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How the Movie Sully Improved Our Sales Interview Process

I recently saw the movie Sully which is based on the successful July 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. After multiple bird strikes, the aircraft lost power in both engines at low altitude, leaving Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger with precious little time and close to zero odds of survival. Tom Hanks and Director Clint Eastwood brilliantly portrayed how one man faced up to and overcame an impossible situation. Walking out of the theatre, I realized that Sully filled in a missing blank for me that has allowed Sales Talent to improve our sales interview process. These lessons, are just as effective for the sales professional trying to make the right career decision.

Too Many Variables.

Captain Sully had 208 seconds to consider all of his options before choosing the only survivable option which was to land his plane on the Hudson River. His ability to make the right decision under extreme emotional distress came down to his training, his experience and his adherence to following a simple, emergency process.

This emergency process allowed Captain Sully to quickly narrow down his options until he was left with only 2 choices. If Sully had tried to consider multiple options simultaneously, his story would have most likely ended tragically. With these lessons in mind, I revisited our own sales interview process.

Flawed Sales Interview Processes.

In my sales recruiting career, I’ve seen a wide range of interview processes. Some companies (and almost all sales professionals considering job options) use a non-structured, gut-level approach to decision making. Others develop multi-round marathons that include pages of structured interview questions that produce even more pages of detailed ratings and notes.

Both types of processes leave the interviewer with far too many details to consider. Properly constructed, an interview process (or job selection process) should make decision making easier, not more difficult.

The Critical Question.

With sales hiring, we are usually looking for a long list of intangibles and skills (we’ll call these qualities) in a sales professional. Make the wrong decision when hiring and the process ends in failure for both the company and the sales professional. You can read our list of 3 Undervalued Sales Hiring Traits and 4 Overrated Sales Hiring Traits to gain some insights into what we look for.

Fortunately, I’ve found that there are usually one or two qualities that are far more important than all of the others when hiring sales professionals. These “other” qualities must be present but often only in “good enough” amounts. This is key to creating a simple, predictive and effective interview process.

Let’s further explore how Sully was able to make the correct decision in 208 seconds.


Sully was able to lean on a simple, emergency checklist to narrow down his available options. As soon as his plane suffered the bird strikes, he and his co-pilot pulled out their emergency checklist and asked a series of questions. Is the gauge broken? Yes or No? Can you restart the engine? Yes or No? As they worked down this list, they quickly narrowed their list of available options until they were left with two options.

Red Light. Green Light.

As previously mentioned, companies must hire sales professionals that possess a long list of qualities. Many of these are actually fairly easy to assess. For example, is this person credible enough? Yes or No? If they are, we move onto the next question. If they clearly aren’t, we can safely pass on this candidate. If we aren’t sure, we will flag this as a concern and continue to vet this quality until we have a clear answer.

Building on this concept, the executive team at Sales Talent created a hiring checklist of required qualities that we broke into 2 categories. The first category contains those qualities that are straight-forward and easy to assess, such as credibility and presence. These are our “Red Light, Green Light” or Go, No Go qualities. The second category contains those qualities that are more difficult to assess, such as resourcefulness or the ability to artfully challenge prospects. With this second list, we developed several questions for each quality we were measuring. These questions were built to reveal the nuance of a sales professional’s talent with a given quality.

Once we had established this approach, we could quickly move through our Go/No Go qualities and save our mental resources for the more difficult to judge qualities.

A Safe Landing.

In Sully’s case, he realized that he didn’t have enough altitude and thus time to safely land at the closest available airport. With that one truth to consider, he was able to improvise and land the plane in the only available alternative, the Hudson River.

In the case of Sales Talent’s hiring checklist, we have twenty qualities that we hire for. Fortunately, only two are difficult to assess and absolutely critical for hiring success. By following the interview process outlined above, our team now has a MUCH easier time deciding if a sales professional is a fantastic fit for Sales Talent. We hope this framework helps you with making complex decisions in multiple variable environments.

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Chris Carlson

My name is Chris Carlson and I’m the founder and President of Sales Talent. This blog grew out of my desire to document and share what I’ve learned in my two plus decades of sales recruiting and leading Sales Talent. We post a new blog once a quarter on the 3rd Thursday of every January, April, July and Oct. These posts are aimed at sales professionals and leaders that speaks to talent selection, team building, or career advancement. If you have a topic that you’d like my take on, please reach out to me.

You can find Chris Carlson on LinkedIn or contact him directly at:
[email protected].