Sales Management Is Not One Big Broad Issue
In many companies, “Sales” is looked at as one big issue. When things are not going well, people make blanket statements like “Sales is broken.” Often, when I’m brought into a company whose sales team is underachieving, senior executives and sales leaders will express their frustration at being truly overwhelmed by the enormity of fixing “Sales.”
It’s as if they want to attack the whole thing as one giant problem they’re hoping to solve.
Reflecting back on my first experience as a sales manager, I empathize with how these executives feel. I was overwhelmed to the point of exasperation.
In many ways, the world seemed to be moving too fast and it seemed like I was under attack. All the individual issues I was fighting morphed into one massive challenge that felt like an enemy too big and too complex to conquer.
However, the reality and the good news is that “Sales” is not one thing. It’s many disparate things all under one large umbrella. Here’s just a partial list:
Culture. Energy. Accountability. Passion. Goals. Results. Leadership. Team dynamics. Team meetings. The manager-salesperson relationship. Focus. Competition. Role definition. Recruiting. Coaching. Skills development.
Retaining top producers. Remediating or replacing underachievers. Fieldwork. Compensation. The salesperson- customer relationship. Sales process. Strategic targeting. Prioritization. Prospecting. Probing. Presenting. Proposing. Pipeline management. Value creation. Negotiating. Business planning. Follow-up. Resilience. Perseverance. Emotional Quotient. Compensation. Culture.
As you read that list, you were likely thinking two things: First, that is one long list! And second, the list begins and ends with culture. Correct on both fronts.
Sales Management Categories
When I set out to improve the health and effectiveness of a sales team, and ultimately increase sales, I deploy a very simple grid, a filter if you will, that helps sort the myriad of potential sales issues into three main buckets.
1. Sales Leadership and Culture
2. Talent Management
3. Sales Process
I view each of these buckets as essential pieces of the sales management framework. Beyond using this grid as a lens to guide my coaching and consulting, I also work hard to help clients adopt it as their own sales management framework. In other words, I go beyond simply using it myself to improve a sales organization.
My bigger objective is for sales leaders to own this framework and to know with 100 percent certainty that if they focus on these three essential sales management categories, they’ll see a marked improvement in their sales team and results.
Sales Leadership and Culture is where we start the Sales Management. Simplified. journey. The first dozen or so years of my sales career, I worked only in pro-sales environments. Unhealthy, unhelpful, and unproductive sales team cultures were a foreign concept to me.
It wasn’t until I took a job at a company with goofy sales leadership and a bizarre culture that I began to even ponder the effect of culture on sales performance.
This was a necessary awakening because I discovered over the past dozen years that those healthy cultures I benefited from early in my career were the exception, not the norm. In fact, it is so uncommon to stumble upon an extremely healthy sales culture that it is almost shocking when I do find one.
Two years ago, I did a project for a firm outside of Philadelphia that had the single healthiest culture I’ve encountered. It was so wonderful and so rare that I’ve been talking about it ever since.
I was also a bit slow on the uptake regarding the importance of leadership and culture in sales performance because I came into consulting as an expert sales technician mistakenly believing that if I coached the heck out of every individual salesperson and sales team, I could transform performance.
Confident in my content and ability to persuade and coach, I naively ignored how the sales organization’s leader and culture factored into the performance equation.
Today, I laugh looking back at my youthful ignorance. I now believe that the team’s leadership and culture are more critical to a business’s sales success than are the skills of its producers.
“Leadership and Culture” may seem like a vague or general catch-all phrase. Let me offer some questions to guide you down the path and to set the stage for upcoming sections on this important first piece of the framework.
What does it feel like to be part of your company’s sales team?
Is it a high-performance culture? Why do you feel that way?
Are team members laser-focused on goals and results?
What’s the vibe in the sales department (whether it is local or based remotely)?
What does accountability look like on this team?
How often, how big, and how loud are victories celebrated?
Is the manager leading the team or just reacting to circumstances?
A Simple Framework Provides Clarity to the Sales Manager
Are sales team meetings valuable? Do salespeople leave those meetings better equipped, envisioned, and energized, or drained and discouraged?
Do members of the sales team feel supported, valued, and appreciated?
Does the existing compensation plan make sense and does it drive the desired behaviors and results?
In what ways is the manager putting his or her fingerprints on the team?
How much of the sales leader’s time is devoted to non-sales activities and executive and administrative burdens?
What’s the level of intensity, passion, and heart-engagement of team members?
I don’t believe that anyone would doubt that we can create significant lift in a sales organization by improving the answers to these questions.
Talent Management is the next piece of the sales management puzzle. Senior executives and sales managers agree that talent is a huge issue. No one contests that assertion.
Yet, while executives give lip service to giving talent management its due, lip service is often all it is. Some leaders have trouble tackling “sales talent” because they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
The situation is similar to how “Sales” feels too big to attack; sales leaders tell me they’re not sure where to even begin addressing talent management.
While working with a senior executive a few years ago, I created a mini-framework to help us better segment, strategize, and address the various talent deficiencies in her sales organization.
Breaking talent management into the following four sub-categories was so beneficial on this project that I began using this process as my go-to model for all things sales talent. I call it the Four Rs of Sales Talent Management:
1. Right People in the Right Roles
2. Retain Top Producers
3. Remediate or Replace Underperformers (coach up or coach out)
Sure, remediate isn’t really the ideal word there, but I was looking for something easy to remember that keeping with the alliteration.
But before we dive deeper to explore each element, my hope is that just seeing those four categories serves as a catalyst for you to begin gaining clarity on your sales talent issues and opportunities.
Sales Process, particularly new business development sales process, is my favorite piece of the sales management puzzle.
The truth is that I love sales. I bleed sales. For all the time I’ve now spent as an executive, as a consultant, and as a speaker, deep down I’m still a sales guy.
I love the chase and the art of selling. Even when I’m drowning in work, I’ll pursue a lead or referral because the competitor in me wants to win and because I strongly believe that I’m the best solution for the prospective client.
Since I’m the guy who heads up both sales and operations for my firm, I am conscious not to take my foot off the gas and let the ops guy win—even when it appears that there is far more work than we need or want!
I am unashamedly proud to be called a salesperson, and I love nothing more than helping other salespeople become more proficient sales hunters.
There are certain key sales management responsibilities when it comes to the sales process. Managers must help point team members in the right direction to strategically target appropriate customers and prospects.
After pointing the team, the manager ensures that the sales-people are armed with the necessary sales weapons and that they become proficient at using them.
And because victory is dependent on successful execution at the point of attack, the manager must monitor the sales battle, checking that the troops are executing their plans and staying on course.
While sales process may be my favorite piece of the sales leadership framework, and the one that comes most naturally for me.
it is also intentionally third in the order—squarely behind leadership and culture and talent management, during my first stint in consulting I learned from experience that you can’t transform sales organizations by coaching everyone into better salespeople.
To create meaningful, lasting sales performance improvement, it is critical to get sales leadership and culture and talent management right first.
A Healthy Sales Culture Changes Everything
Culture is not some soft, ethereal concept. Organizational culture is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that famed author, speaker, and leadership guru Patrick Lencioni dedicated his latest blog, The Advantage (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), to it.
Lencioni’s blockbuster makes the case that what separates super-successful companies from mediocre ones is the health of the organization, not the brains.
He asserts that healthy organizations outperform because they boast great clarity and sense of purpose, which creates an environment in which top performers not only thrive but never want to leave. Isn’t that every executive’s fantasy description for their sales team culture? It sure is mine.
Merriam-Webster defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Its less-formal definition describes culture as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.”
I find these definitions very helpful as I launch into defining a healthy sales culture. But first, I’d like to ask you to consider the following questions concerning your current sales team culture:
What are the predominant shared attitudes across the sales organization, including the sales manager?
Could your team members articulate agreed-upon share values? If so, what are they?
Which shared practices are hallmarks of your sales team?
Is there is an accepted, understood, and enforced way of thinking and behaving that characterizes your salespeople?
At the company where I first took a sales position (the large consumer products company where I worked for the indefatigable Bob Smith), the founder and CEO was really the chief salesperson. He understood sales and was pre-sales.
His focus was top-line growth, and grow we did; sales took off like a rocket. It was a hoot to sell for this fast-moving company, and everyone in sales enjoyed the spoils of victory.
My second sales job was in a tiny family-held business. I went to work for a dear friend and fraternity brother. He headed up operations and the “back of the house” and entrusted me to run the front side of the business as head of sales.
My friend had great instincts when it came to setting the tone and culture of our little sales organization. He was very clear on what he expected from me, as I was with him in terms of what support was necessary to grow the business.
Every time I hit the road, I knew he had my back. And when I’d come up with a harebrained idea, instead of pooh-poohing it, he’d actually listen and try to help get me what was needed to win a deal or fill a vacuum in the marketplace.
I felt totally supported in my sales role. I was appreciated, valued, and respected. But, don’t for a second read more into that than I’m writing here.
It wasn’t easy, and he wasn’t easy on me! Quite the opposite. My boss/friend was no pushover. In fact, he was constantly pushing for more: more appointments, more new markets, more new customers, more margin, more ideas—more everything. It was awesome. He perfectly balanced encouraging my heart and kicking my ass.
The disappointment from leaving my friend’s business was short lived because it was at my next company where I discovered sales heaven and my career really took off. This company got just about every aspect of sales culture right.
It had a powerful, pro-sales CEO, the most pro-sales CFO I’ve encountered, and a world-class sales manager (the aforementioned Donnie Williams, who later became my consulting partner). Donnie understood better than anyone how to balance making it fun while ramping up accountability.
We had fun, energizing, and helpful sales team meetings. Salespeople wrote and presented annual business plans that became living documents. Sales reports were published and public.
Everyone kept score and competed with each other to see who came out on top each month. Donnie regularly met one-on-one with each salesperson to review results and opportunities that were in the hopper. The compensation plan was smart and leveraged.
Top producers made top dollar, and those who struggled felt the pain when commission checks were distributed. Even better, the commission was based on gross margin, not revenue.
So when a salesperson won big, it was because the company was also winning big. Commission and bonuses were delivered with smiles, not resentment. Sales were king at this company; everyone knew it and everyone benefited from it.
It took fifteen years, four employers, and almost 150 consulting engagements until I found a company with a stronger sales culture. That’s how amazing that company was, and what a treat it was to work there. Little did I know how spoiled I was or how unique that environment.
During those fifteen years, I (un)fortunately had the opportunity to work for, observe, and consult for a wide variety of organizations with less-than-ideal sales cultures. A good number of those observations made their way into Part One of this blog.
Pain can be a very good teacher. The first authentic anti-sales culture I encountered was at a software company with an enterprise learning management system that I joined just as the Internet bubble was bursting in 2000.
It was my first real exposure to an executive team who truly didn’t understand sales. This small company was run by entrepreneurial software guys, and the cubicles were filled with, you guessed it, software developers.
It was so quiet in the office that the most audible sounds were mouse clicks and the crack and gas hissing from opening a soda can. Free soda and the monthly run to Sam’s Club in the CEO’s truck to replenish the soda fridge were probably the best parts of working there. Come to think of it, that says a lot, doesn’t it?
