Innovation and the Emerging Battle for Sales Talent


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And now some good news . . . Speaking before the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Titans of Technology breakfast I attended last week, Wes Bush, CEO of US defense contractor Northrop Grumman, said “The American free market is the most powerful economic engine in the world.”

Comforting to know when our status as superpower—politically, militarily, economically, educationally—faces doubt both at home and abroad. Mr. Bush continued, explaining that our economic engine relies on innovation for fuel, and innovation has a direct link to financial performance. He told the audience of more than 600 that at Northrop Grumman innovation requires:

1) Solid customer relationships
2) A constant influx of knowledge, ideas, and technology-savvy talent
3) Access to capital markets

For anyone predicting a declining role for salespeople, try ripping Sales out of this mix. It’s hard to build an aircraft carrier or a B-2 stealth bomber when you don’t have a network for collaboration, and salespeople are integral. Whether your customer is the Naval Research Laboratory, or a regional appliance parts distributor, your customers’ efforts to innovate drive dollars (hopefully in large amounts) to the top line on your Income Statement.

So I’ll venture out on a limb and say that if innovation is mission-critical for meeting enterprise objectives, and if Sales and innovation are tightly bound, then acquiring and developing sales talent in the next ten years will become more important, more valuable—and much, much more difficult.

Why? With so many out-of-work salespeople, shouldn’t the resumes of qualified candidates cram your email inbox beyond its limits? Not necessarily. First, the first-wave exodus of baby boomer retirees has made the global appetite for employable talent more acute. Second, selling—however defined—has become increasingly knowledge-based and for many products, selling relies on a combination of skills, including financial, technology, communication, and interpersonal. If you’ve interviewed sales candidates recently, you probably know how rare these skills are one at a time, and that they’re even rarer together. Which is why top-tier performers are quickly snapped up. So strap on your helmet. Whether you’re a VP of Sales or a VP of Aerospace Engineering, the competition for human talent will intensify.

President Obama leaves Washington today for California where he will discuss . . . education and innovation. I’m guessing that these issues have been on the President’s mind for a while, and that he’s keenly aware of the connection.

So, if your product or service enables your prospective customers to innovate successfully, you can be cautiously joyous. But be afraid. Be really afraid. Without better STEM education, there won’t be enough capable people—let alone salespeople—to satisfy the demand.


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