The most important and expensive decisions an entrepreneur makes are hiring decisions. There are many things to consider, but one attribute ultimately matters more than education, experience, credentials, references, or anything else.

When given feedback, how does this person react? Do they bristle, or are they open and receptive? In a word, are they coachable?

Coachability determines if a hire goes from good to great, or good to mediocre.

A smart hire can learn skills

The importance of coachability holds true across all functions of a business, but most of all in Sales. With the right training, a smart hire can learn almost anything needed for their role. Each sales job and each sales cycle will be different. It's one thing to be very successful selling cosmetics for Chanel, a household name; if you transition to a new indie brand, you first have to position and sell that brand before selling any of its products. Yes, you're still selling cosmetics, but following the exact same process will not get you the same results.

In this situation, a coachable salesperson can learn to adapt and succeed. A non-coachable person will fail. It's why I've known financial brokers who were excellent salespeople and came from a background in pharmaceutical sales, while MBAs in the same position were awful.

One person may excel at establishing rapport with customers. Another person may be a cold-calling queen, and someone else a data whiz. A coachable employee can learn to tailor her style to the job; a non-coachable employee gets stuck.

Use interviews to assess a candidate's coachability

An approachable, cooperative demeanor doesn't automatically mean someone is coachable. Personality alone doesn't tell you anything about how coachable a person is.

Coachability can and should be tested real-time in an interview environment. Require candidates to prepare a short presentation relevant to the position. Have them send in materials ahead of time, and let them know that they will be presenting this to you during the interview. Then, following their presentation, give corrections and suggestions and have them present the material again.

This second presentation will put them on the spot, and that's the point. They will be more nervous, and they will probably make some errors, which is to be expected. What to watch for is how receptive they were to your feedback (or not). Did they take notes? Did they incorporate your comments? Did they take constructive criticism in stride, or totally freeze up?

Your process and what makes your company unique are things that can be learned. But the ability to learn content is not helpful without the ability to use feedback and override the natural reaction of defensiveness to criticism. If someone is defensive rather than receptive to feedback, in my experience that is not something that can be coached away--that is a red flag that signals a toxic hire.

Good hires become great employees when they accept your input, remain agile, and use the feedback they are given in order to grow.

Published on: Oct 23, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.