One day my wife popped into the office to visit. Freaked out by the silence, she leaned over my desk and said in a hush, “What’s wrong? Why is everyone so quiet? Did something bad happen?”
I whispered back to her, “What’s wrong is that I work for this company.” And then I intentionally raised my voice loud enough to make a scene, “Nothing is wrong, hon. It’s always this quiet in here!”
The silent office was the least of this company’s sales culture issues. The executive team’s fuzzy strategy, unclear direction, and dictated “demo-first-ask-questions-later” sales process were certainly bigger challenges.
That combined with frenzied sales leaders who ran around with their hair on fire and wouldn’t or couldn’t offer clarity about which specific target markets the sales team should attack.
Every day was painful. Every. Single. Day. Until I was fired. That was a great day that helped to propel me into the sales improvement business. More gory details about the abject sales failure of this company and how that experience set me up for success as a sales coach and consultant.
As a consultant, I’ve been in the company after company with less-than-ideal sales cultures. The reasons vary greatly. In one organization it’s the heavy-handed CFO who doesn’t even pretend to hide his jealousy of the sales team’s compensation or his general animosity toward all things and all people sales related.
In another it’s the control freak president who will not allow the salespeople to make even the smallest decisions in their territories, insisting on approving every little promotional expense.
In other organizations, it’s the project managers who specialize in accusing salespeople of “selling and dumping,” and taking potshots at top producers for setting client expectations unreasonably high.
There’s the all-too-common blaming the sales team for poor results but deflecting the credit to any number of factors (the economy, the product, weak competition, luck, etc.) when they blow their numbers out of the water.
And of course, there is the myriad of ways companies jerk around with sales compensation—territory changes, quota increases, commission deductions, and more.
In some organizations, the unhealthy sales culture manifests itself in more subtle ways. In these cases, it’s not a jealousy or dislike of sales, it’s more a lack of appreciation for what the sales team is supposed to be doing to drive revenue. I see companies that regularly take advantage of what they perceive as a salesperson’s “free time.”
Salespeople are often used as “free labor” to participate in projects, to assist those managing programs, to essentially help out customer service, operations, and other areas. The shame is that it’s typically the weaker salespeople who best accommodate these requests. They’re not bold, strong, confident, or outspoken enough to resist.
The result? The salespeople who can least afford to sacrifice their “selling time” end up doing so the most, which, naturally, translates into even lower sales production.
And then when the quarter ends, the same management assigning salespeople non-sales work turns back around to blame the salesperson for not hitting sales goals.
That maddening scenario is more common than you might think, and beyond anything else, it is a culture issue. When the sales function is not respected bad things happen to sales results.
Everything Flows from Culture!
After all my whining about bad sales cultures and the people who create them, I imagine you’re more than ready to see a list of characteristics of an ideal sales culture. So am I.
But instead of just dropping an academic bulleted list on you here, it will be more powerful and beneficial to describe the absolute best sales culture I’ve ever seen.
As mentioned earlier, it took fifteen years and exposure to almost 150 organizations from the time I left the “sales heaven” company until I found another with a better, stronger, healthier sales culture. A couple of summers ago I received a call from a CEO named Robert.
I liked Robert immediately. He was articulate, passionate, powerful, direct, and funny. Robert was quick to tell me that his company was killing it. It was hitting on all cylinders and experiencing significant revenue growth.
Just that week, management took the entire sales team (of more than twenty people) to dinner and the Rolling Stones concert to celebrate their success. After hearing Robert speak even for just a few minutes, I immediately wanted to work with his company. I knew I could learn a ton from him and his company. However, I had one big question.
I told Robert that it was a treat to get a call from a company that was doing so well because 95 percent of the inbound inquiries I receive are from companies and sales leaders who need help.
With a smile and inquisitive tone, I asked, “Robert, what prompted this call? It sounds more like I could use your help with some of my hard-headed CEO clients than you could use mine.”
He thanked me for the compliment and then blew me away with what came next. “Yes, we are doing exceptionally well. But we are always striving to improve. We’ve been reading your blog as a sales team. Every week we review a blog in our sales team meeting. It’s been fantastic and stirred up all kinds of conversations and ideas.
Before I go any further recapping this story, my hope is that you are already getting a sense for the “leadership and culture” at Robert’s company. I haven’t even begun to share what it felt like when I walked through the company’s front door, yet you already have a flavor of how strong the sales culture is from this one brief phone call: He leads. He pushes.
They are serious about results and play to win. They celebrate. They have productive team meetings. They are hungry to improve. And, clearly, they have great taste in blogs and consultants
We put together a small engagement that revolved mostly around improving the team’s messaging as they pursued bigger prospects and higher-level contacts, and also some coaching on best practices for prospecting and presenting.
The first thirty minutes at this company’s office was like going to sales fantasy camp. It was the equivalent of how I’d expect to feel visiting Porsche’s factory in Stuttgart or possibly hanging out with Pey-ton Manning as he prepared for a big game. It was that good and that exciting.
I visit a lot of companies and am pretty quick to get a feel for the emotional dynamics at play. The sales culture at this place was palpable. The energy was electric.
The engaged faces and intense voices were refreshing. Everywhere I turned there were whiteboards charting some sales statistic, goal, or result. Did I mention that it was loud? That people were laughing?
That I felt like I was visiting the winning locker room of a championship team? As a sales consultant, it was as if I was on holy ground. After just thirty minutes onsite, I knew I was experiencing something very special, something I hadn’t seen for fifteen years.
I sat down in Robert’s office and could tell he was aware of the impression his company was making on me. He told me a bit about his past and the backstory for launching the business.
I noticed his shelves were filled with leadership and sports blogs about iconic coaches and lots of memorabilia. Robert described the annual goal- the setting process he personally went through with each member of the sales team.
He talked about the importance of knowing what makes each person tick and how his management team makes it a point to manage every person as an individual.
He bragged about the extreme level of success a few of his producers were having and then circled back to fill in details of the intense coaching and mentoring required to help these individuals to raise their games.
Again without prompting, he extolled the value of the regular manager to salesperson one-on-one meeting, where he saw it as the manager’s job to better understand the salesperson, to review goals and results, to help remove obstacles, and to stretch the salesperson.
He grabbed a rubber band off his desk and began to stretch it. He said that his job was to find out how far he could push each person, for his or her own good, without causing the person to break.
I’ll admit it. I may have been drooling on myself just listening to Robert. I wish these types of conversations with owners, senior executives, and sales managers were more common.
I really do. But they are not. It was a rare treat to be sitting with a “leadership and culture” expert who happened to be leading a sales team that was two to three times more productive per person than what is typical in his industry.
What I didn’t expect was that I would get to observe all of the characteristics of an ideal culture in one client! This blog was writing itself two years before I was ready to write the blog!
I asked Robert to expand further about the power of his sales culture and shared my observations from the half-hour wandering around his office. Then I asked, “What is with the culture here? You can feel it.”
Robert leaned forward and whispered, “Michael, everything flows from culture. Culture is everything.” At that moment, I was ready to give back my fee because I would’ve done this engagement for free.
Robert spent another hour sharing his perspective and spoke of how he jealously guarded the culture at his company. He referred to Practical Help and a Simple Framework to Get Exceptional Results the culture as the company’s “secret sauce.” He went on to explain the brutal interviewing and onboarding process for new hires.
The management at his company was more concerned with repelling the wrong people (who wouldn’t fit) than with hiring the very best talent available. In fact, much of the lengthy interview process was designed to scare away candidates. I can’t tell you how different that approach is from what I see in so many companies with lame cultures.
I just recently sat in on a group interview for another client. Key executives and I were meeting with a candidate for whom we had mixed feelings. But fifteen minutes into the two-hour interview, the CEO interrupted our questions and started selling the candidate on joining his wonderful company.
I mention that here only because the contrast is so striking between the one company with a phenomenal high-performance sales culture that strenuously screened every hire and this other company with an unhealthy sales culture whose leader chose to fill an empty chair with the warm body in front of him.
I spent the balance of that first day at Robert’s company meeting individually with key producers and then had dinner with their very engaged management team.
It was a blast, but the experience of day one paled in comparison to day two. The following day I spent about six hours facilitating a sales team meeting that only confirmed my initial thoughts about the firm’s powerful culture.
Sure, as planned, we sharpened the sales story and worked through how to incorporate elements of this improved messaging into the team’s various prospecting and sales weapons. But what I’ll never forget was the opportunity to watch the culture in action throughout the course of this meeting.
The communication in that meeting room was the most direct, transparent, blunt, confrontational, helpful, hysterically funny, loving, and healthy I’ve ever seen in any company for any type of meeting. This company used the role to play in ways I never thought possible.
Sales team members were constantly needling each other, and management provided brutally honest feedback to salespeople throughout the day. At first, I was taken aback, even uncomfortable with the very direct communication style.
But as the day wore on, I understood the fundamental reasons why such strong critiques and tough words were taken in stride, and I gained even more clarity about why this team was so outrageously successful.
The good-natured teasing and brutal feedback were so well received because it was never personal; it was business, and on top of that, there was love and trust in the room. These very well compensated top-producing salespeople knew that management had their best interests at heart.
After all, these were the same leaders who were meeting with them one-on-one, helping them to plan, to overcome obstacles, and to stretch themselves to production and income levels unheard of in their space.
There was no doubt in that room that everyone was on the same team—from Robert to the management team to every producer. There were no hidden agendas or ulterior motives. Everyone knew that management was for the sales team, not against it. Sadly, that is rarer than you’d think.
The culture at this company truly was its key differentiator and competitive advantage. It also clearly dictated the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices of the sales organization: We are elite. We strive to dominate the competition.
We keep score and constantly look at and talk about the scoreboard—in the hallways, in our team meetings, and when we meet 1:1.
We are loud and proud. We have each others’ backs. We have fun. We are careful about who we add to this team because we have something very special and we guard it protectively. We come to team meetings with great attitudes, expecting to participate. We check our egos and pride at the door.
We tease each other in a good-natured way because we’re like family; we have very high standards and, most important, we want everyone to win. In fact, we expect to win.
When we flop in practice we get called out because it is not acceptable to flop in the real game. We believe in pushing each other hard and telling each other the truth. And when we win big, we celebrate big.
No, “culture” is not a soft topic. As Robert so eloquently stated, everything flows from culture, and as you’ve read, the sales culture he’s built is anything but soft. Before moving on to look at how sales leaders must reallocate their time to more effectively lead their teams and to create the type of culture I’m advocating, take a few minutes to reflect on these important questions:
How much more fun would it be—and how much faster could you create and maintain sales momentum—if your culture was like the wind at your back helping to drive sales growth instead of working against it?
How much easier would it be to attract and retain top talent with a pro-sales culture?
If I confidentially polled your salespeople, would the majority state that the leadership of your company is “for” the salespeople or against them?
Is your current sales culture anything like what I described in my “sales heaven” job and at Robert’s company, or are you light-years from that type of environment? How radical a shift in priorities and time allocation would it take to begin moving the sales culture needle in your organization?
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture
It’s one thing to say you want a healthy, high-performance sales culture, but it’s another thing altogether to do something about it. Fantasizing about how awesome it would be to have Robert’s sales culture at your company won’t make it happen.
Frankly, I’ll go as far as saying that unless you are willing to radically rethink and restructure how you (or your sales leader) spends your time, sadly, you won’t make it past the fantasy stage.
