The Illusion of Humble Sales Leadership

I’ve been on a journey the past several years to better understand humility.  It’s personal.

Seems we’ve always been drawn to people who are vocal and physical about their pride.  We praise the government leader who takes a stand for something we believe in.  We cheer the athlete who celebrates after leading her team to victory.  We look up to the charismatic speaker who whips the audience into a frenzy.  If pride was a beer it would be a heavily hopped IPA from the pacific northwest.  Humility?  Maybe a lager.

People who are boastfully proud exhibit confidence and strength.  They command attention.  They have a presence.   This influences us.  None of these traits are by definition negative or evil.  Most of us want to be led, and to follow we must be inspired.  But like all of us, the prideful person is inherently flawed, albeit in his/her own unique way.

The Wall St. Journal recently ran a story saying that the best bosses are humble bosses.  They have data to prove it.  Studies show that humble bosses inspire better teamwork and faster learning.  Their humility encourages others to share opinions and be more transparent thereby improving communication.   By contrast, the prideful boss shuts down communication and puts a drag on higher performance.

Here’s the illusion of being humble.  Humility connotes softness, gentleness, being meek, being weak, maybe indecisive.  If you’re humble you can’t be competitive.  You can’t possibly be firm with someone and you’re certainly likely to put up with sub-par or even toxic behavior on your teams.  Right?

I’ve witnessed the opposite.  I’ve seen humble leaders put others in their place.  I’ve seen humble leaders put reps on performance improvement plans (PIPS).  I’ve seen humble leaders fire people that have become a necessary ending.  Strong leadership and coaching doesn’t have to have an ego-based center.

What’s it take to be a more humble leader of your salespeople?  For one, listen more and listen hard.  That means you have to ask questions.  It means you need to be open to what you hear.

Two, seek feedback.  Ask your direct reports what part of your coaching is connecting with them and what’s not.  Ask your peers to give you honest assessments of what they see in you and your behavior.

Three, admit your mistakes.

Four, practice saying I’m sorry.

It’s possible that humility could be one of those business concept hot stars that shines so bright but then burns out so fast.  I could imagine every MBA program in the country soon offering courses in humility.  I hope it does get legs and runs like Forrest Gump forever.

Though it might fade in popularity I’m convinced that humility in business and sales leadership has a long life ahead.  People are drawn to humble leaders.  The connection is refreshingly real, honest.  However, I won’t be surprised if it eventually gets moved from page 1 to the lifestyle section.  But humility will be ok with that.  It’s never sought the spotlight.  It’ll be just fine.

Bartender, pour me a pint of that lager, please.

 

Mark Sellers

Author The Funnel Principle, named by Selling Power as a Top Ten Best Book to Read

Author of upcoming book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Managing Partner and Founder, Breakthrough Sales Performance, a sales training, coaching and consulting company

Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Over my 20 plus year sales training and coaching career, I have been privy to a fascinating view – I listen to sales managers have coaching conversations with their salespeople.

It’s a privileged perch to sit on, thanks to the many clients that have hired me to listen to and then coach their managers on how to make those conversations more effective.

In these 1:1 calls everyone dials in –  the manager, the salesperson, and me.  I say nothing.  I take lots of notes.  Then the manager and I debrief after the call.  Usually I will sit in on one manager’s several calls over a day.  Patterns and habits emerge.

One of the discoveries I’ve made is that managers consistently commit behaviors that they are unware they commit, and these behaviors prevent them from delivering effective coaching and developing stronger relationships with their salespeople. I call this phenomena blindspots.

Unfortunately, these blindspots are one cause of salespeople underperforming.  The manager’s blindspot behavior prevents getting the most from the salesperson.  It’s similar to a sports coach not getting the most out of his or her players.   What’s worse is when these blindspots cause the relationship between manager and salesperson to be so bad the salesperson leaves to work for someone else.

After several years of listening to the coaching conversations and processing what these blindspots mean for the profession, I decided to write a book about it.

The book is called Blindspots:  The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching.  We are targeting a Q1 2019 release for the book.

I wasn’t gifted with some natural ability to coach sales managers about their blindspots.  I knew a poor coaching conversation when I heard one, but it took me a while to be able to deconstruct it and lead a conversation about what and why it happened.  I poured through my personal notes of 600 coaching conversations and saw patterns.  The patterns led to insights and the insights led to developing frameworks for coaching that I’ve applied to thousands of sessions since.

Before you think that I think I’m somehow immune from this same phenomenon, the biggest factor in my being able to write Blindspots is because of dealing with my own, both professional and personal.

Over the next several months I will blog about blindspots.  I hope you find value in this.  Since I’ve had (and still have) my share of blindspots I know you will likely be challenged too in acknowledging your own.  I challenge you to remain open to the possibilities and most of all to have faith in the purpose of the suffering that you must endure to authentically become better.

Stay tuned!

Mark Sellers

Author of The Funnel Principle

Author of Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching (due out in Q1 2019)

A Sales Managers’ Toughest Duty – Necessary Endings

One of the challenging parts of a sales manager’s job is to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em when it comes to retaining or firing a salesperson.

