5 (better) Ways to Lead a Sales Team
Heather Baldwin

There’s no getting around it: change is the new reality for sales organizations. Stand still and you can watch the sales parade pass you by. New technologies, evolving customer needs, a shifting and globally competitive landscape, and countless other variables mean sales teams must be prepared to meet change and adapt to it or pack up and move out.

But for sales management, it’s a balancing act. Change too much and you may wind up frustrating sales reps and negatively impacting their performance. Change too little or too late and your competitors will eat for lunch the sales you were counting on. It’s a tough call for any sales leader: when do you step in to exert leadership and change your team’s direction? And what’s the best way to do it?

We put those questions to five sales-leadership experts, each of whom offered a different opinion on the best “when” or “how” to step forward and move a sales team in a new direction. If you’re thinking about a change in direction, first think about the following recommendations so you can lead the change effectively and get the results you want. Find what works for you and go for it.

Time It Right

When it comes to change, timing is crucial. “The bigger the change, the more carefully you have to think about the timing,” cautions Terry Bacon, a scholar in residence at the Korn/Ferry Institute and author of The Elements of Power: Lessons on Leadership and Influence (AMACOM, 2011). “Never come at people out of the blue, because it’s too disruptive.”

Bacon says there are some “natural moments” to step in and exert leadership to move your team in a new direction. One of the best times to do this is when there’s an external event that would make a change of direction both acceptable and expected. For instance, a change in leadership at either the top of the company or the top of the sales organization would lead to an expectation of change further down the ranks. A major strategic planning event that results in a new corporate direction is another example. “There’s got to be some event that coincides with the change so it’s expected,” says Bacon.

“An abrupt shift in direction that doesn’t coincide with an external change can be jarring,” he warns. “When something like a change in leadership occurs, that’s a good time to say, ‘Let’s look at what’s going on.’ Then it feels inevitable that there might be a change in direction or policy.”

Look Forward, Not Back

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat first purred those words in 1865, but they remain applicable to sales organizations today: if you don’t know where you want your team to be in the next three to five years, you can’t know the direction in which your sales team needs to be led.

Philippe Lavie, president of Chicago-based KeyRoad Enterprises, says a sales leader seeking to effect change must first understand the strategic direction of his or her company as a whole. Next, that sales leader needs to establish a long-range strategic direction for the sales organization that complements the organizational goals. Only then, says Lavie, can he or she evaluate the tactical-level changes that must be made to accomplish those strategic objectives.

Lavie was once approached by an accounting firm that asked him to conduct sales training; however, when Lavie asked where the firm wanted to be in three years, no one knew. Those he asked didn’t know the firm’s strengths or how it should be perceived in the market. They didn’t know what differentiated the firm from its competition.

“The company wanted us to train its sales force, but without a strategic plan, what were we going to train the sales team to do?” he recalls. Without that long-term plan, there’s no way to know, for instance, whether your sales structure is right or sales compensation is structured correctly or your coverage model is optimal.

Many sales organizations, such as the one at that accounting firm, manage by looking in the rearview mirror, rather than looking forward. They focus on backward-looking questions: Are we selling the right product mix? Can we deliver on time? Is our quality better than the competition’s? But that’s a recipe for disaster.

“When you look behind you, the only thing that will allow you to differentiate is price,” Lavie warns. “That’s not a strategy for three to five years out.”

Eliminate Self-Preservation

To make a real impact on your sales team, focus on helping reps overcome self-preservation, says Jeremie Kubicek, CEO of GiANT Impact and author of Leadership Is Dead: How Influence Is Reviving It (Howard Books, 2011). “Self-preservation is like a cancer, especially on sales teams,” says Kubicek. “If I were a leader wanting to change direction and create a new culture, I would spend most of my time focusing on overcoming that issue.”

Self-preservation is about overprotecting what you are afraid of losing. It creates a myopic or narcissistic mind-set that, in turn, creates selfish, off-putting behaviors. If not addressed, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, reps who are highly fearful of not hitting quota can become so transactional and defensive, they turn people away from them – which in turn leads to the very thing they were afraid of: not hitting quota.

