Jim McInerny is, to put it lightly, qualified at building sales teams. Before becoming Catalant’s Commercial Vice President of Sales in May, he had a major hand in building out the inside sales teams of two major Boston-area tech companies.
McInerny is a big believer in differentiation, and because of his desire to separate himself from so many other sales professionals in the world, he teaches his teams to think about themselves as “merchants of change” rather than just salespeople. At the root of his religion is the idea that the best sales professionals are great storytellers and, more importantly, extremely genuine. McInerny strives to maintain his identity by “being a blue-collar guy in a white collared shirt.”
He spent 11 years at EMC which, at the time, didn’t have an inside sales function. During his tenure, he helped build and grow the inside sales team to nearly 400 people.
He was then recruited by Bain Capital Ventures to begin building out a velocity sales model for a newly seeded company with a lot of promise. At the time, Turbonomic was known as VMTurbo and McInerny was the company’s 12th employee. Over his six years there, he built the Commercial sales team to 130 salespeople from scratch, which drove 26 consecutive quarters of record revenue growth.
McInerny estimates that between EMC and Turbonomic, he’s interviewed thousands of sales professionals – and hired 2,000 or so – over the course of his career.
Now at Catalant, McInerny runs a growing team of 20 salespeople who are selling Catalant’s on-demand talent platform to global enterprises. When he joined, the company was already established with a “fairly sizable investment in sales,” so now, McInerny was inheriting a sales function rather than igniting it.
Building and running an inside sales culture is a passion for McInerny. He feels he has a unique skillset in his ability to select talent and set salespeople up for success. The result is a scalable, high-performing sales team. He touts the idea that Division 1 sales is not about working for a big, established institution but, rather, it’s about the process and journey of building one.
Picking the right company with the right leadership team is everything so he challenges people to think about “joining a revolution or be eaten by evolution.” In other words, pick a company that you wholeheartedly believe in and know who is going to take a personal interest and accountability in developing you.
Because of this repeat success, I was eager to ask him about the wisdom he’s gained over his 24 years in sales – as well as how he builds a team.
Although McInerny looks at a salesperson’s resume when interviewing them for a job, he quickly pushes it aside in favor of having a real, honest conversation with him or her. He starts by asking questions to disarm and get to know the candidates as people.
“You never get to know the person when you ask them business questions out of the gate, because they’re either prepared for it or have been prepped by somebody. And if you ask someone about their business qualifications and they’ve had 0-3 years of experience, a lot of those answers aren’t going to be meaningful.”
McInerny says that there are three questions a candidate needs to be able to answer in order to succeed in an interview with him:
1. In your life journey to this point, what moment and person had the most impact in shaping your desire to choose sales as your chosen vocation?
Hearing their answer can tell you a lot, McInerny says, because a lot of people are in sales by default – either because they don’t know what they want to do with their career, or because they had a successful relative who told them to go into sales.
2. What industry do you want to do that in?
Manufacturing, financial services, and tech are all very different industries and sales paths, leading to very different opportunities if you succeed.
3. If you’re looking to be in tech sales, what is it that you are looking for in your next company?
“Once they tell me that, I have a real good sense of how much someone has really thought through this, how much investigating and research have they done, who they’ve spoken to, and what their instincts are.” His prefered profile is “a person who acts with the confidence of those at the top of the stack coupled with the urgency of those at the bottom.“
Hiring the Right Background
McInerny notes that there are two kinds of people in sales: those who own their career and those who rent it. In his opinion, renters are still good, meaningful employees, but those who own their careers can help you build a successful company, and are usually driven by a deeply-rooted purpose where success is the only option.
Owners tend to be genuinely curious, self aware people who operate with a “growth mindset.”
“You need to make sure that you’re finding a certain breed of salesperson. There are tons of salespeople roaming the streets every day, but tech sales are different because you need to be a bit of an evangelist, a true believer.”
These rules even apply to candidates straight out of school.
“You might interview 15 people, but there’ll be that one that’s so much more mature in their way of thinking. Those are the ones I try to find, that have that purpose, and can articulate why they want something and why their skills align with this type of opportunity and why, based on all the other places they’ve looked at, this is the one. It’s all about being to answer the question, ‘Why?’”
Onboarding for Success
Initially, after someone is hired at Catalant, they are put through several weeks of training to get their legs under them. Then, McInerny puts the onus on each new employee to put together a comprehensive plan in terms of goals and aspirations, as well as how they’re going to meet those goals.
This is a bit of a balancing act, as McInerny also makes sure to spend time with each new employee individually to ensure that they are assimilating and doing what’s necessary to be highly productive in sales.
“A lot of companies put 20 people in the same room and think they’re going to learn the same things, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said McInerny. “It’s really about spending the time to sit down with each person and agree on a plan that maximizes each person's strengths and ties directly to their professional milestones.”
By working with each employee directly, that salesperson can better understand where the gaps are in their approach, as well as how they’re spending their time throughout the day. This, he says, can take a long time to accomplish, but leads to better results. It’s all about bringing meaning to the metrics and adhering to a systematic way of running the approach.
Moreover, it’s crucial to teach each new employee to think beyond the product.
“When they get on the phone, this isn’t about selling features and benefits. This is about selling a completely different idea than anything that anyone on the other end of the phone has really thought about,” said McInerny. “Most companies fail because they are selling the ‘what’ and by focusing on the ‘why,’ is what gives you disproportionate influence on the buyer’s emotions and requirements.”
Establish Leadership Throughout
While it’s impossible to get every hire correct, there are subtle things that McInerny will notice during the first few month of employment that signals the salesperson’s likelihood of success.
“I look at someone’s willingness to just jump in,” said McInerny, while referring to an individual’s ability to contribute to the team in meaningful ways. If someone is being reserved, afraid of failing, or doesn’t participate in group meetings, it is these non-verbal communication clues that can signal a potential issue.
“When it’s the person’s first or second job out of college, they don’t know what they don’t know,” said McInerny. “Sometimes companies give up on people too quick. I spend time individually with people to understand what’s going well and what’s not going well. We’ll have a transparent conversation and evaluate the data to figure out the right way to get on track.”
Above all, McInerny is looking out for the few people who want to be the captain. “There’s always a line between salespeople and management,” said McInerny. “The way you can get around that is to find the people in the sales ranks who think like managers and leaders, and can help management carry out their goals while reinforcing positive morale. It allows us to develop our next generation of sales leadership through inclusion, by giving people as much responsibility as they want to take on.”
When it comes to McInerny’s success, it’s clear that his knowledge comes from somewhere deeper than a tried-and-true playbook. It comes from a deep love of personal growth, professional growth, mentorship, and yes, inside sales.
“The role of inside sales within a company’s route to market has come a long way in the last 15 years,” said McInerny. “Establishing a systematic, highly productive and accretive inside sales operation is without question a huge strategic advantage for any company. If you are able to build a system that integrates sales, marketing, and operations with all of the tools and automation that are available, you can literally accelerate a company’s success.”
Equally as important, inside sales models are without question the best breeding ground for next generation reps and leaders. “Having the entire operation working together in the same room every day gives you an opportunity to evaluate talent and make data-driven decisions where you can quickly course-correct.”
“It’s by no means an easy model to master, because there are many knobs and levers that require adjusting, but it allows you to experiment until you get it right,” McInerny said. “Hiring the right people which can integrate into a clearly defined system has become paramount for most tech startups looking to quickly gain awareness in the market.”
“Working at Catalant with the people and opportunity that we all have is something that I am proud of,” McInerny said. “To hit the cold hardwood floor every morning knowing that we have a shot at history, is a pretty cool thing to call work.”