Re-imagining the hiring process to support growth aspirations

11th April 2015 |   Paul Devlin

As part of his SAP Masters programme, Paul Devlin is exploring how sales transformation can be implemented within his team and wider organisation. Here, he discusses how he has used reflection, “action research” and “appreciative inquiry” to enhance the sales recruitment process.

Re-imagining the hiring process



I have spent 24 of my 28-year working career in sales. For the past 15 years I have been leading teams of salespeople in the pursuit of sales excellence. I have also been privileged to work for some of the largest and most respected software companies globally, with the opportunity to sell and lead teams in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States, and right now in the Middle East.

In all of these years, it always troubled me that, despite following proven sales methodologies and despite recruiting salespeople with proven track records, it has been unusual to find a company where more than 40-50% of the sales team achieved their annual targets.

Personally, I cannot remember a time when I have led a team where more than 70-80% of the team achieved their annual targets regularly. As a sales leader I was committed to having all of my team achieve target. As you can imagine, these statistics never sat well with me. Accordingly, it has always been my belief that there needs to be more evidence sought from sales candidates during the recruitment process, beyond an ability to follow a methodology or for the individual to have been successful in a similar company or field.

My current thinking and experience is also heavily influenced by recent study around the Challenger sales methodology put forward by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), which recently surveyed over 6,000 salespeople.1 The research concluded that only one profile consistently outperforms in a complex sales environment, similar to the one that SAP sells in – “The Challenger”. The Challenger is a salesperson who pushes the customer; encourages the customer to think outside of the box, see new and different possibilities; and links this to their solution. This was recognition of an emerging breed of salesperson – 27% of salespeople – according to CEB’s research.

While excellent, this research did not go far enough in my view. Sure it is competency based, but where are the personal values? Successful salespeople, when I worked with them or interviewed them, always seemed to have values that drove them to go the extra mile for clients, for their company, for themselves and their families – personal values drove continuous learning and self-development. Personal values drive us to care enough about our clients’ success such that we would challenge their strategy and way forward – we set out to educate not just sell.

When looking at this aspect deeper, I came across research from Consalia, a global sales performance improvement company – in particular a 2008 paper by Squire P, Hennessey, Prof D and Hurley, M.2 Their findings, when implemented, had achieved significant success at Hewlett Packard, a company very similar in sales cycle complexity to SAP. Their research identified four characteristics or values: client centricity, proactive creativity, tactful audacity and authenticity. (I refer to these moving forward as the “four characteristics”.) Whilst I may have come up with different names for these characteristics, this research concurred with my own practical experience.

Meanwhile, SAP had made significant efforts to find a way to simplify its complex message, and enable the sales force to adopt and use this methodology. SAP embraced Stanford University’s well-tested Design Thinking3 model used in Research and Development, using this to work with customers in identifying and exploring new approaches to the complex problems they face.

Within this context, my ultimate goal was to leverage my sales experience to develop a recruitment system for SAP MENA that would positively impact our growth aspirations.

Current situation

I lead a sales team of 18. The SAP MENA teams and my annual growth targets are set at a minimum of 50% year-on-year software revenue growth until 2016. Never in my career to date has this growth expectation been set – this is very definitely a non-standard sales and, perhaps even more, a non-standard sales leadership journey.

Head of Business Analytics and Database & Technologies at SAP MENA

Paul Devlin is Head of Business Analytics and Database & Technologies, SAP MENA. He is responsible for delivering customer value through SAP’s latest innovations within the Database & Technology and Mobility portfolios. He brings with him over 15 years of business intelligence, analytics and data warehousing experience. He is currently studying for a Masters in Sales Transformation at Middlesex University and has also studied at Cranfield University in the UK and the Centre for Creative Leadership in Colorado, USA.