The sales function is much more important than a revenue engine. It is the first touch that a prospective client or consumer has to your company’s brand. A salesperson is much like a cultural ambassador, letting an individual experience for the first time what it would be like to form a relationship with your company, and the importance of sales doesn’t stop there. It bleeds into every other function – it informs marketing, operations, technology, product, finance… you name it. Given its connection to the rest of the firm, why is it so often treated like something separate rather than an integral piece of the system? To draw upon an analogy, if companies are like the field of medicine, why is sales often treated like dentistry? We believe the answer lies in leadership.
There are two common approaches to leadership: Superior Leadership and Connected Leadership. The Superior Leader is one who commands action and encourages followership. This model is easy to fall into given how many of our own experiences are colored by the tutelage of Superior Leaders. Plus, it doesn’t require much input from the peanut gallery. In fact, all too often it misses their valuable contribution all together. Commonly, these really are smart, experienced individuals with a natural charisma and capacity to direct others. While effective in many instances, the sore spot is that Superior Leadership favors immediate results over sustainable results.
Connected Leaders, on the other hand, reveal strategic imperatives and inspire teams to drive results through collective contribution. Inspiration, though, is not a commandment and it is not pressure. What does inspiration feel like to you? It is enlightening. A light-bulb moment. Freeing. These leaders take responsibility for keeping people connected to a common purpose, to meaningful goals, and to one another. A Connected Leader establishes a culture of trust and authentic conversation, one in which inspiration and surprising results occur naturally.
Sales leaders often go by the Superior Leader handbook. How else do you drive results but by pressuring and incentivizing your team to sell more, work harder, and move faster? In the short term that pressure can work. It can also incentivize a culture where a turnstile of salespeople play for their own team, stomaching as many disaffected initial conversations with prospective clients and consumers as they need to meet their quotas, and unintentionally setting a path for your company to be viewed as indistinct and maybe even insincere. Do you find salespeople put in claims over their “turf”? Is there a culture of mistrust, defensiveness, and blame? Do you find salespeople disengaged with the spirit of the company? Superior Leadership likely has a hand in that setting.
Given the importance of the sales function – how can we begin to imagine that importance permeating through leadership? How can we awaken sales leaders to be more connected with their teams, their organizations, and with their clients and customers?
Here’s some good news: there is a way to bring in revenue and enduring impact. When we look to organizations around the world, the ones that have healed the breakdowns that we’ve listed above have reported three common characteristics: community, contribution and choice.
We’ve heard that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. While this may be accurate, we find a deeper source of discomfort underlying the decision to leave a group: a lack of belonging. Belongingness doesn’t come from higher splits on commissions or new ping-pong tables. Rather, it comes from a shared sense of purpose and a shared future. Within the sales organization, repeatedly “lone wolf” cultures emerge. It is easy to see why – a superior leader and a reinforced belief that everyone is there just to make more money.
Imagine if you felt as if you were part of something monumental. Now imagine you’re there with people you value who value you, fighting the same good fight to ensure a better world in whatever domain you happen to be in. Within this new context imagine what it feels like to wake up in the morning, knowing this is the environment you get to be a part of. Sales leaders have the opportunity to create this. Imagine the possibilities of what a team like this could accomplish.
Many times sales leaders look for the unicorns – the expert networkers that are hyper detail-oriented, have natural negotiation abilities, and help ensure client success. More often than not, salespeople find themselves deriving more value in one area than others. Superior leaders may command that these salespeople train up or ship out. In the never-ending pursuit of these unicorns the sales leader may find they’ve inadvertently created a damaged culture where it takes more time, money, and stress to hit the same numbers they’ve hit before.
Connected sales leaders have the opportunity to learn with their salespeople. People evolve over time and a salesperson may find managing accounts fits more in line with their style of work. Alternatively, account managers may want to drive new business leads into the organization. The connected sales leader sponsors this internal evolution in people, affording chances for salespeople to contribute in new ways as they learn and grow. This self-directed contribution alongside a leader that promotes this evolution allows for greater ownership in the work and ultimately more done with less time, money, and stress.
Given the constraints that the team has over product, service, territory and the like, how can the sales leader consciously shift from mandates to autonomy? This isn’t an invitation for anarchy – nor is it an invitation for the bias of the leader to become the bias of the group. It starts with each individual having a clear understanding of strategic priorities, purpose, and values, and then an opportunity to personally choose to commit to them. That doesn’t happen through force, but through relationship and conversation.
Within the accurate circumstances of the organization, invite everyone on the sales team to have a voice prior to leadership initiating their point of view. Why? Allowing the space to listen to the boots on the ground gives an enormously rich opportunity to learn something new about the product to market fit. The leader ultimately makes the decision, but this doesn’t mean that the decision only lives between the ears of the leader. The salespeople individually offer as much brain power to the decision, which supports a sense of shared ownership across the team. Foster this sense of autonomy and find what surprising results arrive.
When looking at your sales organization, imagine what an environment of more community, contribution, and choice feels like. At Conversant, we believe difference + trust = brilliance. Let community afford you trust. Let contribution and choice afford you difference. Try it, and see what brilliance can emerge.