanding from day one.
“I meet for an hour every week with my managers. I like to have a regular cadence, so we get in the rhythm and they know what to expect of me, and I know what to expect of them. Usually, the first 30 minutes, I have a set agenda. Then for the second 30 minutes, I leave it up to the manager to have their own set agenda.”
My agenda usually involves going over forecasts and projects that they’re running. We’ll also talk about the performance of certain people on their team based on previous weeks, whether they’re improving, or finding challenges with things, with a focus on people development. For their half of the meeting, my managers often come with challenges that they’re facing, or maybe deals that they’re working on that need a little help. In the morning before the meeting, I’ll send out an email with what I want to talk about, and then they’ll populate it with what they want to talk about. We have some direction going into the meeting, so we’re not starting from scratch. The colors test that I was talking to you about before, that plays a key role as well. This product we use gives you a full evaluation for each type of person. I’ll make sure I read that for all of my new hires, and then revisit it every 3 or 6 months, just to make sure I’m not missing anything. I use that advice from the colors assessment to help inform how I communicate with my employees and to make sure that I’m delivering messages in the way that resonates, and will motivate them.
“With team meetings, two things are crucial. Always have an agenda and always have a takeaway. Meetings tend to go wrong when they are missing one or both of these things.”
We’re all so busy and we’re all doing a million different things during the day that when we do dedicate, 30 minutes or an hour for a meeting, it’s up to whoever is leading the meeting to have an agenda. Other people can add to the agenda if they have other topics that they want to discuss. Everyone agrees on what we’re going to talk about. Then when we have the meeting, we try to get some actionable items and takeaways. People leave the room with ownership of a task and a deadline to complete it. If there’s a follow-up that needs to happen, that we we agree on a date by which we’re going to complete our portion of the task.
As I said before, it begins with the color wheel, but we have other tools to facilitate communication.
“We use Slack really heavily. It allows people to get really quick answers, without walking across the hall or to a different floor.”
They can just ping team members on Slack or ping a channel, and get the answers they need. Salespeople like instantaneous answers, so they can move quickly on to the next task.
I like to mix up the environments where we interact. In formal environments like meeting rooms, I find that team members hold back a little bit. I like to do one-on-ones where we’ll walk to get coffee, or we’ll go out for lunch.
“I like to over communicate, not just in the one-on-ones that we have, but I also send frequent emails to my reports with thoughts that I have, or things that I’m working on, just so they have an understanding of what’s on my mind.”
I usually get dinner once a month with my staff, and just make sure that they are out of the normal office environment so they can open up and be a little bit more honest. I can also give them more detail on what I’m thinking about and the direction that I want to be bringing the team. I make sure that they’re all on board with that, and we’re all on the same page in terms of how we’re managing and how we’re effectively leading the team.
For delegation to be effective, I want to make sure that anything I delegate is a really important project, and that the person to whom I entrust it knows that it’s a really important project. If they know that it’s a high-priority project, important to me or to the CEO or the board, they’ll usually spend more time making sure it’s complete. This is a hard thing to do from a workload perspective.
“With my team, I try to really push people to find that breaking point as far as capacity to handle workload. Once they hit an initial breaking point, I pull back a little bit, and let them develop their tolerance for that level of workload. Then as they become able to carry more load, I’ll continue the push a little more, until I find the next breaking point, and then pull back again.”
Because as the company continues to grow and as our sales continues to grow, we all need to stretch our capacity. Having strong communication, open dialogue, is important to find those breaking points. I want them to tell me, and I want them to be honest when it feels like they’ve got too much going on, and they can’t focus on their day-to-day job. If they throw up a white flag, I can cut back a bit on the workload, let them get their breath back and then move forward again when they’re ready.
You have the typical metrics like “Are they making enough calls? Are they doing enough demos? Are they speaking to enough people in an organization?” But the harder thing to track is the quality of the call. I can’t be on every call, and my managers can’t be on every call with our reps. Even recording them and listen to them later takes a lot of time.
“We try to focus on helping account executives become self-aware in terms of where their weaknesses are, and identifying trends. If they find they’re continuing to lose prospects for one recurring reason, we try to coach to that.”
We do a lot of reviewing emails, and we have account executives send a recap email to their prospect, going over what was discussed, next steps, and the time of the next call. We’re all really heavy Salesforce power users. All the notes from their calls, and emails are synced instantaneously to Salesforce as well. We can track how the emails look, what those recap emails look like, so I can quickly go and see where each potential deal is in its current stage. I also look at their calendar for the week. I’ll tell you, empty calendars usually result in low performers. We try to make sure, even if you’re new and you’re still trying to get ramped up, that you’re aiming to book more meetings on your calendar.
We know at some point everyone is going to want to be promoted. Rather than waiting until they are restless in their role, we try to set proper expectations at the very beginning,
“We identify, as early as possible, specific metrics and criteria that the new rep will need to meet to move up in the organization. That way, every day that they come in, they know that they’re building toward a goal.”
If you wait ’til they feel like they’re ready to make the promotion, that’s usually too late. Whether it’s an SDR moving to AE, or an AE moving from a small business role to a mid-market role, we really try to outline numbers that they need to hit, leadership opportunities that they need to rise to when working with the rest of the team, and other metrics that show us they’ve mastered key skills.
The important thing to remember is that everyone is different. As a culture here at Lever, we’re actually really focused on hiring for diversity. That’s across the entire organization. It takes a lot more work to do that, but I think the payback is immense. But on any sales team, people are motivated in completely different ways. Some are really money-motivated. So you just have to show them how to make money, and you can trust that they’re going to build on that. There are others who are more professional-development motivated. I get them in touch with mentors, friends of mine from Box and Salesforce who are great at coaching. It’s nice for them to see someone who’s developed into a really successful salesperson. They can bounce ideas off of them. They can see their history, how they moved from role to role, and challenges they face. A third type of individual is motivated by working on important projects and solving important problems. For those people, I just like to give them side projects. This helps make sure that they’re progressing, and they’re challenging themselves intellectually to get what they need out of the organization.
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