The Sales Manager’s Biggest Time Drains Hold Them Back from Leading Their Teams and Creating a Healthy Culture
I have a friend who’s become an expert on the attributes of successful leaders and why certain executives are so much more productive than others.
We got into a deep conversation about time wasters and how much time senior-level people spend on low-value tasks. I told him about a senior executive client of mine who was spending hours coordinating the travel and logistics for an upcoming corporate meeting.
That led us down a path, and before long he was grilling me about how sales managers “invest” (waste) most of their time.
Starting with email, I began to list their biggest time wasters. My friend immediately cut me off and declared, “Time Draculas. Travel planning and endless email inbox management. They suck a leader’s time like Dracula.” What a great word picture, and how right he was.
The topic of how sales managers allocate time was already burdening me. I felt like managers were unconsciously wasting endless quantities of time on low-payoff tasks and meetings.
Inspired by my friend, I spent a couple of months paying particular attention to how sales managers at my current clients were actually “spending” time. Keyword: actually.
There is much lip service given to planning calendars and supposed sales management priorities. Best intentions are one thing, but the reality is often another.
After I closely observed a handful of managers across varying industries and company sizes, my initial suspicions were confirmed. As a whole, this disparate group of leaders not only spent their time in scarily similar ways but, unfortunately, spent it mostly in what I would consider low-value ways.
These are the five biggest time suckers/sins that keep sales managers from effectively leading their teams:
1. They are slaves to email, perpetually checking and replying while living in reactive mode.
2. They sit in on a ridiculous number of meetings and conference calls that often have little to do with driving revenue—death by meeting!
3. They get caught up playing either Assistant GM or Firefighter-in-Chief.
4. They are buried with administrative and non-sales crap, get
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture asked to create or plow throw an obscene number of reports and live with their heads constantly buried in CRM screens.
5. They don’t own their calendars, protect their priorities, or plan well.
My hope is that this list of management time sins deeply disturbs you. Honestly, it’s not worth space or your time to further unpack these items. They’re self-explanatory; most were addressed in Part One, and you know exactly what I’m referring to and how guilty you (or your sales manager) are of committing these sins.
I list them here to drive home one big point: When sales leaders, either by force or choice, spend most of their working hours in these areas, by default they are not leading their teams, not building a winning sales culture, and certainly not driving new revenue for the company.
Save your rebuttal; I’m not interested. Instead of offering your rationale for why you have to devote so much time to non–sales leadership, non–revenue producing activities, maybe you should ask if there’s a causal relationship between where you invest your time and the sales culture and performance of your team. I would argue that there most certainly is.
Feel free to call me an idiot who doesn’t “get it,” or doesn’t understand your business, or how much work needs to get done. Believe me, I’ve heard it all before.
To borrow from the great Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan Jessup on the witness stand in A Few Good Men, truthfully, I don’t give a damn how much work you think needs to get done!
Do you want the truth? Whether you’re the senior executive or the sales manager or play both roles, hear me clearly as if I was shouting this while turning red with veins bulging from my neck:
When you’re blasted with over 200 emails per day; trapped in meetings that keep you from your primary job; constantly handed (or grabbing for) the fire hose to deal with crises; buried either writing, reading, or scrambling for reports;
and have almost zero control of your calendar, you are not leading anyone anywhere. Furthermore, you have exactly the sales culture you deserve—the one you’ve created, whether by design or neglect.
Just as we have no trouble bluntly informing the struggling sales-person that it’s not about how busy he is or how hard he’s working but that he gets paid to increase sales, sales leaders must preach that message to themselves! Somehow, some way, too many organizations have completely lost sight of the sales leader’s mission.
There are only so many hours in a week, and when those hours are consumed by work that doesn’t contribute to leading the team, driving revenue, or enhancing the sales culture, then it’s really hard to see how that’s the best use of a sales leader’s time.
The Sales Manager’s Highest-Value Activities Should Be Obvious
My goal is not to cause you heartache; it’s to help you. And I have good news: It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no law against good sales management. You are free to change your approach, behavior, and, most important, how you choose to spend your time.
I know you will have to swim against the current, and fight against tradition, against the existing culture, and maybe against truly clueless executives with bizarre views of the sales manager’s job. But I promise you that it’s worth the fight.
The battle begins by acknowledging that in order to create the healthy, winning sales culture you so badly want, you must commit to radically altering where you spend your time.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the sales leadership and culture battle is begun and won when you successfully transition to spending the majority of your time in high-value, high-payoff sales leadership activities.
Sales Managers Must Radically Reallocate Their Time to Create a Winning Sales Culture
So, what are these mysterious sales leader highest-value activities?
Let’s start with these three favorites:
1. Conducting one-on-one meetings with individual salespeople
2. Leading sales team meetings
3. Working alongside (observing, coaching, helping) salespeople when they are with customers and prospects
Is this list patently obvious? Probably. But you’d never know it if you logged how most sales managers spend their time. Sure, they’d give lip service to the importance of these critical activities, but their calendars would tell a very different story.
Going back to my simple framework for sales lift, in order to create sustainable sales performance improvement, we must improve the company’s sales culture and how the team is led, the way sales talent is managed, and the sales process.
The best way to attack these essentials is to meet individually with members of the team, meet with the team as a whole, and invest time to work alongside salespeople in front of real customers and prospects.
The next three sections dive into each of these critical sales management activities.
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting Between the Sales Manager and Each Salesperson Will Transform Your Sales Culture
I am fully aware that upon seeing this blog’s title, many of you will think, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Before you dismiss this topic and move on, please believe me when I write that this stupidly simple, über powerful, sales management best practice has the potential to transform your culture.
In every coaching relationship, I intentionally ask the sales manager a very simple, yet slightly vague question: How often do you normally meet 1:1 with each of your people? Invariably, I get an assortment of responses, but they typically include some version of the manager proudly sharing that she’s in regular contact with her people.
She’ll tell me she speaks or emails with just about everyone all the time. I’ll respond by saying that it’s great that she keeps up with the troops, and then narrow down my question: “Let me be a bit more specific.
How often do you have a formally scheduled meeting (either by phone or face-to-face) with each salesperson specifically to review their results and their pipeline of future sales opportunities?” That response doesn’t
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting come quite as fast and usually involves a bit of stuttering combined with a lengthy circular answer.
The Monthly 1:1 Meeting Was Modeled for Me
Until a few years ago, I had no idea that sales managers were not having regular (monthly) 1:1 meeting with their salespeople.
Because early in my career managers did this with me, I mistakenly assumed that every manager was laser-focused on goals and results, and made it a point to review numbers with the people on their teams.
I was shocked and dismayed to discover that this type of meeting was more the exception than a widely adopted practice. Frankly, twelve years into consulting, I am still amazed at how few managers do this and the even fewer who do it well. Isn’t creating a results-focused culture and holding people accountable to hit sales goals Job Number One for any sales manager?
There are two huge reasons I have such strong convictions about this issue. First, as the salesperson, I benefited tremendously from having to sit down with my manager each month to face the music.
And, second, I’ve observed sales leaders dramatically shift the culture and performance of their teams by instituting this simple type of meeting I am about to describe.
No head of sales executed this monthly 1:1 meeting better than Donnie Williams. Back in what now seems like the stone ages of selling (the late 1990s), Donnie was the vice president of sales in that company I mentioned earlier with the “sales heaven” culture. The commercial Internet was in its infancy. The “cloud,” as we know it today, was still science fiction.
Act! and GoldMine was the predominant contact management/sales tracking tools and precursors to today’s robust CRM platforms. Donnie was old school and no fan of the fancy software. He could read a spreadsheet but wasn’t about to build one in Excel. So, the four tools Donnie used best in his monthly 1:1s were a pen, a yellow legal pad, last month’s sales report, and his cheaters (reading glasses).
Sometimes the 1:1 would take place in Donnie’s office, but most months he’d come sauntering down to mine. With a big smile on his face, the notorious yellow pad in hand, and his reading glasses way down on the end of his nose, he’d sit across from my desk. Before getting any further into this story, it’s important to note that I was the top-producing salesperson of fifteen at this company.
I mention that not to brag, but to make the point about how seriously Donnie took these 1:1 meeting. If there was anyone on the sales team who didn’t need to be reminded about results or have his pipeline examined with a microscope, it was me.
Now I ask you to pay careful attention to the very intentional manner in which Donnie conducted this meeting.
Peering at me over the top of his reading glasses, he always started by asking, “Mike, how are you doing?” Before my lips could form one syllable, Donnie would extend his left hand with his index finger up, and shake his head to stop me from answering. He’d look down at the sales report and then launch. “Actually, let me tell you how you are doing.
Last month you blogged $620,000, but your goal for the month was $700,000. Decent month, but what happened? Just a few weeks ago you were dead confident you’d blow that $700K number away.”
He’d pause, engage me in a very brief exchange, and then continue. “Year-to-date, you’re at $4.2 million against your goal of $3.7 million, and for the year, you’re ranked first in total sales but only ranked third on the team in terms of percent of goal achieved at 113.5 percent.”
Every single month this meeting began exactly the same way. The sales leader and the salesperson both knew that before anything else, we were going to look at last month and year-to-date results versus goal and relative ranking versus the rest of the sales team.
If the previous month and year-to-date results were phenomenal, the meeting was essentially over. Donnie would pat you on the back, tell you to keep it up, and then encourage you to go buy that fancy new car you’d been eyeing. Meeting adjourned.
But the reality is that the meeting almost never ended after the results phase. In the example above, sure I was doing pretty darn well, but I had missed the month and was trailing two other salespeople who were beating their goal for the year by more than I was.
Donnie wasn’t going to let me off that easy. “Mike, you missed the mark last month and it cost you. You’ve fallen to third in the rankings. What are you going to do about it?”
Out came the legal pad with his notes from last month’s meeting. “Where are you on these deals that didn’t close last month as projected? What else is hot? Tell me what materialized from your Memphis trip last week? Take me through your most significant opportunities; let’s talk dates and likelihood of closing.”
Sure, today we have slicker tools, we communicate much faster, and everyone is kept better abreast of the status of deals in the pipeline. But don’t let that distract you from the bigger point here. When the results weren’t what they should’ve been, Donnie dug into the pipeline.
If he liked what he heard from me—in other words if my pipeline was healthy and it appeared to have sufficient volume and movement of opportunities to exceed my goals in upcoming months— he was satisfied and the meeting would then be over.
However, if Donnie was not pleased with the condition of the pipeline, then it was time for the third and least pleasant phase of the 1:1 sales manager meeting with the salesperson. No one liked it when it got to that part of the meeting. “Mike, results aren’t what we need them to be, and your pipeline is weak.
We both know there are not enough good opportunities to produce the revenue you need over the next few months. You’ve left me no choice but to ask: What the heck have you been doing?
Grab your calendar. What was your activity last month? How many meetings did you have? What does next week look like and the week after? Let’s pull out your business plan.
Are you hitting the levels of activity you committed to hit? Who are you targeting right now and what are you doing to fill your pipeline and get sales back on track? I’m here to help. Is something in your way?”
