UnLocking the Future – How LinkedIn finds and hires non-traditional sales candidates

Today’s talent landscape requires companies to get creative when it comes to finding great talent. It’s exceedingly rare to find a candidate with the exact skills and experience needed to fill a role. Plus, in the historically homogenous tech industry, hiring for tenure alone often means sacrificing diversity. 

That’s why LinkedIn built the UnLock program, which focuses on finding, hiring, and training non-traditional professionals in sales. UnLock helps LinkedIn bring in talent from all fields, diversifying their teams and organization. The program is incredibly successful, with program participants outperforming their peers by 12%

UnLock’s program manager, Annie Whetstine, talked to BrightHire about building the program and provided three fantastic lessons for hiring managers and teams about finding and hiring talent in unconventional places. 

What is UnLock?

UnLock is LinkedIn’s program for sourcing diverse talent without experience in sales and turning them into high-performing salespeople. It is designed to open doors for experienced professionals who have the skills, aptitude, and desire to be in a customer-facing sales role but have never sold before. The outcome? They’ve hired a wealth of candidates from diverse backgrounds — chemists who’ve excelled at launching pilot programs for customers because they treat it like an experiment, and Olympic athletes who consistently go above and beyond to service the customer.

The UnLock program involves two key components. The first component is finding and selecting unconventional candidates with high potential for sales roles. Second, the candidates who join take part in an intensive multi-month training program to teach them about LinkedIn’s industry, tools, and sales process. After the program, the participants receive their book of business and officially get a quota.

1. Competencies Over Everything

A non-traditional candidate doesn’t come with the work experience you typically look for, but that doesn’t mean they lack transferable skills. Annie started the UnLock program by working with leaders across the LinkedIn sales team to identify the must-have competencies that all great sales talent had. They aligned on three:

  • Communication – Great communication skills are needed to be successful in sales. Sales professionals need to listen intently and provide the right answer on the spot to questions. During the interview, UnLock program managers analyze candidates’ responses to questions to identify which candidates innately demonstrate these skills. 
  • Resilience – Sales involves a ton of failure. You have to be able to lose gracefully and bounce back quickly. A great UnLock candidate understands that failure is just a way to learn, and resilience is the only way to succeed.
  • Coachability – All UnLock candidates are starting from scratch in their new job. Anyone who is selected has three months to learn before ramping into their sales role. In both of these settings, they’re going to receive a lot of feedback. If individuals aren’t open to coaching and find it challenging to implement feedback, they’ll flounder. 

A focus on competencies allows you to hire for sales potential, rather than proven sales experience. While the specific competencies may vary for different types of roles, it’s essential to align on them when hiring individuals who are transitioning to a new career.

2. Leadership Buy-In is Key

The UnLock program requires participants to train in a formal capacity for three months upon acceptance into the program cohort. That is a lot of time for a manager, who has their own quota, to wait before someone can even set foot on the sales floor. Even though non-traditional sales candidates excel in the long run, managers need to buy into both hiring and coaching UnLock participants. LinkedIn encouraged buy-in from the top-down and middle-out during the program’s formation to lay the foundation for its success.

At the time of the program’s launch, LinkedIn’s head of sales encouraged buy-in by urging managers to participate in the program. He tapped managers that he thought would be interested, and as the program scaled, additional managers were happy to opt-in. To get buy-in from the middle out, the program team engaged sales leaders early. As they prepared for the program launch, they relied on sales managers to help develop the candidate selection criteria and refine the three-month training curriculum.

Once a hiring manager opts into the program, they receive interview training and are introduced to the differences between UnLock and the traditional hiring routes at LinkedIn. Managers get crucial information about their new hires and guidance on how to work with and coach people with non-traditional backgrounds. 

3. Deeply Understand Company Bias

Bias can always leak into a process, especially with a non-traditional candidate. LinkedIn works hard to eliminate bias and design an interview process that focuses on the core competencies for the role. Typically, a traditional sales candidate would have to perform a mock demo of the product or a sales-focused roleplay, relying on skills they’ve developed in their previous sales experience. In the case of the UnLock program, they do a presentation on themselves. Candidates are asked to share information about their background, why they want to make a career pivot, and why sales. This part of the interview tests the candidate’s communication skills without making them go through a sales exercise that they haven’t received previous training on.

Annie also ensures that hiring managers deeply understand their own biases when evaluating candidates. For example, most sales leaders would discount a theater actor applying to a tech sales role – stage acting doesn’t seem similar to demos, negotiations, and prospecting. Annie has helped managers look past their preconceptions by focusing on the shared competencies between these two roles. An actor trying to make it on Broadway likely has excellent communication skills, has faced more rejections than almost any other profession, and is coached all of the time by directors and casting agencies. Opening up the manager’s aperture to candidates from different walks of life helps the UnLock program find great candidates from any field. 

Implementing the Program

You don’t have to be as big as LinkedIn to start a program like UnLock. Startups have the tools to expand their talent market and embrace non-traditional candidates. Annie suggests you follow LinkedIn’s strategy and think about traits that an unconventional candidate must have and what they can learn on the fly. That way, you know what to test for in the interview process and what you will teach. The second thing is to find the best sales trainers at your organization–professionals who truly understand how they do what they do and can impart that understanding on to a person with no experience in the sales space. Once you identify the skills needed to be great at the job and the best teachers to share those skills, you can hire and upskill more candidates and expand your talent pool.

To learn more about the UnLock program and opportunities at LinkedIn, visit: careers.linkedin.com/unlock

More ideas from BrightHire