Sales & SEALs: Top 3 Traits for SDRs, and How Managers Can Identify Them

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Sales & SEALs: Top 3 Traits for SDRs, and How Managers Can Identify Them

What if you could identify what traits make up a top performer?

As a rep, you could hone in on developing those specific skills and have a gold standard to work towards as you move from good to great.

As a manager, you could screen for these specific traits in potential hires, giving you the ability to predict success and reduce attrition from bad hires.

What does this have to do with SEALs?

The US Navy's Sea Air and Land forces (SEALs) are considered among the most elite warfighters in the world - so elite, that less than 25% of candidates get through their initial training, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUDS).

BUDS is infamous for being one of the most grueling programs physically and psychologically a human could go through.

You have a better chance of applying to Harvard Law and graduating than you do surviving BUDS and becoming a SEAL.

Developing SEALs isn't a small investment either - it costs upwards of $500,000 to train a candidate, and BUDS alone takes over 6 months to complete.

So, all of this time and all of this money to fill a role vital to our Nation's security...sounds familiar right?

A significant amount of time and money goes into onboarding and training new SDRs, equally important to the health and success of business organizations.

On average, it takes 3 months before a new rep is producing consistently, and 6-9 months before the company sees ROI on hiring the new rep in the first place, not to mention the admin costs of setting up a new employee.

As hiring managers, we are responsible for ensuring the candidates we put into our pipeline are high quality, and those that we end up hiring aren't at risk for attrition. In fact, we are so familiar with new-hire attrition we actually build hiring plans around assumed attrition.

Whether it is Sales or the Navy SEALs, investing in candidates to have them fail out is unacceptable.

What if we had a trustworthy way of predicting success and identifying what makes good hires?

Well, the Naval Special Warfare Command (aka WARCOM), responsible for training and developing SEALs, tried to predict candidate success by identifying common traits shared among SEALs.

A 2007 study on BUDS candidate success revealed that successful BUDS candidates shared the following traits, among others:

  • high estimation of leadership and teamwork acumen
  • achievement-motivated
  • self-confident
  • viewed problems as challenges

Despite WARCOM discovering these success indicators over 15 years ago, BUDS' attrition rate has remained a steady 75-80%.

In other words, the Navy still doesn't have a way to predict the success of BUDS candidates, and if we're honest, we might say the same about our inability to predict the success of our SDR hires.

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Similarities between Military Service and Sales

The beauty of both the Military and Sales is that almost anyone can join.

Outside of basic requirements like physical and cognitive abilities, there are virtually no barriers to entry.

This allows people from all backgrounds, experiences, and geographies to kickstart a challenging and rewarding career.

In Sales, we see college grads looking for their first job, seasoned professionals wanting a career change, and people without degrees that joined the sales world early on and are looking to grow in their careers.

*College degrees used to be a standard requirement across the industry, but this old-school way of thinking is dying off quickly!

So, naturally, the opportunity to enter a career path where making $150k+ is virtually guaranteed after 3-5 years of experience attracts people of all backgrounds, degrees, and experiences.

Examples of people successfully breaking into Sales include teachers, psychologists, lawyers, personal trainers, and full-time mothers, among many others.

While a low barrier of entry is a net positive for both candidates and employers, managers have to figure out how to identify a good hire and warranty that their investment in onboarding and training will pay off with candidates whose experience, skills, and interests vary widely.

The military solves this problem through basic training programs where recruits are formed into the same mold through learning essential doctrine, core values, and standard procedures, giving the military a baseline to work from.

So, how can Sales Managers attempt to establish that same baseline? What key indicators of success in SDRs should we be screening for?

There are plenty of articles out there that define top traits in SDRs, but here were the three most common:


Curiosity is one of the top results across any list out there, like this Saleshacker article where 9 different SDR leaders were surveyed, and almost every single one highlighted the importance of this trait.


Curiosity has value both in terms of internal development, and external interactions.

Internally, a curious SDR is one who embodies the mantra "always be learning."

This is someone who devours content about all aspects of life inside and outside of the office - leadership, personal development, finances, and of course, sales methodologies and tactics - not just content related to their SDR role.

Lifelong learners keep a running list of questions, never stop asking for help, seek out courses and classes on their own initiative, and have mentors they speak to regularly for accountability and advice.

They are never satisfied with their level of expertise and are constantly looking to improve and level up.

After all, knowledge is power.

Externally, a curious SDR is one that listens more than they talk when interacting with prospects.

When a prospect provides information, the SDR doesn't follow up with facts or figures, instead, they ask more questions about the information that was just presented.

They have a genuine desire to understand the why behind their prospect's questions, comments, and desires.

They view problems as an onion, and their job is to peel as many layers of that onion off as possible by asking smart questions and being genuinely curious.

Reps: How to foster curiosity

1. Listen to podcasts and read books
Find a podcast or two you can listen to daily, one work-focused, one personal-development-focused. Also keep a running reading list with books that cover various topics (sales, leadership, finances, etc.) and ask mentors what books they would recommend you read within each topic.

2. Ask questions
When working, keep a list of questions, and question everything - "why do we do this?" or "what does this acronym stand for?".

3. Find mentors
Find a professional mentor and personal mentor, and if you don't know where to look, ask your managers or network for ideas.

Managers: How to screen for curiosity

1. Internal Curiosity
Ask questions like "what books or podcasts are you into right now?" or "what is something you like to nerd out on?" and look for specific answers and some level of passion/conviction about what they are interested in.

2. External Curiosity
Pay attention to the questions they ask you throughout the interview process, they should be thoughtful with follow-up questions based on your response, and they should ask more than 3 questions during interviews.