This Sales Accountability Progression Is Good Management, Not Micromanagement
I’ve experienced that 1:1 results-focused sales manager–salesperson interaction from three angles. First, I benefited from being a well-managed salesperson. Having to face my manager every month showed me what this meeting, when done well, could do for the sales-person.
Later, as Donnie’s consulting partner, I benefited by observing him coach our client sales leaders on the importance of regular 1:1s with every team member.
Finally, over the past ten years, I’ve witnessed the transformational power these regular, formal, scheduled, results-focused sales manager–salesperson meetings have had on my clients’ sales cultures.
These meetings have such an impact on culture and performance that often months after concluding an engagement, a sales leader will contact me to share how implementing this one simple practice significantly improved her effectiveness as a manager and the results-focus of her team.
What makes this simple twenty-minute meeting so effective? To answer that, let’s go back and deconstruct the phases and progression of the meeting.
THE SALES MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTABILITY PROGRESSION
It’s not just that these are the right elements for a regular 1:1. There is some magic in the order. The progression matters—a lot. Why? Because nobody likes to be micromanaged, and it’s not fun having your boss ask you about your activity.
Sure, we all know that key activity metrics are important. As I’ve stated earlier, I’m a big proponent of a high-frequency sales attack. In my experience, it’s typically
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting the salesperson who turns over the most rocks who finds the most opportunities. But when it comes managing the salesperson, there are several good reasons activity is not the place we want to start.
Results is the first phase in the accountability progression because, well, sales is all about results. It’s that simple. I have repeatedly referred to this as a “results-focused” 1:1 intentionally.
As leaders, if we want to build and maintain a results-focused sales culture, then we had better be talking about results every opportunity we get. Frankly, our people should tire of hearing us talk about results.
Something else wonderful happens, too, when we lead with results. It stops all the nonsense and bullshit that salespeople love to throw out at managers attempting to hold them accountable.
Not sure about you, but I lose my patience very quickly when underperforming sales reps create a verbal smokescreen hoping to confuse and baffle sales managers with everything they’ve got going.
Salespeople not hitting quota tend to get really good at dazzling their manager by reciting all the opportunities they’re working. These 1:1s I’m advocating are not deal strategy meetings. They’re not catch-up sessions. Their main purpose is to review past results and ensure that the sales-person will have good future results. Period.
In my opinion, 1:1 is the best venue for accountability. Sure, we are still going to publish, post, and distribute sales reports. And we will look at these reports in sales team meetings. If those not making numbers and ranked toward the bottom of the report are uncomfortable with that, good; they should be.
But I’m not a fan of shaming or embarrassing people by calling out their poor performance in front of others or having those who are struggling explain their results publicly. That creates an awful, negative, and demoralizing environment. In-your-face results accountability best takes place in a private session.
That’s why it’s unfortunate that so few managers conduct this type of 1:1 today. Hence, the lack of accountability for the results we see in so many organizations.
Starting off these meetings by reviewing results provides other benefits as well. When done regularly and properly, these meetings need not be overly emotional. I work with some managers who tend to shy away from hard conversations and the potential conflict that may arise during an accountability meeting.
What I love about this type of 1:1 meeting, and specifically about starting with results, is that these meetings shouldn’t be emotional or dramatic at all. There is no need to raise voices, use profanity, flail our arms, or make bold threatening statements. Nope.
No histrionics required. We simply pull out the sales report and review actual results.
Results for the month (or whatever finite period makes sense for your business). Results year-to-date. Relative results and ranking compared to the salesperson’s peers. Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
Once we’ve reviewed the salesperson’s past results, it makes sense that the next phase of this meeting should look at future results. Obviously, we can’t change the past, but we certainly can affect the future.
The second phase of this suggested accountability progression is to do a quick, joint review of the salesperson’s pipeline.
I use the word pipeline in a broad sense here. The pipeline, to me, means potential deals or sales opportunities that are currently in this salesperson’s funnel. Again, I don’t want this “results-focused” meeting devolving into a long deal strategy discussion or coaching session.
That isn’t my intention. The main goal in this phase of the progression is to get a handle on the general health of the salesperson’s pipeline.
The big question I am looking to answer is whether this sales-person has enough going on—enough deals in the hopper—for her to hit her sales goals in upcoming months. So from a macro perspective, I’m looking at the number of opportunities, their stage in the sales cycle, the dollar volume, and the likelihood they’ll close.
I intentionally used the words quick and joint to describe this phase of the meeting. Again, we are not looking to do a deep dive into the status of every opportunity. We simply want to review the overall health of the individual pipeline with each salesperson.
In just a minute, I’ll offer you two of my favorite questions to pose when you’re really looking to ramp up accountability and better judge a sales rep’s effectiveness quickly.
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting
If we like what we see and are pretty confident that this salesperson has a robust funnel filled with a sufficient number of opportunities, it’s time to wrap up the meeting and offer a few closing comments.
However, if after having reviewed this salesperson’s less-than-stellar results, and now has found her personal pipeline rather anemic, it is time to move on to phase three of the sales management account-ability progression: activity.
The reality is that there is nowhere else to go as the manager. The salesperson with poor results and a weak pipeline is forcing you to ask hard questions about her activity level and how she is spending her time.
Before jumping in further on sales activity, let me address something you may be thinking about. I recognize that there might be a talent fit question about this underperforming salesperson.
And sometimes it’s not a talent issue, but more of a skills deficiency that requires training or coaching. Remember though, for now, we are still talking exclusively about sales leadership and culture.
I am intentionally remaining focused on results and accountability, not looking to problem solve. Yes, causes for underperformance need to be explored, but I firmly believe that this formal 1:1 meeting works best when its sole purpose is forcing the manager and the salesperson to confront the salesperson’s results, pipeline, and activity.
Too often, when sales managers and salespeople get together, the meeting gets sidetracked with ancillary topics, philosophical sales conversation, and excuses. As managers, it’s our job to prevent that from happening.
The typical salesperson, and the struggling one even more so, does not enjoy getting the third degree about sales activity. No one likes to have his or her work ethic questioned. It doesn’t feel good to be asked how many calls you made, appointments you had, or where you spent your time.
That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start the progression by reviewing results, and when results are not what they should be, then we move to the pipeline.
When account-ability progresses in that order, all but the selectively blind and deaf self-protective salespeople to understand that managers have no choice but to ask about the activity. It’s logical. It’s our job.
Still, some underperformers will make a stink when questioned about their calendars and activity. They get defensive. Some go on the attack. Others have a premade, rehearsed list of excuses ready to roll off their tongues. They are prepared to defend their lack of activity before we even start asking about it. That alone should tell us something, shouldn’t it?
Underperformers are quick to tell us that they don’t do well when they are micromanaged. In response, I have a message for you, the sales manager, and another message for the salesperson who chooses to play the micromanagement card: First, to the manager, let’s be crystal clear.
This is not micromanagement. When results are poor and the pipeline is weak, asking a salesperson about activity is simply good management, not micromanagement.
Don’t for a minute let a struggling, defensive salesperson manipulate you into believing otherwise. And to the salesperson attempting to tell us you don’t perform well when being “micromanaged,” I say this: It doesn’t look like you were doing too well on your own before we stepped in attempting to help you.
So if you don’t want to have these deeper level accountability conversations, there are two options. You can improve results and the quality of your pipeline so we don’t need to talk about activity. Or, alternatively, you can go work somewhere else where they’re cool with you failing.
Asking Just Two Questions Will Help You Quickly Weigh a Salesperson’s Effectiveness
A few years ago, I was helping a company attempting to turn its reactive regional territory managers into proactive, new business develop-ment–focused salespeople. It was not an easy engagement.
The company had a long history of tolerating underperformance. The sales executive had a “niceness” issue. He was truly a sweet man—too sweet. The company had survived the horrific downturn of 2008
Regular 1:1 Results-Focused Meeting through 2010, but during that time it did away with whatever little accountability was in place for the sales team. Two years later, the economy had rebounded but sales leadership was still rather complacent when it came to holding team members accountable to deliver results.
The CEO was committed to changing the culture, raising the bar on what was expected of the sales team, and sending a clear message about accountability for results. I invested some time coaching various managers on how to conduct the type of 1:1. After a couple of months,
I realized it was not working. The members of this seasoned sales team were masters at finger pointing, appearing busy, and making excuses. They were also slippery and really good at taking control of these 1:1 meeting.
The managers trying to hold the salespeople accountable were getting a load of crap thrown at them and were too inexperienced to respond effectively. I made the decision to jump into the fray and conduct these 1:1 meeting with every territory manager myself for two consecutive months.
My hope was twofold. First, I’d prove to the sales team that it truly was a new day and that the CEO was dead serious about accountability.
Second, by having sales managers sit in on these monthly accountability meetings with the salesperson and me (either on the phone or in the room), they would pick up some of my approach and the questions I asked to cut through the crap and get to the truth.
When playing surrogate sales manager, I don’t have the time or patience to let salespeople go on and on blowing smoke during accountability meetings. They quickly learn my preferred pace and process for accountability.
We spend about two minutes talking about the sales report and results before I jump into reviewing progress in their personal pipelines.
I then review their pipeline in whatever format that company uses and ask a few key questions to ensure that I have a good feel for what business is coming down the pike. And then I ask these two critical questions to get a very fast snapshot of how effective this particular salesperson is:
1. Can you name for me the new opportunities that are in your pipeline today that were not here when we met last month? In other words, can you tell me what fresh opportunities you have identified or created in the past month?
2. Can you name for me the existing opportunities that you moved forward in the sales process since we reviewed your pipeline together last month?
These two questions not only send a very direct message to the person with whom you’re meeting but also prevent the salesperson from burying you with bullshit in hopes you won’t notice how ineffective or unproductive the last month has been!
If you ask a particular salesperson these two questions three months in a row, you get a very good handle how (in)effective he is at both creating new opportunities and advancing existing sales opportunities.
In the months I played surrogate sales manager for this client, we not only set a new standard for what accountability should look like, but we were also able to rapidly make talent decisions about members of the team who clearly were not getting it done.
I’ll offer tips for coaching up or coaching out underperformers, but for now, it’s fair to conclude that you can get a pretty good feel for someone on your team by getting clear answers to these two questions in consecutive months.
Play out this scenario with me. You commit to holding monthly 1:1 meeting using the suggested accountability progression with everyone on your team. You’ll meet face-to-face with local people and by phone with those based in other cities. In month one, Johnny the underperformer is dazed and confused by your direct approach.
After you paint the big picture for him, he comes around to see that you are not evil or out to get him. You’re just trying to help him succeed by confronting him with his results, reviewing his pipeline, and letting him see his progress creating new opportunities and moving others forward.
In month two, Johnny comes to the 1:1 armed with a long list of all the things he’s got going, though none meet your criteria yet for a real opportunity.
He starts to babble and you stop him to ask your two power questions. He freezes and then admits he hasn’t opened a new opportunity this month and he has only excuses for why other deals haven’t progressed.
In month three, you sit down with Johnny. This is now the third consecutive month in which you start with results and he has missed his numbers. You move to the pipeline phase of the accountability progression and don’t like what you see.
So you ask Johnny the two questions. Yet again, he hasn’t added a thing to his funnel and has barely moved one opportunity forward.
Now it’s my turn to ask you a question: How many more months do you need to have this conversation with Johnny?
