The Parable of the Exceptional Salesman

If something extraordinary happens, be careful.

I once knew an exceptional salesman. This charming man had been headhunted from a competing firm and from Day 1 he always exceeded his targets. He therefore earned incredibly high commission payments and he was the blue-eyed boy of the company during his first year. Sadly though it then became clear that all was not what it seemed and he had found a way to collect his commission before the company delivered on its longish lead time contracts and the orders he had supposedly won fell apart. One day he just disappeared, with the cash. It was a rather wonderful confidence trick and the company he worked for was left looking rather silly for letting him get away with it. He taught me a very valuable lesson: to distrust the exceptional, wherever it appears.

If something extraordinary happens in your business look for another explanation because the first explanation is never true. I know, it is very dogmatic of me to be quite so black and white about this, but we all have our own truths and it is one of mine. At the very least it makes me check very carefully, as often the most compelling tricks are successful because the observer wants them to be true. We all want our Sales folk to come back with big juicy orders, right?

Exceptional occurrences are always a tantalising sign that there might be something that people want to hide and often the more they want to hide it the more extraordinary it sounds. I was reminded about all this after reading how the ex Chairman of the CO-op Bank, Paul Flowers (known in the tabloids as the “Crystal Methodist”, as this ordained Methodist minister allegedly had a drugs habit), got his job. A recent Treasury Committee was told that one of the reasons he was appointed was that, although he had little banking experience, he did “rather well in the psychometric tests”. What an extraordinary idea that this should be an adequate, or even material, qualification to chair such a large, high profile firm. Now, remember what I think about the exceptional?

Apparently, from what I read (I know, dangerous in its own right, but what is a business blogger to do?) he also understood the politics of the company rather well too, which to my mind is a far stronger qualification, though not a sufficient one. Of course, this makes a great headline but what is the real story here? How did something so strange come about? Well, I have a theory about that too. The problem is that jobs like this are mightily political, particularly for the likes of the Co-op with its ethical policies and strong ties to the Labour Party. There is really no telling what influences came to bear, from whom, to appoint Paul to this role, but one thing is sure: it wasn’t his performance in psychometric tests alone that swung it.

From my direct experience, recruitment, of any sort, is a fairly impossible thing to get right anyway, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much testing you do. When recruiting I have carried out all sorts of psychometric tests and even run day-long assessment centres to try and make the best choice. I still cringe when I think back to a memorable day and a half of testing and assessment, which ended with me recruiting the most exceptionally competent of all the competing candidates; he really was something to behold. He made the other four candidates look rather ordinary. Unfortunately, this happened before I met the Exceptional Salesman, so I appointed this outstanding candidate and then had to sort out the mess later: I haven’t made the same mistake again.


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