Sales Development: The Art and Science of Building Exceptional Teams


Alea Homison, Vice President of Go-To-Market at AlphaSense

Building a team, let alone an exceptional team is hard. Really hard. In Leading Sales Development: The Art and Science of Building Exceptional Teams, my co-author, Jeremey Donovan, and I set out to provide a detailed framework for sales organizations seeking to build and scale high-performance sales development teams.

The science of our framework comes from our academic foundations in business and engineering as much as it did from our skepticism and our common practice of questioning even the most basic of assumptions. The art of our framework comes from the creative way in which we have applied what we’ve learned through our successes and knowledge-building failures in our many years of combined experience in strategy at several marquee enterprises and hyper-growth startups.

When building a team, nothing is more important than selecting the right talent for that team. So a leader’s ability to recognize and attract talented individuals is essential.

Hiring processes are often semi-disciplined and tend not to go as planned given interviewers are typically racing from meeting to interview with barely enough time to pull up the candidate’s resume in advance and often defer to their instincts. While I get why this can happen, it’s probably no surprise that that approach doesn’t bode well for your ultimate success. Fortunately, there is a better way.

We believe the following Four Core Traits will help you evaluate candidates in a way that will allow you to choose the right individuals critical to your team’s future success.

Core Trait 1: General Mental Ability (GMA)

We believe that General Mental Ability (GMA) is especially critical to success in sales as salespeople must be able to build trust by adapting to prospects’ and clients’ questions on the fly. This requires knowing your products and services, your customers, your competitors, and your sales process with the depth and nuance needed to engage in seamless and authentic conversation.

We arrived at GMA by leveraging the 1998 work of academics Frank Schmidt and John Hunter, where they analyzed 85 years of data on 19 best (and worst) practices for personnel selection. They put GMA (aka cognitive ability, ‘clock speed’, or IQ) on a pedestal because it is highly correlated (r=0.51) with job performance.

Core Trait 2: Curiosity

The best salespeople know that success depends on their knowledge of their product or service and what is top of mind for their customers. An incurious person will sit through training, role plays, and client conversations and simply “check the box”. In contrast, a curious person will go deeper on all of these. They will be the ones asking challenging questions, go back over call recordings to better understand the psychology of what worked and did not work on each client call, and will seek out the stars in a company (and beyond) as informal mentors. And they will be the ones that consume industry news and information of their own volition in order to establish trust and add value in their interactions with prospects.

While Schmidt and Hunter did not consider curiosity in their model, Patrick Mussel built on their work. When adding curiosity to the mix with GMA, Mussel calculated an incremental 7% increase in R2 (the coefficient of determination). This is a dramatic increase that serves to solidify curiosity as a core hiring trait.

Core Trait 3: Conscientiousness

Schmidt and Hunter found that possessing conscientiousness increases predicted variation in job performance by 10% over GMA alone. Having managed hundreds of people, we both noticed the best salespeople hold themselves accountable for tasks and goals. When selecting talent, we think of conscientiousness as a more evolved version of competitiveness; conscientious people compete against their own best performances — not other people. In short, they are focused on how to be better today than they were yesterday.

Core Trait 4: Grit

There have been several studies on the importance of grit, but we refer to much of Angela Duckworth’s research on the topic, both from her 2007 co-authored paper entitled, “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” and her 2016 bestseller, “Grit: The Power and Passion and Perseverance”. As part of the 2007 paper, Duckworth and her colleagues conducted six studies and found “grit had incremental predictive validity for a number of lifetime career changes…Individuals who were a standard deviation higher in grit than average were 35% less likely to be frequent career switchers.”

We include grit as a core trait as we strive to hire salespeople who will stay with our companies. We want people that are not going down without a fight. People that will push through the inevitable tough times and prove to everyone, including themselves, that they have what it takes to be successful.

Of course, there are many other traits that people often use to describe successful salespeople — assertiveness, confidence, empathy, humility, likeability, creativity, etc. We decided not to expand our list because it is impossible to accurately and consistently measure more than a few traits for every candidate; even four pushes the limit. In addition, as much as we like these other traits, we do not have the science to prove that any of those additional traits are statistically correlated with job performance. Given the challenge and the lack of hard data, we stand by our “Core Four” traits.

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Tribeca Venture Partners
Tribeca Venture Partners Insights

Multi-stage venture capital firm that partners with entrepreneurs in NYC leveraging emerging technologies to disrupt huge markets.