My hope is that you can see how this one über-simple sales management practice can help transform your culture. I have seen it happen time and time again, and that’s why I have little tolerance for executives and managers who declare there are more important tasks than formally meeting 1:1 with every salesperson on a regular basis. I vehemently disagree; this may be the single most important task on your plate.
Use clearing meetings to advance self-organization
This blog discusses how to use the idea of a clearing meeting to advance the team slowly toward the ability and skills needed to solve their own problems without you. I’ve found this technique useful in my own teams.
In this blog, you learn how to slowly move your team into self-organization while measuring your progress. To reiterate, self-organization is achieved when everyone on the team learns how to solve their own problems and they don’t need you to solve their problems for them.
One crucial tool that I’ve found invaluable in driving the team toward a state of self-organization is clearing meetings.
I first learned about clearing meetings when one of my managers introduced the idea to our management team. He then implemented this as a standard weekly meeting for our team, and I’ve experienced this for more than two years with my own team as well as with other teams.
Clearing meetings can have several goals:
To introduce important issues everyone should know about
To pull the “and on the cord,” a stop-the-line trigger that makes everyone pay attention to an important issue and do something about it
To give everyone the chance to air issues that bother them
To gauge the current level of the team’s self-organization
To create more trust in the team
To flex the team’s self-organization muscles and remind them to solve problems on their own
It’s called a clearing meeting because you uncover all the stuff the team knows is not working, any bad feelings they’re keeping buried about the job, and actual information that should be shared. And then you actually do something about it.
To understand how it works, let me describe a typical session:
The structure of the meeting
The structure that worked for me follows a rather simplistic process and can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on how burning and passionate the issues discussed are:
“What has not been working for you this past week?”
Possibly having “detours” during the answers
“What are you going to do about it?”
“What has been working for you the past week?”
Your closing words
Let’s take a closer look.
I started the integrity meeting by asking these three simple questions, going around the room with each one before moving to the next one. “What has not been working for you this past week?”
This question is very open-ended. The idea is to see if there is anything that has been missed either at the personal or team level. People can get frustrated with so many things in the software world, and if you let them talk about things that frustrated them, even if they feel small, you might be surprised at how much they’re willing to share.
Things that you might look for are:
“The build keeps failing.”
“Team X is giving us a hard time.”
“We are doing the wrong thing.”
These or other things related to the current work environment, people, or process are valid. Looking at this question from the self-organization point of view, this question is really asking, “Is there anything that hurts the team and needs correcting?”
However, it is a question that the people being asked should learn to ask themselves. You are asking this question because it’s part of the almost invisible process of training people to think about the current status quo and continuously contemplate what next changes should be done. Avoiding blind acceptance of the status quo is one of the things you want your team to learn.
People might at first say, “Nothing went badly this week.” Try to persist a little bit. Give examples of what it might sound like. Try not to accept “nothing” for an answer, especially from the first couple of people being asked.
Other people in the meeting will follow the lead of the first few and, if the first ones are silent, will shy from saying anything, most of the time.
Also, note that this kind of question can raise some demons that might have been previously been kept in backroom meetings. If an argument starts, try to keep it going. Embrace conflict.
People who have been heard are more willing to make a commitment even if they don’t like the decision made by the group or the leader.
“What are you going to do about it?”
If a person has indicated that something was not going well this week, ask them, “What are you going to do about it?” You may ask in a more polite manner, but remember what we talked about in the blog about commitment language: don’t use words with a way out. Here are some examples that give a way out by asking the question in a different way:
“What could you do about it?” (A mere contemplation vs. request for a specific action.)
“How would you fix it?” (Again, a contemplation vs. an actual request for action.)
Once you have challenged the person about action, make sure you get all the way to a commitment. That person needs to know what they are going to do after the meeting is over or have a timeline or end date they are expected to act by.
From the point of view of self-organization, this is an important learning tool for the person being asked. Always couple, “What are you going to do about it?” with a statement that something is not going well. Too many times we simply complain about the world and don’t do anything about it.
Here’s a situation that’s much closer to us—our own work—and we (the person being asked) have a much more personal say over how things really work around us. We can influence our immediate environment and we should.
For a self-organizing team, having the personal realization for each team member, that they are not simply stuck in a situation but can always choose to do something about it, is one of those turnaround moments.
A team can begin turning proactive instead of reactive. A team can begin anticipating and preventing problems, and people on the team can stop thinking they have to be miserable to do their jobs.
You can teach your team that, as professionals, it’s OK for them to feel annoyed at the way things are. They should be feeling happier when things are being done more professionally. Then they should take those gut feelings they have and apply them toward making a better work environment, product, and process.
So the core lesson here again is:
Do not blindly accept that which bothers you. There is always something you can do.
This question, normally in connection with a problem statement, is a core lesson: the skill you are teaching is for them to ask themselves this question when something bothers them.
This is the core of self-organization: when the team finds something that needs to change, they look within to begin solving the problem, instead of forwarding the problem to a manager. “What has been working for you the past week?”
Once you’ve gone around the room and all the bad energy has been emptied, and you’ve made sure anyone who had a problem is doing something about it, start asking this question.
There are several reasons for this question for each person answering:
Clear the air and have a positive feeling.
Acknowledge people for their actions and efforts.
Share good news and information with the team.
Try to make the answer about other people in the team or company, but don’t force it. Here are some examples of answers I hear:
“I sat with X from the QA department and, for the first time, it was really helpful.”
“I pair-programmed with X and we found something I was stuck on for a while. It felt good.”
“We finally released that thing we were stuck on.”
“We got new machines! Finally!”
There should always be something good to say. Don’t let people not say anything. If they cannot think of something, return to them at the end of the round. This is a lesson in noticing others and being social enough to share a compliment.
Your closing words
Now that everyone has said what didn’t work and what did work for them this week, it’s your turn. You answer the first question: “What didn’t work for me this week?” Now, it’s possible that there was something that really didn’t work for you this week and you still haven’t begun doing anything about it. This is a good time to bring it up with your team and say what you’re going to do about it.
“This week I noticed that I spent way too much time on meetings instead of being there with you when you needed me. Like when the build crashed and you waited for me a whole day. So what am I going to do about it?
I will block off at least 50 percent of my time in the coming month in the company calendar so that I don’t get this distracted again. I’ll do this by the end of the day today.”
Also, as closing words, remind the team that, as an exercise, you want them to try to reach the next meeting not only with things that didn’t work for them but also with actions they’ve already taken. It can go something like this:
“Next week, the day before the meeting, imagine the meeting has started and I’m asking you what didn’t work well this week. Then imagine your answer and my follow-up question, “What are you going to do about it?”
Then, answer that question in your head, commit to an action, and then just do it. Ideally, you should come to the next meeting saying, “There was X that bothered me, but I’m already doing something about it.”
The overall point of this meeting
As discussed at the beginning of this blog, this meeting can be used for many things. I find that it is very effective at teaching a team of peers to think proactively about solving things that bother them and at the same time gauging just how self-reliant they are.
Each meeting, see how many people say, “I had a problem with X but I’m already doing something about it.” The day everyone says it, you can say your team is self-organizing. They are proactively solving their own problems without waiting for anyone else’s permission to do anything about it.
Keeping the meeting on track
What happens if you notice personal attacks, stubbornness, helplessness or other negative behaviors in the meeting? If you haven’t had many meetings yet, this could just be the underlying team dysfunctions appearing before your eyes.
If this is the first time this has happened or the first meeting, sit back and perhaps write notes about behaviors you found problematic.
I would not necessarily do anything to stop things. If a new member in the team suggests changes and gets attacked in the meeting, let them handle the fire on their own. Don’t stop the meeting and take things offline.
Let the team member learn how to handle themselves in a team argument. Later, after the meeting, you can sit with them in a one on one meeting, and coach them on handling future meetings better.
Conflict is not bad in such meetings. In fact, if you have no conflict, you might not be talking about the truly important subjects.
A beta reader asked if seeing those behaviors means the team is not mature enough to have that meeting. I think that the purpose of the meeting is to take an immature team and make it more mature. So making the team stay away from the meeting until the right time is just prolonging the wait for a mature team.
A big part of the frustration I have felt, and that you might be feeling, is about helplessness. You believe in doing the right things, but you just can’t seem to get the people around you to change their behavior.
What about using my authority?
Using your authority is usually the path you should take last unless you’re in survival mode. Then, using authority is the second best choice after having people intrinsically motivated to be doing something different.
Also, when it comes time for the learning and self-organization phase, telling people what to do is a very ineffective way to teach. Helping them find their own path that makes everyone win is a much more effective way to teach new skills.
I’m going to borrow some important vocabulary from a great blog called Influencer - The power to change anything, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. The blog details a very powerful technique to help you discover what you can do to change behavior in others.
When I teach this technique in my workshops, I remind students that the most important thing before they start this exercise is to find a demonstrable physical behavior that they would like to change. Examples might include:
Team member X is always late to the stand-up meeting.
X never asks for help when he is stuck on a task.
X does not participate in any offer to pair-program.
X does not write unit tests.
Now, here are some bad examples:
X thinks he knows things better than everyone else. (You cannot know what a person thinks or feels, and this is not a physical behavior.)
X always argues. (Be more specific. When we meet on Z, X argues more than X minutes.)
X does not like to work on this project. (This is not a behavior you can target for change.)
So, what do you if you really want to be able to change a core behavior (such as those detailed above)?
I know that I and some others think of only the first two forces (personal ability and personal motivation) when we try to understand why a person is not doing anything.
Because our profession requires us to think as logically as possible, many times we think that if we only explain a subject or a reason, then that someone will immediately “convert” to our point of view. We are then stumped when that does not happen:
“I sent him on a two-day unit-testing course and explained all the benefits of unit testing. He is obviously lazy or doesn’t care about the project.”
This is what happens when we run out of options to consider: we start looking at dark crevices in our mind and start putting words in people’s mouths without even asking them. Many times, we play this “I know what he’ll say” game because we are afraid to talk face to face with that person about what truly bothers us.
Maybe not entirely consciously, but it’s hard to deny that this happens to many of us. Remember, it is your job to do all the hard stuff, and that includes gently confronting people and talking with them about serious issues. This has to be done in a personal setting (a one-on-one meeting), but it does need to be done.
Now that you have the basic list of rules, let’s see how you can use them in real life.
A note about privacy: Never discuss private matters with that person or other people publicly. Talk in a one-on-one setting, because it can be very hurtful for people to be confronted or asked a personal question in public.
I hope this short blog helps you figure out what is wrong. Next up, we have notes written by other leaders, just like you, and by some consultants I trust.
Notes to a software team leader
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery - it’s the sincerest form of learning.” ― George Bernard Shaw
There are so many people I have come to know and respect in our industry. I have collected some thoughts of some of them in this part of the blog. I asked them “what is one thing you would teach a new team leader that they must know to succeed?”
Along the way, several other leaders and consultants had some great ideas for notes to include, and the end result is a combined piece of knowledge that I hope you will find helpful, interesting and thought to provoke.
Feedback, especially positive feedback, is normally a sound engineer’s nightmare. A skilled guitarist can make it part of the performance, part of the music.
