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Are Salespeople Born Competitive?

Kevin McGirlToday’s post is by Kevin McGirl, president of sales-i, award-winning business intelligence software that simplifies and improves the sales process.


What brings out our inner Usain Bolt? No, I’m not talking about how fast we can run. I’m talking about that competitive edge and drive to succeed. Are we born with it, or does it emerge when we pick up the phone in our first sales role?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot. In an industry such as sales, where a strong stereotype of the typical employee exists, can we determine whether it is the job that forms the personality or the personality that is destined for the job?

Recently, I set out to find an answer and, along with my company, surveyed 254 sales professionals across the United States and United Kingdom. The results showed that a salesperson’s personality and subsequent career may be decided from an early age.

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Here’s a quick summary:

  • Sixty-eight percent say they were made to earn their pocket money as a child.

  • Thirty-one percent were first employed at age 13.

  • Seventy percent belonged to at least one school sports team.

  • Thirty-six percent selected “competitive” as a principal childhood characteristic. Qualities including “social,” “driven,” and “positive” were also indicated.

  • Ninety-two percent have at least one sibling (39 percent have more than three), and 38 percent are the eldest (eldest children tend toward diligence).

  • Sixty-six percent were popular at school. Only 7 percent were unpopular, while 3 percent say they were bullied.

  • In the United States, 55 percent of those with a parent working in sales chose sales as a first career choice.

When analyzing these results, I thought it useful to get a psychologist’s point of view. Enter professor Cary Cooper, CBE, from the United Kingdom. He confirmed that the survey reveals an unmistakable personality type for salespeople and commented that what’s really important for salespeople is to define themselves as competitive, driven, pragmatic, and confident.

This “unmistakable personality type” is something that employers might want to look for in candidates when hiring. Making the wrong hire is costly to the business, so if a future selling star can be identified by his or her personality, then great!

Sadly, reality is never as simple as that; hiring someone who fits a profile won’t guarantee striking employee gold, and I caution anyone from hiring a person based purely on confidence. I know plenty of confident, driven people who would struggle in a sales role. I also know people who, while quiet and demure in their personal lives, are selling gods in their professional ones.  

Ultimately, it is the sales manager’s responsibility to tease the best out of the team. Personality will get someone only so far, and whether a person is competitive or not, he or she will still need the right training, plenty of support, and the right technology to succeed. In fact, of the salespeople we spoke to, 57 percent told us that nurturing by managers and team leaders has helped them improve their selling ability.

So what’s the real takeaway from this survey? Good, nurturing leaders are key to a team’s success. Yes, a person with a particular personality type is more likely to end up working in sales, but personality doesn’t promise success. Concentrate on up-skilling staff, giving team members the tools they need to succeed and nurturing their talent, and you’ll soon find yourself with a high-performing sales team that meets and exceeds targets month after month.


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