In Henry Cloud’s wonderful book Necessary Endings, he talks about the need to prune even the live branches of a rose bush for the healthier, live branches to thrive.  Sometimes the best thing a manager can do for not only her region but also for the salesperson is to let that salesperson go.  As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says in his poem Elegiac Verse ‘great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.’

This metaphor applies to our personal lives too. We all have necessary endings that we must prune.  Habits we’ve fallen into, patterns of thinking that have become toxic, malaise, prejudices and biases that we’ve allowed to creep into our thinking, pride taking over, etc.

Here are 3 things to consider when going through the challenge of deciding if you’ve reached a necessary ending with one of your salespeople.

One – Is she coachable?

Maybe this is highest on the list.  When someone is open to coaching it shows several characteristics including humility and an acknowledgement of weaknesses.  Being coachable means he’s open to feedback and to getting better. This is a darned good start.

 

Two – Does she give a shit?

If a salesperson comes off as lacking the drive to make changes and to be open to feedback she could be missing the fundamental need to have the energy to change.  I’ve seen ‘veteran’ salespeople who are sort of mailing it in, not willing to do what’s being asked by the manager to adopt a sales process.  This is passive resistance.  I’ve seen stubborn salespeople who resist taking the manager’s coaching because they think they know what’s best for themselves.  This is active resistance.

In our Funnel Audit process we can see more clearly if a salesperson lacks give a shit.  We still need to get under that to understand the motives.

 

Three – is he capable?

In the end sales managers need salespeople who are capable in the job.  For example, sometimes the sales manager needs more hunting activity than farming activity. If a salesperson doesn’t show capability in doing more hunting that doesn’t bode well for the rep.  If they show willingness to be coached or show give a shit energy sometimes those can compensate for deficits in capability.

Underperforming salespeople deserve a thorough and objective assessment of the reasons for their performance.

Good Selling,

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle and soon to be released sales coaching book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel

How to Leverage 80/20 for Sales Success

You’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule.  Also called Pareto’s Rule.  It’s one of the simplest, hardest principles to consistently apply. But boy does it pay off!

Take a quick test.  Look at your reps’ weekly or monthly to do list.  How many times do they fail to completely finish it?  How does that make them feel?  Are they finishing the goals that will make the biggest impact on their quotas and their lives?

Do your salespeople a favor and help them apply 80/20. Here are some ideas.

One – work on selling deeper into their existing customers before letting them pick ‘x’ new customer targets.

Often I see salespeople that aren’t getting more share of their existing customer business.  They either don’t target getting more share or they assume that the customer that buys from another company wouldn’t consider buying more from them. But these are great ‘Stage 0’ conversations to proactively engage with the customer.  It might sound as simple as this:

“I’d enjoy the opportunity to learn more about your total business needs and how we might better serve you. Can we get together to discuss?”   

Two – consider firing some of their existing customers.

Who would walk away from existing business?  I have a client that does this through its ‘product line simplification’ process.  It’s in their DNA to do this.  They spot low volume, low margin products that hurt the bottom line. Not only do these products return low margin but they also gobble up production time that could be spent producing and selling higher margin products.

Three – practice saying ‘no’.

This might be the hardest for many salespeople.  They love the hunt right?  But getting better at saying no to business that will cost more to service and with customers that offer little potential for growth and volume is often good business practice.

What happens when your salespeople exercise any of these strategies is they are forced to double down on existing customers and those with truly attractive potential for longer term growth and volumes.

Good Selling,

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle and soon to be released sales coaching book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel

Think of Rebounding When Coaching Salespeople to Prospect

How do you help salespeople prospect when they struggle to do so?

As a sales manager you may have that rep (or more) who struggles to add new early stage opportunities to their sales funnel.  Sometimes it’s a ‘farmer’ type who you’re trying to get to ‘hunt’ more.

During our clients’ Funnel Audits each month we inevitably discuss how to prospect to build healthier sales funnels.  It takes only a few cycles of Funnel Audits for us to know if a rep is generally more or generally less naturally inclined, and therefore competent, to prospect.

I realize this topic is a monster of possibilities but here I offer some of the simple ways we help our clients with this vital function.

A Qualifier

Many of my clients are SMBs that don’t have staff or know-how for running email marketing campaigns or lead nurture programs. Therefore much of the job of lead gen falls to salespeople.  You see why this can be a problem.

Here are ways we tackle this challenge.

Identify The Main Issue

I try to dumb down the prospecting challenge by asking the rep and manager these two questions:

Is your challenge more about getting access to the stakeholders in companies you have identified to call on, or

Is your challenge more about finding companies to call on? 

When the challenge is getting access we focus on these tasks:

1 – Are you targeting the right stakeholders?

2 – Is your message compelling enough to get their attention?

3 – Are you being persistent enough?

 

When the challenge is finding more companies to call on we focus on this:

1 – Are you sure you’re getting as much share of current customers’ business as you could be?

2 – Are there divisions or business units or lines of business within current customers that you could be referred to?

3 – Do you have a vetted target account list of potential companies?

4  – Are you being persistent enough?