For software engineers, offering and taking feedback, positive or negative, can be just as much a minefield. When there is a problem, it is too easy to resort to silence or complaint. When there isn’t a problem, it is too easy to resort to silence.
Part of team leadership involves leading by example, but part involves guidance. For simple systems, guidance is programmatic, a matter of command and control. This doesn’t work well for complex systems, and individuals and teams are very complex systems indeed.
Feedback is a guidance technique, but there is an art to it that goes beyond the simple presentation of the facts as you see them. To be effective, feedback also needs to be trusted, concrete, and constructive.
No matter how upstanding they might be, we do not generally consider people to be objective sources of information in the way that inanimate objects and software tools are.
When a piece of code fails a test or doesn’t compile, we do not attribute this to a subjective judgment of the test or the emotional state of the compiler (unless we’re having a really bad day).
When we get feedback from people, we are more likely to hear what they are saying through a veil of emotions, cognitive biases, and relationships.
It is this question of learning and allowing someone else to do the learning that highlights the weakness of negative feedback. Even without the question of self-esteem, simply pointing out that something is not good is not helpful, and in this case, adding detail doesn’t help.
Just saying something is not good does not tell someone what is good. There is little they can learn from it. It’s like a no-entry sign on a one-way street: you are told which way you should not go, but you are not told which way you should go.
Negative feedback is often given in response to seeing a problem, but it is not intrinsically problem-solving and constructive. To be constructive, you need to offer a concrete suggestion for improvement or you need to make the giving of feedback part of a problem-solving conversation.
If you want someone to learn, create the opportunity and environment for them to discuss and contribute; otherwise, the feedback becomes more about the person giving the feedback than the person receiving it. Feedback should have a purpose and it should enable purpose.
Feedback, as a term, is often taken to be unidirectional but, as its engineering origins suggest, it is definitely about a relationship. It involves guidance and balance. Steady as she goes.
Channel conflict into learning by Dan North
The difference of opinion in high-performing teams isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, conflict is a necessary ingredient of learning teams.
In his blog The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge describes the twin discourse activities of dialogue, where a team explores an idea from a number of perspectives, and discussion, where they attempt to reach consensus. If everyone agrees on all of the time, there isn’t any stimulus for growth.
On the other hand, the conflict between strong personalities can be difficult to manage and can cause factions or cliques within a team and eventually tear it apart. As a software team leader, it will fall to you to make the big decisions: Which technologies should we adopt?
Which of these competing frameworks should we choose? When the team senses change on the horizon, you will find strong advocates for different alternatives, which can paralyze the team.
When I find a team blocked on a decision, I will often suggest deferring the commitment by trying all the options simultaneously and letting the data inform the decision. On one occasion, a team leader asked me whether his experienced Java team should adopt Clojure or Scala as their “next generation” JVM language.
The team had agreed they wanted to stay on the JVM but move beyond Java and had reached a stalemate over which direction to take. He was feeling pressure because, in his words, he had to make a decision imminently, both from a team health perspective and because the stalling was beginning to impact their delivery. My answer surprised him:
“Should we go with Clojure or Scala?”
There were six developers in his team, so I suggested they go with Clojure and Scala. And Java! At least for the next couple of weeks or so. One pair would learn Scala, one Clojure, and the third pair would stick with Java.
They would all work on the same features, which means they would be coding in a real domain rather than playing with code katas or tutorials, and within a couple of weeks, they would have some real data to make a decision with.
How easy was it to learn the language? How well was it suited to the problem at hand? How did each of the approaches compare with one another?
How nicely did they integrate with the existing codebase? How important were each of these things in this context? They would also have the Java solution as a control for comparison.
This approach uses an idea from the manufacturing industry called Concurrent Set-Based Engineering: several suppliers build the same thing, say an airplane wing, in different ways, and after a while you choose one of them to take forward.
You still pay the others this exercise is at your expense rather than theirs but it means that regardless of which you choose you haven’t lost any time.
You are trading off efficiency for effectiveness: it’s more expensive to get there, but you get there faster and you know you made a better decision. Many safety-critical industries mandate this approach for certain components.
The team leader added a nice twist to this. Halfway through he got the pairs to switch around, so by the end of the experiment each pair had tried two of the languages. After a couple of weeks, the team reached a strong consensus around one of the choices.
They had found it a better fit for their specific context, both in terms of the language itself and its libraries and toolchain. The team was unblocked and, what’s more, they had reached the decision as a team and learned about the alternatives along the way.
It’s Probably Not a Technical Problem
I learned this from Jerry Weinberg, somewhere. The most difficult problems are not technical problems. As a rule of thumb, when you step back and look at the problem you are facing, chances are the real issue is not a technical one; it’s probably a nonrational, subconscious soul-fart, that is bubbling around inside somewhere, masking as a technical problem.
It’s not really that this person doesn’t understand how the wobbulator is supposed to work, it’s that the person doesn’t understand, and there’s a stigma or expectation that they should, and, therefore, the fear of being kicked out of the tribe is lurking somewhere beneath the surface.
Review the Code
One of the biggest mistakes that new software team leaders make is to consider the code written by the programmers as the private property of the author, as opposed to an asset owned by the team. This causes the team leaders to judge code based on its behavior rather than its structure.
Team leaders with this dysfunction will accept any code so long as it does what it is supposed to do, regardless of how it is written. Indeed, such team leaders often don’t bother to read the other programmers’ code at all. They satisfy themselves with the fact that the system works and divorce themselves from system structure.
This is how you lose control over the quality of your system. And, once you lose that control, the software will gradually degrade into an unmaintainable morass. Estimates will grow, defect rates will climb, morale will decline, and eventually, everyone will be demanding that the system is redesigned.
A good team leader takes responsibility for the code structure as well as its behavior. A good team leader acts as a quality inspector, looking at every line of code written by any of the programmers under their lead. A good team leader rejects a fair bit of that code and asks the programmers to improve the quality of that code.
A good team leader maintains a vision of code quality. They will communicate that vision to the rest of the team by ensuring that the code they personally write conforms to the highest quality standards and by reviewing all of the other code in the system and rejecting the code that does not meet those exacting standards.
As teams grow, good team leaders will recruit lieutenants to help them with this review and enforcement task. The lieutenants review all the code, and the team leader falls back on reviewing all the code written by the lieutenants and spot checking the code written by everyone else.
The code is a team asset, not personal property. No programmer should ever be allowed to keep their code private. Any other programmer on the team should have the right to improve that code at any time.
And the team leader must take responsibility for the overall quality of that code. The team leader must communicate and enforce a consistent vision of high quality and professional behavior.
Document Your Air, Food, and Water
Think about all of the things you need to know when you’re new to a team. There are a lot of things, right?
Where is the source code repository?
Which tools need to be installed on your developer environment?
What are the steps to build the product?
Is there a pattern for how the code is laid out in the repository?
How are tasks tracked?
What is the task branch pattern in the repository?
Where is the continuous integration server?
Are there any specific development methodologies that should be followed?
…And so on. This is, from a peer mentoring perspective¹, the “Air, Food, and Water” for the group.
It’s the stuff you need to know in order to basically get around.
Many times, the answers to these questions aren’t actually documented anywhere. It’s “tribal knowledge.” People just sort of “know” what needs to be done, and if you don’t know, you ask the group.
That sort of approach might work well in a small group that doesn’t change a lot… but what about in a larger group? Does everyone actually know? Or is there a slightly different understanding of how things work from person to person? And what about new team members?
It’s a good idea to document your air, food, and water in a central location that’s accessible to everyone. Keep sort of a “team FAQ” that has the answers to all of these questions and make sure everyone knows where it is. It doesn’t have to be reams of heavy documentation, but it should contain enough to clearly answer the questions.
Enable team members to help themselves. It’s generally understood² that “quick questions” causing team members to task switch are actually not as “free” as one might think³. If there’s a place that folks can go to answer simple questions, it reduces context switches, particularly when there are newer members on the team.
Give new team members confidence in the team. Last time you joined a team, how was the experience? Did it seem a little jarring or was it really smooth? When you’re new to a team it’s like meeting a person for the first time… and you only get one chance for a first impression.
Wouldn’t it be nice to join a team and have the reassurance that there are a plan and a simple document that lays out everything you need to know to get going? If you saw that, wouldn’t you gain a little confidence in the team?
Add visibility to your team. If there are other people or teams in your company that are interested in seeing how you’re doing things (maybe to learn something from your team?), having a document makes it easy for them to see how things are done and understand what they’re looking at.
How do you get started? How do you maintain it?
1. Find a location. Find a central place on your company’s network that you can store the document such that everyone has access to it. Maybe it’s a wiki. Maybe it’s a SharePoint site. Maybe it’s a simple file share. As long as everyone has access to it, it’s perfect.
2. Document as you get asked questions. As people have questions about how the team works where the source code is, and so on, refer them to the document.
If the answer isn’t there, consider adding the answer to the document and providing the document to the person asking the question. Eventually, you’ll have a document with the answers to the most frequently asked questions about the team.
3. Pass it by existing team members. Team members come in, and team members move on. Before a team member moves on from the team, part of the knowledge transfer should be having them review the document and fill in applicable answers. There may be some things that team member was responsible for that no one else really knows about.
4. Give it to new team members. When a new member comes on board, give them the document as a way to get them set up. It will quickly become apparent if the information on the document is incomplete.
When incomplete/incorrect information is encountered, have the new team member work with the team to find out the correct information and update the document.
5. Update as changes occur. As changes are made in the way the team works, update the document to reflect them. There shouldn’t be so much information there that it’s overwhelming to maintain, but the doc does need to be a living entity, just as your team is.
Make sure to keep your document fairly lightweight and easy to maintain. If it’s too thick or complex, if the information is repeated in multiple places throughout, people will skip updating it and eventually it will become stale. You don’t want that you want it to be easy so when it’s time to update, it’s simple, simple, simple.
It doesn’t take much and it pays off in spades. Why not start today?
Appraisals and Agile Don’t Play Nicely Appraisals, performance reviews, 360 feedback, evaluations—call them what you will—have been present in organizations in one form or another for over 100 years. Over this time, the process has taken a number of different forms, depending on the current trends and the size of the organization.
I personally have experience of written evaluations where the employee has no input, various rating systems where both employees and managers get to rate the individual, and written appraisals where the employee makes comments on their own performance that are then used as the basis for further discussion.
Some systems have been directly linked to pay and promotion opportunities whereas some have been explicitly decoupled.
One thing that they all have in common is that they focus on the individual, their performance, and what they’ve accomplished since the last review period.
They encourage the individual to take credit for themselves and to compete against the other people on their team for recognition and a limited pot of money when it comes to bonuses and salary increases.
I would suggest that this is in direct conflict with the adoption and use of agile frameworks within the organization.
Think about that:
Agile emphasizes teamwork and co-operation in order to successfully deliver a product, with individuals being prepared to take on any task that needs doing in order to complete the iteration and get to “done.”
Individual accountability, as valued by the traditional appraisal system, implies that individuals should be interested in taking the juiciest or most challenging tasks for themselves in order to prove their worth and progress within the organization.
Agile emphasizes the forming of self-organizing teams who direct and manage their own work, whereas appraisals involve the setting of objectives that traditionally come from the manager.
Agile processes emphasize continual process improvement and, while this can be done alongside traditional appraisals, appraisals are geared more toward making individual or process changes at review time.
