The Firstborn Phenomenon

By Heather Baldwin

Here’s an exercise you might find interesting: Ask your top-performing sales reps if they are firstborn children. Chances are, most of them will say yes. Firstborns make up about 35% of the general population, but in study after study they make up a vastly higher percentage of high achievers points out Thomas Connellan, author of Bringing Out the Best in Others! (Bard Press, 2003). Of the first 23 astronauts, for example, 21 were firstborns. More than half of U.S. presidents have been firstborns, and two-thirds of entrepreneurs are firstborns. So what does this mean for you as a sales manager? Plenty, says Connellan.

As it turns out, firstborns aren’t disproportionately successful because of genetics. They’re successful because of environmental factors in the way they’ve been raised. Specifically, Connellan has found three factors that consistently make a difference between firstborns and the rest of the children in a family. If you can replicate these factors in your workplace, he says, you’ll see a positive change in the performance of your sales team.

1. Expectations. In general, people have more positive expectations for firstborns. Parents see their firstborns as president of the senior class, captain of the football team, an Oscar-winning actress. Whatever they’re involved in, firstborns are expected to excel and because of that expectation they often do. Likewise, if you have positive expectations of your employees and communicate those expectations, employees will be more likely to meet those goals.

2. Responsibility. Firstborns are given more responsibility and at an earlier age. They’re asked to help out with younger brothers and sisters. They’re given the money and the responsibility to look after their siblings when going out to meet the ice cream truck. In sales, give your people responsibility and make them accountable for their actions. Then step back and get out of the way.

3. Feedback. Firstborns get more feedback. They get more attention from parents, relatives and family friends. They have more pictures taken. Parents spend more time with them encouraging them to walk and talk. But all feedback is not created equal. Positive feedback is energizing, which is why good leaders naturally use positive feedback as reinforcement whenever they can. Negative feedback is punitive; no feedback at all, especially when someone has put forth an extra effort, is the least motivating response you can make to any action. If you remember nothing else, says Connellan, remember this: Bringing out the best in others requires that we reinforce improvements, even if the person has not yet reached the desired level of performance.