Successful sales reps are all about process, organization, and execution.

Sales is a numbers game. Yes, there are elements of creativity and thinking outside of the box, but the best reps understand that at the end of the day, they need to have produced a certain amount of activities to get the number of replies and meetings booked they need to hit quota and fill their pipeline.

Consistent output comes only through consistent input.

Reps who are disciplined in their process will produce regularly despite the inevitable slow seasons in sales. This is because they don't leave their results up to chance, they execute day in and day out and never find themselves having to "catch up" when their back is against the wall.

A consistent process also allows managers to analyze their rep's workflow in a data-driven way. Small tweaks and adjustments can be made to affect a certain KPI or output, depending on where the rep is focused.

The only way to have consistent process is to stay organized.

A rep who "keeps their room clean" is a rep who will not let things fall through the cracks or feel overwhelmed by the workload on their plate. This means staying on top of emails, Slacks, overdue tasks, etc., the "unsexy" stuff.

This also allows them to be one step ahead at all times.

They know what tasks they need to prioritize, how they need to spend their day, and have the bandwidth to plan their following work day as well, never falling behind.

Business advisor and former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink coined the phrase "discipline equals freedom." When people think of discipline, they think of being restricted and bogged down, unable to move and think freely, and forced to conform to some standard or procedure.

But the opposite is true - when you start with discipline, you build a foundation of repeatable success to stand on, giving you the space to stay a few steps ahead and the flexibility to experiment and try new things while you are winning, instead of scrambling at the end of a quarter trying to catch up on quota.

*Remote reps require an extra dose of discipline, they don't have anyone rubbing elbows with them throughout the day to keep them focused and on task, it's up to them to keep their eye on the ball!

Reps: How to foster discipline

1. Be honest
Look yourself in the mirror - are you a disciplined person? This goes beyond work, this is your diet, exercise, relationships, and you follow through? Do you show up? Are you consistent? Only you know the answer to that. Start there.

2. Invest in personal development
Set goals for yourself and find a peer or mentor to hold you accountable to them. These could be personal or professional goals, either way, commit and follow through. The snowball effect is significant, and one small step forward can create a lot of positive momentum.

3. Keep your room clean
Both at home and at the office, hold yourself to a high standard of excellence, especially when nobody is watching. Build the discipline to not leave your office until you've cleaned out your inbox, updated your overdue tasks, and reviewed tomorrow's schedule. And, make your bed, every single day.

Managers: How to screen for discipline

1. Organization
Ask candidates what they do to stay organized, and look for specific examples of tools like Google Calendar or written agendas they use to stay on task.

2. Planning
Ask candidates how they plan out their weekly and daily priorities.

3. Execution
Ask candidates to share a goal they are proud of accomplishing and more importantly, about the plan they made to accomplish it, and look for specific answers around how they broke their goal down into smaller goals over a period of time.


Why anyone would join a profession where a failure/success ratio of 100:1 is considered good is somewhat of a mystery, but, for sales reps, that 1 win is what drives them through the 100 losses.

This drive isn't something that can be taught. It's intrinsic, and it's essential to success in a sales role.

Sales can be an unforgiving game - one month you are cruising at 100%+ of quota, and the next you can't get anyone to answer one of your cold calls or reply to an email.

High highs, and low lows. But man, the highs are worth it.

The only way to push through is drive.

Reps: How to foster drive

1. Be the best
Again, drive is intrinsic, you either have it or you don't, but an indicator that you have the drive required for sales is when you see your name is not #1 on the leaderboard, you get motivated and just a little pissed off.

2. Go above and beyond
Don't settle and hold yourself to a high standard, higher than the people that surround you. Don't take shortcuts, don't do the bare minimum, and put in the extra mile and hard yards. Actions > words, every time.

3. Never stop learning and growing
The more you learn, the less you know, and that should both humble you and propel you to want to learn as much as you can. Take risks, be the first person to raise your hand when volunteers are needed, and don't be afraid to fail. The quickest path to growth is failure.

Now, before you put the blinders on and focus on you and your success only...there is a dichotomy to drive.

Internally - you need to be all about yourself; pushing yourself, holding yourself to high standards, and bettering yourself. But, without humility, you will quickly become blind to your weaknesses, self-absorbed, and you will be tempted to step on others in an effort to become top dog.

Externally - You should be #1 on the scoreboards and leading the team by example, but equally, you need to be selfless teammate, always looking for opportunities to elevate your peers, support them, and give them the praise and glory.

Managers: How to screen for drive

1. Passion
Pay attention to the level of passion your candidates display throughout the interview process - Did they go above and beyond? Did they close you on the interviews? Were they proactive in seeking feedback?

2. The "why"
Ask candidates what the "WHY" behind their life is, what drives and motivates them to do what they do, and listen for an authentic and passionate response.

3. Proactivity
Ask candidates for an example where they stepped up and took initiative because they saw a gap nobody else was filling and wanted to solve the problem.

No Guarantees

So, you think the Sales world can learn something from one of the world's most highly-trained, well-funded, and highly-performing organizations in history?  

Of course we can. The lesson here is, as the Navy SEAL candidate success study suggests, success in any role is hard to predict, no matter how much research you do or how many experiments you run. Humans are simply too complex to judge by the cover.

Sales is no exception.

While the traits outlined above may guide reps in developing core attributes required to succeed in the role and help managers weed out bad hires, they certainly don't guarantee success.

So, reps and managers alike, may we strive to be better than we were yesterday, regardless of the traits we do or don't possess.

That is the only way we can guarantee growth... and future success.

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