February 2, 2010

Lone Wolf

From an early age, most of us are encouraged to think of ourselves as part of a group; we are told to be a sport, a team player. First, at preschool or kindergarten, and then later, in scouting or at church, we are asked to contribute to the good of the team. Just because we’ve had years of team experience, however, doesn’t necessarily mean we know what makes a team or how to be a valued team player. We may think we’re team players, doing what it takes to get the job done, and not even realize that, in the process, we’re undermining the group. On the other hand, sometimes being a lone wolf, or individual contributor, isn’t such a bad thing. Many sales situations require some of both.

What’s in a Team?

When most of us think of a team, we generally rely on the definition found in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a number of persons associated together in work or activity.” If we are referring to 10, 50 or even 100 women and men, however, whose only link is they sell for the same company, the phrase sales team can be misleading. Often, they are best described as a sales force or group. To be a true team, salespeople must be engaged in achieving a common goal.

That’s why in today’s complex selling world, a sales team can frequently be composed of salespeople as well as staff from other departments – purchasing to research – who support the sales effort. To find out more about what distinguishes a sales team and makes it work, we spoke with several business writers and consultants who teach at Harvard University.

“You get nothing by naming a team a team,” according to the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University J. Richard Hackman, author of Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances (Harvard Business School Press, 2002). “You need collective work objectives, where people are held accountable and get collectively rewarded. It takes special attention to design a sales team. They are individually incentivized, and you may want some special reward, or incentive, for the team as a whole.” Without building in both individual and shared goals, he notes, there is little motivation to work together, which can lead to that all-too-frequent workplace complaint: I’m only working so the boss can get a bonus.

“What we’re all after is synergy: the sum is greater than the parts. I see teamwork as putting together the pieces,” says Amy Edmondson, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Teams That Learn (Wiley, to be released next year). “You need to express your individual thoughts, or you might as well be a group of clones.” Like Hackman, she stresses the importance of a team goal. “The task has to be something that genuinely has some interdependence to it,” she notes. “Part of the point of a team is to have different expertises brought together. Most important endeavors can’t be done without a team.” As sales become increasingly complex, especially in business-to-business situations, she sees a real need for sales teams – not forces or groups – to attract and maintain clients.

This is not to say that working in teams is easy. It’s not. It’s human nature that some teammates will get on your nerves. “Stop and reflect why they’re pushing your buttons,” advises Edmondson. “Ask yourself, what am I doing that encourages that behavior in others?” She also suggests taking a time-out and then initiating a discussion about the problem. “If you don’t stop to inquire, people will think you don’t care,” she says, adding, “people are likely to see others as not a team player, rather than themselves.” Despite the negative connotations frequently attached to the term lone wolf – someone who goes off on his or her own outside the pack – she points out that lone wolves can have important strengths that can aid the team. “We want to leverage those,” she says.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad (Lone) Wolf?

Dorothy Leonard, the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration emerita at Harvard Business School and coauthor (with Walter Swap) of When Sparks Fly: Harnessing the Power of Group Creativity (Harvard Business School Press, 2005) concurs that lone wolves can frequently have good ideas. Her recommendation is that managers establish rules to deal with the team process. “It helps to manage conflict,” she says, “and to bring the lone wolf in.” What makes teams work for her is the “creative abrasion” that arises from constructive conflict that has been depersonalized. “Conflict that arises from natural innate differences can be helpful,” she says. “We have a very human tendency, even with intellectual conflict, to personalize it.”

As an example of using managed conflict to spark creativity, Leonard cites the development of Fisher-Price’s nonviolent action figures Rescue Heroes. In this case, the toy company’s marketing department wanted to create a toy that would appeal to young boys, who like violence, while the design group wanted the toys to appeal to mothers, who don’t want their children to play with violent toys. Rescue Heroes take into account both seemingly diametrically opposed viewpoints and have become a favorite of kids and parents. This same process works equally well for sales teams looking to find new business and writing proposals for much more complicated sales, such as those in medicine.

“The lone wolf can be very effective,” concedes consultant Alan McAnally, president of Commonwealth Sales Consulting, whose own definition of a lone wolf is less the introvert that Edmondson and Leonard envision and more of a predator who is willing to sacrifice the team for his or her own survival. In his experience, the lone wolf is an egotist who fails to make an effort to understand the other people and groups that support his or her sales efforts. “If you have no time whatsoever to genuinely help, advise or assist new people or peers, you are a lone wolf. It may sound corny,” he notes, “but you reap what you sow. Sooner or later, other than in the most elementary sales situations, you need people to help you. Particularly in a more complicated sales environment, a lone wolf will eventually find it difficult to rally the support that he or she needs for continued success.” McAnally is careful to distinguish between a lone wolf, who provides no help, and salespeople who are put in the position of doing their boss’s job by spending hours training an inexperienced new hire.

Teaming Up

A number of companies have begun structuring their sales effort to foster real team spirit. At Cintas, the largest uniform supplier in the United States and Canada with 351 facilities in North America, “being a team player means more business,” says marketing manager Richard Sharp, who works out of the Ashland, KY, office. In his workplace, he would like to see lone wolves become extinct. “You’ve got to be part of the pack,” says Sharp, “it helps everyone do better. It helps motivate everyone.” Of course, conflicts can still arise. “You’re always going to have personality differences in the workplace,” says Sharp. “But you have to put them to the side.” To encourage a pack mentality, a year ago Cintas began sending out salespeople in teams of two. “It’s worked out tremendously. Our two top sales reps are on the same team. You may have one person who’s an aggressive closer and another who’s a great presenter,” says Sharp, who posts 50 goals on a bulletin board for his salespeople each quarter. Every time they achieve a goal, it is removed to reveal a portion of a larger reward meant to build rapport among the teams.

Recently, when all 50 goals were met, Sharp took his reps to a Jimmy Buffet concert as their group reward. Even in companies where the joint goal is something as straightforward as hitting the monthly budget, building in individual incentives can promote team spirit. Last year, for example, Cor Packaging and Box, in Toledo, OH, a 25-person family business that sells boxes and packaging material, offered laptop computers to all of its salespeople who made their numbers for the entire year. General manager and partner Brent Ryan, whose father started the company 30 years ago, likes to think of everyone at Cor as all on the same team. “We’re like an army of one, with lots of branches,” he says.

Since Cor Packaging designs materials to meet specific customers’ needs, it’s not unusual, according to Ryan, for salespeople to help each other plan out a proposal, even if they get no financial remuneration for the sale. Recently, when he needed help devising a better box and packing material for tire irons, he asked another salesman – who had created a similar type of packaging for car bumpers – to help him think through the project. Ryan, in turn, does the same for other salespeople. “If somebody says, ‘I have a customer similar to yours,’ and asks, ‘Can you come with me on the call?’ the other salesperson will,” says Ryan. Cor Packaging’s collegial atmosphere leads many in-house to refer to the company as “the country club.”

It doesn’t matter whether the product a sales representative is selling is a corrugated box, uniforms or some other type of service, the same issues arise about the company and the team. Is it really possible to be part of a team and use your lone-wolf talents to bring in business? Yes, says consultant McAnally, “It’s easy. Do your own thing, but do it in the framework of respecting others who also have a vested interest in your results and, in fact, contribute to them.” In the end, everyone benefits, and it’s not just the boss who gets the bonus.