 

See what’s similar? Again, I realize there’s more complexity to this challenge, but we have to start somewhere.  Often I find in my coaching that salespeople lack the persistence element.

Finding more companies sometimes means the rep needs to have ‘shorter term memory’.  They’ll say they don’t call on ‘x’ because ‘x’ turned them down the last time they pitched some business, or ‘x’ has been buying from competitor ‘y’ forever.  This may be true but it’s also defeatist.  Sales managers have to encourage reps to get back up to the plate again, take another shot, and keep trying, albeit with different creative approaches.

I think prospecting is a bit like rebounding in basketball.  Several years ago I taught my son’s 4thgrade team how to box out.  But in the games the boys who grabbed the rebounds were typically the ones who wanted the ball more, not necessarily the ones that boxed out well.  College announcers comment all the time that the team that wins the battle of the boards are usually the teams that looked like they wanted it more.

Prospecting struggles often come back to how bad you want it.  If you give up after a few tries of trying to see someone or break into a new account you’re doomed.  In my experience highly persistent salespeople are often rewarded by a stakeholder who finally gives in or even feels bad for not returning the call.

Good Selling,

Mark Sellers

Author, The Funnel Principle and soon to be released sales coaching book Blindspots: The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Creator of The BuyCycle Funnel

Treat Success with Skepticism

Recently I attended the Global Leadership Summit (GLS) outside of Chicago and soaked in the ideas and wisdom of about a dozen speakers.  What an event!

Rasmus Ankersen is chairman of FC Midtjylland, a European football (American soccer) club in Denmark. He’s also the author of a best selling book called Entrepreneur.  He and senior leadership purchased the club several years ago and took a ‘money ball’ strategy to acquire competent but not high priced players.  The strategy is working.  He compared this strategy to that of another club that handed out big, long term contracts to the coach and players after an unexpectedly, wildly successful season.  This was an attempt to keep the mojo alive.  Unfortunately it failed miserably as that team collapsed the next year to the bottom of the league table (standings).  Ankersen says that a closer look at the data associated with the failed team’s one year success would have revealed its weaknesses and vulnerability.  Be skeptical of success.

One of my favorite stories in Henry Cloud’s excellent book Necessary Endings is the story of the remaking of Welch Allyn.  In short, a new CEO convinced the board and leadership that the strategy for the 100 year success of the company would be a recipe for failure for the next 100 years. They bought her vision, but not without intense and emotional debate, as you’d expect.  Who could be faulted for wanting to not change a thing associated with a generation of success?

For me, personally, these business stories mirror the individual journeys that we are gifted with while we’re earthly bound.  Like a contradiction, the solution is usually not obvious.  Internal maps and biases and selfish interests shield the view. It’s all the more confusing when the things that helped us climb and conquer in the first half life are now the things that hold us back from entering the second half life.

And yet within the contradiction is the hidden gem.  Cloud expertly says things almost always have to die first for other things to grow and prosper.  It’s easy to prune a dead branch of a rose bush, but do you have the wisdom and courage to prune the live branches that are the weakest and that will hold back the bush’s growth?  Great is the art of the beginning, but even greater is the art of the ending, says Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I ended a coaching session with some sales managers recently by addressing their frustration with some of their salespeople not embracing the new ways of selling that we’ve trained them in. Instead of letting that frustration bind them I said let it release you.  Ask yourself what this moment is trying to teach you.  Give it space and let yourself be taught by it instead of wasting the moment with haste to escape.  Instead of wondering how to get ‘Jack’ on board the program, ask why do I resist trying to understand better why Jack feels the way he does.  The short answer could be I’ve got a quota to hit and another meeting in 15 minutes and I need Jack to stop being so damned stubborn.  Asking and learning almost always gets you closer to a solution than showing and telling.

Ironically, one speaker at the GLS, a very popular guy these days, embodied the essence of treating success with skepticism.  His stories and anecdotes were oddly old and predictably lacked impact (how long have we been hearing the story of Kodak’s blindspot with digital photography?) Smart comedians don’t tell jokes about Cleveland anymore.  I’ll borrow a line from a column Peggy Noonan wrote years ago about an entirely different topic.  It’s as if this speaker has seen the movie but hasn’t read the book.

The speakers at the GLS that impacted me the most were the ones that were the most humble.  David Livermore took the top prize.  Toward the end of his talk he dropped a jaw dropping bombshell about his story that created a silence among the 10,000 attendees.  It was awesome.  It was real.  He not only read the book, he’s written it.

Years ago I was part of a company’s strategic planning efforts.  The board brought in a very competent, smart executive to forge new direction, to change the place up.  He told us ‘we can’t there from here. “ I took it to mean that the place we need to get to, we cannot arrive through the same paths nor with the same mindsets that brought us ‘here’.  Be proud of the success that has defined the past and be skeptical to think that ‘here’ will take you where we need to go.

Stay skeptical of success my friends.

 

Mark Sellers

Author The Funnel Principle

Author of forthcoming book Blindspots:  The Hidden Killer of Sales Coaching

Created the BuyCycle Funnel and Funnel Principle selling process