Is there a case for abolishing appraisals altogether in an agile environment? Well, perhaps. The challenge is that individuals within an organization expect and deserve feedback on their performance.
Perhaps a step in the right direction would be for team leaders to make the appraisal process itself more agile and encourage an environment where the annual review is replaced or supplemented with a system of continuous feedback and learning where individuals—in line with agile—are empowered to self-organize their own career development. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Build learning and career development into individual user stories, perhaps in the form of a specific task that involves team members expanding their business domain knowledge.
Alternatively, include time for learning tasks into your velocity calculations so you can increase the “value” of each team member to the organization by expanding their skill set in a way that’s relevant to their immediate task. Let the individuals drive and organize this learning process as they would a normal development task.
Encourage pairing (pair-programming for example) on tasks that help individuals to learn from those more experienced than them. Include team member feedback sessions as part of your iteration retrospective process, where you can directly discuss what people have learned.
Encourage individuals, on an iteration-by-iteration basis, to maintain a body of evidence that can be directly referenced at formal appraisal time. This will reduce the time taken to plan and perform the appraisal and encourages the recording of tasks at the time they happen—when they’re most relevant.
Leading Through Learning: The Responsibilities of a Team Leader
I was honored when Roy asked me to explore the topic of team leadership. And it’s an interesting topic too since it can cover such a broad array of things. And while we could cover the normal things (servant leadership, impediment removal, motivation), there is one thing I think intrinsically sets great leaders apart from mediocre ones.
To get there, we first should discuss the responsibility of a team member.
One of the things that have excited me the most about the Software Craftsmanship movement is a shift of responsibility.
So many times we as developers have set out with the ingrained feeling that it is our organization’s responsibility to help us grow and succeed. And this was true to some extent in the early days–great programmers stayed with great companies for a long time.
Growth was something you expected when you got hired in. You could look forward to being somewhere, putting in your best, and getting rewarded by retiring with them and being taken care of in return.
But, those days are gone. I don’t know of any colleagues who have gotten hired by a company thinking that they would be there for 20 or 30 years. That seemingly coincides with the mantra of “Here today, gone tomorrow,” which some organizations practice.
That further means that, if we can’t even be sure that our jobs are still going to be here, we can’t certainly expect that organizations will help us grow as a matter of normalcy.
So, as a part of the Craftsmanship Movement, we’ve declared that one shouldn’t expect to be getting knowledge from organizational initiatives or in the course of their role on a team. In fact, the core of the movement is that developers need to be taking responsibility for their own careers–learning, teaching, mentoring, speaking.
In this blog, Roy explored the questions each team leader should ask themselves. In it, there was one key question that is perhaps the hardest question for many leads:
Will my developers be better in a month or two than they were before? If not, how do I make that happen?
This question, above all others, is what has set the leads I lift up above others. It doesn’t matter the industry–I saw it from software team leads as much as fire captains and other industries I’ve been involved in. How do I create learning opportunities that enable my team to grow?
This past weekend I went to BarCamp Tampa Bay and got to see Steven Bristol talk about starting up a company. In it, he mentioned how feedback loops affect growth. If you are single, and go up to someone and ask them out, one of three things will happen:
1. They’ll say yes
2. They’ll say no (or some variant, like slapping you upside the head)
3. They’ll turn around and walk away without saying a word
Out of the three, which will you learn the most from? Which will cause you to grow the most?
Which will leave you scratching your head?
Imagine now that you are a developer on a team. You email your team lead and ask about taking on a new initiative for the team. The next afternoon an announcement is made that one of the senior developers is going to be working on the initiative you just emailed about.
Baffling, huh? Imagine if, instead, the team lead emailed you back and told you that she had concerns because you hadn’t been involved with FooBar and, so, for this initiative Senior Joe was going to take it, but have you work closely with Joe so that you can jump on the next one.
Or, imagine the team lead replied and said go for it and offered guidelines so you could know what kind of progress you were making. And let’s say you took that and failed miserably. But, because of the team involvement, others were able to pick up the ball with you and help get it done.
That’s what you want from a team leader. This, in many ways, is the essence of leadership. Providing opportunities for people to fall, but always within the context of the safety net of the team.
Motivating not by fear or by money, but by the passion that the team is always greater than any one developer can be. It is turning your day to day interactions into chances for growth and learning, and ultimately building a Learning Organization.
It also means setting aside one’s ego, one’s pride to be able to go out and help others. Effective team leads aren’t generally the rock star developers who put in 70 hour weeks because they are hardcore. They are solid technical leaders–and solid people leaders.
For example, Scott Bellware had an article on the Chief Engineer role in which he described the responsibilities and qualities of the chief engineer at Toyota. These included:
Voice of the customer
Exceptional engineering skills
A hard-driving teacher, motivator, and disciplinarian, yet a patient listener
An exceptional communicator
Always ready to get his or her hands dirty
So, if you are thinking about leading a team or finding yourself thrust into that role, ask yourself–are you growing? Are you seeking opportunities for yourself? For the team? Are you listening–truly listening–to what your team is telling you?
Or are you constantly impatient for them to finish so you can tell them the right answer? And, most importantly, what actions am I taking today to make my developers–my team–better one week, one month, one year from now?
In the answers to those questions lies the growth path for you as a leader. Keep growing, keep questioning and keep learning–so that your team does too.
You should change your mind about what you are building when you become a project manager or team leader (as a boss). Forget your product. Look at your team. Suddenly, you do not have to worry about technical decisions or pretty interfaces. You must realize that the basics of your work have changed. My own inspiration is the mantra “team = product”.
The product will be as good as your team is. The behavior of your team will determine the qualities of the product. So, your product as a project manager is the team. Invest in the team. This will change dramatically your efforts, now redirected to make the team grow.
Start changing your focus. From product to the team. From technology to people.
Pay attention to people and identify the phase in which your team is and what it needs to evolve. Find the right leadership at the time, but admit you can not get to become the leader, but only that person who turns mediocre teams into great teams, a great manager.
If you keep thinking about building products, these will be only as good as you were able to create managing and controlling your team. However, if you facilitate the emergence of the full potential of your team, the product will be enhanced and enriched by many people and their synergies.
Evolving from Manager to Leader
Being only a manager will produce good results. But evolving into a leader first that has the capability to manage will produce empowered teams that achieve awesome results. Don’t even bother thinking it; not only are you are not a leader today, but you also won’t be able to change something tomorrow and immediately become a leader.
Your evolution from a manager to a leader will be primarily based on a combination of two assets. The first one is your ability to adapt and handle any risk or issue. Your high dependability was not a result of problems never occurring (as if !) but how you were able to effectively minimize impacts and leverage opportunities appropriately.
The second one is your passion and skill for coaching and mentoring. And you’ve already experienced that people appreciate when you invest in helping them grow.
You’re lucky—adapting and the desire to help others comes naturally to you. But there’s a catch; to be aware and possess these assets will not be enough. You have other core traits that you often rely on that impact teams from being empowered.
Specifically, you will need to lessen the desire for being the go-to expert and wanting perfection. For example, you’ve already learned that responding to a problem on the team with “I should just fix that myself ” will not scale.
However, you’ve only adjusted the response to, “What didn’t I teach them to avoid this problem?”, which means that you expected your team to be perfect through your help.
Now don’t go overanalyzing with a thousand examples of why they could have avoided a problem. There absolutely is a time and a place for coaching as this is the important capability to manage aspect.
The problem is the leader mindset has to be the first impulse, which requires a response of “How can I help them learn and adapt from this?.” Your focus has to be in creating an environment that is dedicated to helping teams and individuals become adaptive, learning-focused, and cohesive.
There’s no sugar-coating the amount of work becoming a leader will take. You will have to maintain the skills necessary to have the capability to effectively manage.
At the same time, begin with the work required to build trust both ways in order for people to be empowered. As this will be the easier part given your integrity and intentions are pretty visible and we all know you have no issues talking.
The trick is in remembering that numerous situations are usually required before you will trust that they can adapt and more importantly, they fully believe that you trust them to adapt. Then tackle the challenging work that will drive you crazy; embracing failure as a learning opportunity despite knowing it could have been prevented.
You will have to constantly remember that your perspective should be on them; what’s best for their growth even when you and/or they might look bad in the process.
I realize the devil’s advocate in you is probably wondering whether all of this work is worth the difference in results. Without any hesitation, the answer is yes! You’ll begin experiencing team results that exceed your even your highest expectations. You’ll find yourself more engaged at work with the challenges that you now face.
But the factor that really makes the answer so obvious is the satisfaction from helping others. The recognition you are receiving today pales in comparison to what you will experience as a leader. I still smile when I think about the time my team surprised me with an appreciation award.
To hear numerous people stand up and highlight these types of statements: “I appreciate the way she pushes me out of my comfort zone in a way that makes me feel supported” to “I appreciate how she calls me out on my BS” all the way to “I appreciate her helping to pick out gifts for my wife.”
I couldn’t help but walk out of that conference room proud of my team and, consequently, proud of myself too because I helped create an environment that I want to work and play hard in every day. That is worth everything!
Entrepreneurial, Visionary Leaders Forget That Their People Can’t Do What They Can Do
In the previous section, we looked at how (negative/less than flattering) traits of the senior leader can damage the sales team. Let’s shift gears and examine how, surprisingly, sometimes the greatest strengths of the entrepreneurial, charismatic executive can actually impede a sales team’s success.
Your People Are Not You
One of the reasons I absolutely love what I do to earn a living is because I get the opportunity to work with some incredibly gifted people. My notes for this blog include a list of ten super-talented, visionary business leaders.
These senior executives have produced some of my most fun projects and client relationships because they often have boundless positive energy and are continually a step or more ahead of their team and me.
These idea machines dazzle us with their ability to create and improvise on the fly, to sell concepts that don’t yet exist, and to paint exquisite pictures of a brighter future to any audience.
That’s the good side of working for such a talented charismatic leader. However, there is a downside that is much more difficult to discern. Only after observing the same problem in multiple organizations was I finally able to recognize and begin calling it out to help clients identify and overcome the issue.
Several years ago, I was sitting with an extremely driven, extroverted, and charismatic CEO at the big glass conference table he used as a desk. It was our first meeting. I was entertained, amused, and even a bit shocked at his level of intensity and charm. His personality filled the room—in a good way.
I loved everything about this guy, including his cool shoes. And as he explained his vision for the company and the various major initiatives he was undertaking, I began to get a sense for the monumental task he was asking of his salespeople. The specific details aren’t important to the story.
What’s key to my point is how many moving pieces there were, and that this hugely talented sales chief was asking the sales team to sell a solution that was still on the drawing board to people and prospects who were unfamiliar and didn’t yet understand how to buy this type of new offering.
Said differently, he was asking people who had never sold this type of solution to sell something that didn’t truly yet exist to clients who weren’t quite ready, even though they would likely be looking for this type of solution in the future. Got it?
One of the reasons I was sitting across the big glass table from this man was because of his growing frustration that the sales team wasn’t getting it done. In three different ways, he told me that he couldn’t comprehend what was so hard about what he was asking his salespeople to do.
With each example, he’d tell me the story of a major sales success from his own career and how he was able to sell giant, transformational deals with essentially smoke and mirrors.