Kubicek remembers a sales leader on his team who was so afraid of losing his job when the recession hit that it was all he could talk about. “He was a good leader before the recession, but he became such a nuisance because of his own fear that he worked himself out of a job,” he remembers. “We wound up letting him go.”

Another sales rep who came from a higher level in the company was so focused on protecting her reputation as someone important that she came across as an insufferable know-it-all. Confronted with her behavior and her sales results showing that her performance was near the bottom of the team, she made some major changes in her attitude and is now the company’s second-best salesperson.

“Self-preservation is the chief limiter for most salespeople,” he concludes. “If I want to get my team members to the next level, I’m going to help them get secure in their role in the world. When they get there, they become authentic and start giving freely of themselves, and then people want to be around them, which leads them to achieve what they wanted in the first place.”

Think Like a Mutual-Fund Manager

To lead a sales team in a new direction, change the way your team members think about their jobs. “I frequently find that salespeople understand their role in the sales process and revenue generation, but they don’t have an understanding of the role they play in the overall business model,” observes Ron Dalesio, executive vice president of worldwide sales for Development Dimensions International (DDI). When salespeople better understand value creation and their role in it, he adds, real change can occur.

It’s all about balance and sustainability for the long term. “Salespeople create sustainable value for companies by becoming asset managers,” says Dalesio. “They need to think of themselves as mutual-fund managers with a collection of assets, and their role is to maximize the value and cash productivity of those assets over a long period of time.”

Too often, sales organizations focus on short-term quarterly earnings, which leads them to celebrate the Big Deal. But a single, say, $2 million deal often provides an immediate return – with nothing over the long term – while diverting enormous resources from other customers to attain it. “As a mutual-fund manager, reps understand they are much better off developing four half-million-dollar clients than a single two-million-dollar client,” says Dalesio.

In addition to helping salespeople better identify clients with sustainable value, managers taking this new path must also reevaluate compensation plans to encourage long-term customer growth. For instance, Dalesio recently worked with a high-tech hardware manufacturer that shifted between one-half and one-third of its total variable compensation by encouraging the creation of blue-chip clients, customers whose definition includes both size and longevity. Today, the longer the company’s reps maintain and grow blue-chip clients, the better their performance bonuses will be. The result: “They’ve seen quite a shift in the retention and growth of their most significant clients,” says Dalesio. “They also saw a big uptick in the average revenue per client.”

Know the Vision

To get everyone moving toward a common goal, you need a clearly stated vision. In most organizations today, however, the vision is almost trite. It is printed on posters and company letterhead, but it is rarely imprinted on the psyche of the sales team. And that’s a big problem for leaders.

“Setting and holding out the vision for a sales team is one of the most important jobs a leader has,” says Joelle Jay, an executive coach and author of The Inner Edge: The 10 Practices of Personal Leadership (Praeger, 2009). “If you poll people in an organization, only about 30 percent will have a sense of what the vision is. Most people just don’t connect with it and keep it, and that poses a huge problem for sales teams when you want everyone going in the same direction toward the same goal.”

If you don’t already have a clear and compelling vision, make that your first priority, says Jay. Start by asking yourself what you want for your team and how your team contributes to the company’s greater vision.

Next, Jay recommends having a collaborative meeting around the vision. “Have an open conversation around whether this is the right vision for your team,” she says. “From that, you’ll get a better vision and a more committed team.” Finally, formalize the vision and make it a part of your team.

Jay recently worked with a telecom company whose sales were sinking rapidly. The company brought in a new head of sales, who promptly created a simple, inspiring vision for the entire sales organization. She went to each call center and taught everyone the vision; she insisted people use the right language to communicate it. Long story short: Sales started heading back up again. “It came down to a clear, consistent message that everyone got,” recalls Jay.

People aren’t only motivated by numbers. They’ll quickly get burned out if their job is about only clearing the next hurdle; however, if they can understand how their product or solution makes a difference, they’ll be more motivated to get out there every day. That’s what a vision can do.

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