At that instant, the penny dropped and it all came together in my mind. I raised my eyebrows and began to smirk. In his loud, playful voice he shouted not to hold out on him. “What? Tell me!” he insisted. “[CEO Name], don’t you see what’s happening?” I responded.
“They’re not you! They can’t do what you can do. You get away with it because of the force of your personality, you're outrageous, a probably dangerous level of confidence, and your sick ability to sell a vision.”
He let out an audible “hmm,” sat back in his chair, put two fingers up to his lips, and sat there pondering my assessment. Frankly, I found it hard to believe this was news to him.
He knew how supremely talented he was and had the swagger to prove it. Yet for some reason, he just assumed that because he could do it, his salespeople should be able to as well.
What’s even more surprising is how many times I’ve seen similar situations in other organizations run by supremely gifted, charismatic entrepreneurs.
The Absence of Clarity Dooms the Sales Attack
After this ridiculously talented sales superstar CEO digested my observation that his team required just a wee bit more support and a significantly more concrete plan of attack than he did, I asked a few more pointed questions about the clarity of his strategy, and he wrapped up the meeting by asking me to come back in a week.
I was back at the glass table a week later as my charismatic new friend (and now a client) started the meeting by saying that I caused him to lose sleep. I usually help my clients sleep better knowing that we are going to systematically address their sales issues, so his statement took me back.
He went on to share that one thing I said really upset his apple cart, and he couldn’t get it out of his head. During our first meeting, I was recapping my frustration at another client and with my most recent employer.
Each company was operating in a highly entrepreneurial mode with strategies that were in flux and about as clear as mud. This lack of clarity created havoc for the sales team. The little phrase I used that bothered the CEO was my declaration that “sales follows strategy.”
That’s where we picked up the conversation and I expanded on my premise that clarity from the top was a non-negotiable prerequisite for a successful new business development sales attack. The job of the sales force is to execute the company’s strategy to perfection, not to create it on the fly.
Clarity is absolutely essential when asking salespeople to execute a proactive new business sales attack. I have yet to see an individual salesperson or a sales team succeed in the marketplace without a crystal-clear picture of the mission.
Salespeople can’t be making up their strategy as they go. It’s the job of senior company leadership to clearly point the sales force in the right direction:
Which markets should they be pursuing and why?
Exactly what are we asking the sales force to sell and, specifically, to whom should they be selling it?
You may chuckle thinking that these are obvious or ridiculous questions, but I assure you they are not. I’ve been in enough companies in a state of transition where senior management couldn’t clearly articulate these answers.
Yet what is intriguing, and frankly infuriating, is that these very executives are quick to blame the sales team when a business doesn’t come in at the desired rate. Excuse me, but when did a business’s strategy fall to the sales force? I must have missed that day in business school.
Often, what’s portrayed as a “sales problem” isn’t a sales problem at all. The company and its senior leaders have a responsibility to provide the sales organization with strategic direction. As I’ve written before, “[CEO Name], please do your job so we can do ours.” That request is not intended with any disrespect.
It’s simply a plea for help (and direction) so we can succeed. In early meetings with my own prospective clients, I make it a habit to ask about the company’s strategy and the demand for its offerings in targeted markets. I try to make it abundantly clear: I don’t do strategy and neither should your sales team.
If you can’t clearly tell us where to pursue new business and don’t have evidence that there is demand for what you sell, then it’s a strategy problem, not necessarily a “sales problem.”
Sure, many entrepreneurs and visionaries tend to be comfortable in those free-flowing, entrepreneurial environments where they are forced to build their strategy on the fly.
They love operating in those conditions. But that doesn’t translate into success for the sales team. Time and time again I’ve seen salespeople flounder and fail without clear direction from the top.
We’re all suckers for the quick fix, and if those of us in sales leadership roles were truly honest, we’d have to admit that we might be the biggest suckers of all. Good sales leaders are all about return on effort and return on time.
When we hear about a new methodology or tool promising more results with less effort, you better get out of our way, fast, because here we come in droves!
While sales leaders have likely always had this tendency, the danger (and resulting chaos) today is that new technology has enabled lighting-fast development, promotion, and proliferation of new tools and toys.
The perpetual barrage of new sales ideas, theories, processes, and tools combined with the loud voices of the hucksters marketing them can overwhelm sales leaders. Many live in constant fear that they’re going to miss out so they chase after shiny new toys hoping to find the magic bullet for all that ails in sales.
Don’t Believe the Lie That Everything Has Changed
Over the past several years, we have heard a familiar refrain from those promoting the latest, greatest, hottest new thing in sales. The experts du jour are fond of telling everyone who will listen that everything has changed. Everything. Nothing is the same. Nothing.
What baffles me is how easily a darn large percentage of the sales population, including sales managers, is convinced that is true. Think about how ludicrous the assertion is. Everything has changed. Nothing that used to work in sales works anymore? Give me a break.
A few years back, when I was writing my first blog, inbound marketing was all the rage. Many prominent voices in what was dubbed the Sales 2.0 movement boldly proclaimed the death of prospecting. These new sales “experts” cautioned us not to waste effort pursuing potential clients that had not given us permission to do so.
They brashly predicted the end of sales as we knew it. According to the inbound marketing crowd, from that point forward in history, sales-people would become wildly successful responding to highly engaged and interested inbound leads who had been gobbling up content put out by their companies.
If sellers perfectly followed these experts’ prescriptions for content development and distribution and, of course, used their systems to track and respond to leads, there would be more opportunities to work than a sales team could handle. Ha!
More recently, social selling has dominated the headlines, sales blogosphere, and LinkedIn discussions. I’ve never witnessed a buzz-word take an entire profession hostage as social selling has. Just do a Twitter search on #socialselling to get a feel for the incredible volume of tweets and nonsense being spewed on the subject.
A new set of “experts” has emerged, and because they are, well, social media experts, they’ve made an incredible amount of noise using various social platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and others) to build strong brands and large followings.
Unlike inbound marketing, which was promoted by firms with offerings in the space, the banner for social selling is carried predominantly by individuals promoting their own names, content, and consulting. Social selling has become a cottage industry all its own.
Here’s where it gets weird for me. In and of itself, social selling is a good thing. Using every available method to learn more about a prospect makes great sense. If there’s an opportunity to connect on a social network, to be hanging out electronically where the prospects are, to plant a seed, to start a relationship, then, by all means, do it!
Who wouldn’t want to supplement their traditional selling efforts with new, fresh approaches? Every opportunity I get, I write or say that social selling (or inbound marketing or whatever the next shiny new sales toy ends up being) is a wonderful supplement to, but not a replacement for, traditional prospecting and new business development efforts.
I must have said enough positive things about the value of social media, or used it effectively enough in my own business, because in 2014 Forbes (in a study sponsored by KiteDesk) named me a Top 30 Social Sales Influencer and called me “one of the top 30 social sales-people in the world.”
What’s ironic and somewhat amusing is that, since bestowed the honor of being named to that list, I’ve become a frequent outspoken critic of the one-trick-pony social selling pushers whose names also appear on the Forbes list.
Why do I rail so confidently against these “experts” as if I’m looking for a fight? Because I’m angry that these charlatans with their misleading hyperbole are hurting, instead of helping, people in sales. In the real world, in 100 percent of the companies I’m involved with on a daily basis, everything has not changed.
In fact, just about every top-producing salesperson in every industry and every company is a master at the traditional aspects of selling that have always been critical for success.
To drive home this point further, I’d love for these social sales “experts” to explain what struggling salespeople are supposed to do when inbound marketing and social selling don’t provide a sufficient volume of leads to fill their pipeline.
Since they are so quick to tell us that traditional prospecting is dead, what then should these desperate sellers do when the proposed magic bullet turns out not to be so magical after all?
Sales leaders, be wary of your tendency to chase after the next shiny new sales toy promising to alter the course of history. Believe me, I know it’s hard to resist constant promotion—the banner ads, the email campaigns, the trade show sponsors, the webinar invitations.
Almost every day I receive an email from a company with some new sales gimmick, gadget, or plug-in that promises to have the answer for what every one of my clients needs.
I recently read a handful of articles packed with statistics on the proliferation of startups in the sales technology space.
Thousands—that’s right, not hundreds but thousands— of new companies are looking to sell us everything from sales force automation, sales enablement, and email tracking to browser plug-ins, CRM boltons, and social selling integration.
Each and every one of them promising a quick fix for your sales team. It’s enough to make you scream. Or cry.
Ignore the Fundamentals of Sales Management at Your Own Risk
As I wrap up the straight truth about why sales teams underperform in Part One and prepare to dive into the practical help offered in Part Two, let me share a profound realization that did not hit me until sitting down to write this blog.
Having worked with approximately 150 different sales organizations, I have yet to encounter a sales team that failed to deliver what was expected of them because they were missing some newfangled sales tool or process.
Sales leaders and sales teams are not falling short of their revenue goals because they’re being outsold by others deploying the latest and greatest toys and techniques. Quite to the contrary, sales teams underperform because sales leaders ignore or botch the very fundamentals of sales management.
Before forging ahead, let me ask you to consider spending time reflecting on the common causes of sales team underperformance and assess which are potentially hindering your team’s results:
Lack of focus on goals and results
Not publishing sales reports; sales managers not regularly reviewing results with individual members of the sales team
Burying the sales manager with non-sales responsibilities
Sales managers playing desk jockey or CRM jockey
Managing the team via email and CRM screens
Prioritizing CRM task management above sales results
Player-coach selling sales managers trying to juggle opposite worlds
Sales managers competing with their own people
Sales managers with a hero complex deflating salespeople
Sales managers losing sight of their primary job and replacing the battle helmet with a firefighter helmet, trying to personally tackle every problem. Having the same person head up sales and operations and default to addressing urgent operational issues instead of pushing hard for sales growth
A one-size-fits-all approach to talent management; poor role definition
Asking farmers and engineers to pick up a weapon and become sales hunters
Leadership turning a blind eye to perennial underperformers Silly, counterproductive compensation plans
Sales Leaders Chase Shiny New Toys Searching for the Magic Bullet
An anti-sales culture—arbitrary commission deductions, lack of appreciation, and constant complaining about salespeople
High-ego senior executives who deflate the sales team by pontificating, micromanaging, and behaving inappropriately in front of customers
Entrepreneurial, charismatic leaders who don’t realize that their teams require more direction, clarity, and support to sell than they do
Sales managers not mentoring and coaching on selling skills, or working in the field with salespeople
Salespeople being perceived as nothing more than vendors or commodity sellers because of they:
Live in reactive mode and are not proactively pursuing prospective customers, and therefore arriving late to opportunities
Lead with their product instead of the customer’s issues
Conduct amateurish and ineffective sales calls
Do whatever customers request, including delivering premature presentations and proposals
Sales leaders ignoring fundaments while perpetually chasing shiny new toys in search of the magic sales bullet
If you’re a senior executive or sales manager and were offended by what you’ve read, I apologize to you—kinda, sorta. The goal was not to offend or to put you in a defensive posture. My intention was to deliver a wake-up call.
The motivation in offering so many blatant examples of sales mismanagement (or lack of management) was simple and pure: to help you identify the areas in your own sales organization that may be getting in the way of its success.