As I continue to write about what separates the excellent from the average sales leader, it didn’t take long to get to the topic of coaching. Because few people go to school to earn degrees in selling (there are hardly any Universities even offering a degree in selling,) sales talent is developed in the field, largely through formal development and coaching. Unfortunately, most training efforts fail to reach their objectives, in large part because of the absence of any kind of reinforcement or coaching. In fact, one of my former bosses whom I have quoted before, Neil Rackham, conducted a study that indicated that post training, if there was no coaching or reinforcement activity, there was a drop-off of 87% of the knowledge acquired. That’s a waste of 87 cents on every dollar spent on formal development efforts. So why then is it so difficult to do well?
The answer lies in the reality of the job of the sales manager. Most sales managers are placed in a position where, in the eyes of senior leadership, reporting numbers is their top priority (even when the top priority should be improving numbers or moreover, improving capability to achieve numbers.) They end up creating pivot tables, reports, and analysis, all to improve the accuracy of the to-be-reported-forecast. These exercises of examination and review create a false sense of security among sales managers and leaders because they are working under a false assumption. That is, that higher levels of inspection creates better results. Ironically, the opposite is true—just ask any sales professional or manager how much time they have spent rolling up forecast data what kind of difference it made in their ability to achieve an objective. I’ll save you the time; the answer is virtually none.
So if forecast and numbers management doesn’t quite do the trick, what will? The answer is focused talent development through one on one coaching with sales professionals with their managers. Sound time intensive? Difficult? One more thing to do? Yes, it is. But it does not need to be incrementally more difficult, time consuming, or onerous. Rather, done well, effective sales coaching replaces many of the counterproductive activities taken on by sales management. Here is how to do it.
Develop a clear line of sight between sales actions, sales goals, and business outcomes. As much as I encourage leaders to always focus on the bigger picture, there is a time, and that time is during coaching, to focus on the practical, tactical elements of how you need to execute. Align the sales actions with the sales goals, because, try as we may to manage the outcome, we can only manage the actions and what our sales reps are doing. As a result, if you effectively manage the sales actions of your team, that should naturally lead you to the achievement of your sales goals the majority of the time, (provided they were the right activities.) Doing this time and again ultimately realizes the business outcomes.
Coach by asking, not telling. A startling number of sales managers have been promoted solely on the basis of being stellar representatives. Without management guidance these managers frequently think that coaching is all about telling team members what they need to do—and most of the time that consists of what they used to do. The best coaches work with their people to understand the current issues and jointly diagnose what is working and what is not as they develop an action plan to achieve sales objectives. They ask questions to help the seller frame the issues properly and provide constructive feedback regarding how to improve. There are many generic coaching models for this but they all seem to fall flat in the selling environment because they lack the specificity of driving toward sales behaviors that will make the greatest difference. Most coaching conversations are deal focused (rather than special time to coach and develop generically,) so it is all about the ability of the manager to weave in the development of the sales representative in a productive way. Effective guidance by the sales manager in this process is critical and that guidance comes from asking as much as telling. Particular if part of the goal
Trade half of the numbers review discussions for early stage pipeline review discussions. I know, it sounds radical. It is. But if you believe the premise that so many do, that sales leaders spend an inordinate amount of counterproductive time obsessing over the numbers than this should make a lot of sense. Consider how often you hear the questions “When is that deal going to close?” “When are we going to get the contract?” “When is that order coming in?” “What is the invoicing status?” Because most of that obsessing is about late stage deals that are close to closing, little can be done to influence them. By shifting half of the time on early stage deals, sales leaders are able to determine where optimal value can be created in the sales cycle and direct resources toward that value. There is nothing wrong with asking questions about late stage deals and understanding the forecast, but when that is the only focus, you miss the greatest opportunity in improving sales performance.
When it comes to sales coaching, there is no silver bullet. But intense focus and alignment coupled with the right kinds of conversations with representatives can make a dramatic difference in the output of your sales organization. Give it try.
The best salespeople see a sale as a consultation, not a transaction. They find ways to benefit the customer beyond what the product offers. Here are three ways you can be more valuable to your potential clients:
- Help clients see issues they hadn’t considered. Don’t start by lecturing a customer about the problems you see in her business. Lead a conversation, prompt her to explore deeper issues, and then offer thoughtful diagnoses as the discussion progresses.
- Point out opportunities they’ve missed. If you can identify them, help your customer see untapped possibilities – markets, technologies, trends – that will allow his business to grow.
- Refer them elsewhere, when necessary. Not every client needs what you’re offering. When that happens, connect them with people who can help think through a complex issue or point them to another vendor who has what they need.
To say that forecasting is the bane of existence of most sales managers and leaders is a bit of an understatement. For most representatives, the choice between working on the forecast and getting a root canal would lead to a trip to the dentist. And yet, most organizations rely heavily on the “data” that is produced in forecasts to make decisions on everything from budgets to bonuses. I use quotes around the term data, because while the term is appropriate, many a forecast are a “wish-cast.” That is, the data is based on too much hope of what will happen and not enough empirical evidence to be accurate.
If you want to produce better sales forecasts, then it is incumbent upon sales leaders to take a different approach. Simply providing routine inspections of the numbers reported up the chain of command and making adjustments based on gut feel is not enough. In order to produce a good forecast, sales leaders need to pay attention to the following principles:
- Good forecasting requires a good sales strategy. When a map is wrong, it fails to accurately depict the reality of the landscape, and the same is true when a forecast is incorrect. In short, a forecast does not a strategy make. Good sales strategies take into account the outcomes that need to occur in order to move closer to closing business. A good strategy may include a SWOT analysis, or a clear understanding of the customer criteria for decision and how you rank against the criteria, but most importantly, it will direct your tactics and help you determine the logical series of next steps. And if an account is worth occupying space in your sales funnel it deserves the strategic consideration and attention required to move deftly through your pipeline.
- Good forecasting requires an understanding of your buyer’s behavior.“If you want to learn how sellers ought to sell, learn how buyers buy,” frequently admonished one of my mentors. And if you want to have an accurate forecast, the same holds true. Too many forecasts are simply lists or histories of what the seller has done without taking into consideration what the buyer is doing. The sales process, however, only moves forward when the buyer takes action, so it is incumbent on the sales organization to get very clear on how your buyer is making the decision. What is the process they will use? What stages of the decision cycle are ahead? And what should you be doing differently at each stage.
- Good forecasting requires a milestone driven pipeline process. Once you are clear about how the client is buying you can apply your pipeline process. Ever looked at a forecast and said, “This account is not in the late stages, it is an early stage opportunity?” The key to being effective here is to make sure your pipeline process addresses the key milestones in your selling environment. Are needs analyses, field studies, or demo’s important milestones that client’s commit to in the sales process? Pre-proposal review meetings? If so include them in the appropriate stages of your pipeline process and manage to the events that lead to the completion of these milestones. Whatever milestones they are, or whatever your unique vernacular calls them, make sure they are embedded in your pipeline process so that they serve as guideposts for where you really are in the pipeline.
- Good forecasting requires continual improvement. A forecast is a snapshot not a movie. At any given time you need to remember that, done well, forecasting represents a moment in time, and since the landscape is constantly changing, forecasts need to be continually refined. You may experience changes in your business or in the marketplace that indicate that an additional milestone be added to your process. Or perhaps you find that over time, the values you placed on each of the stages in the pipeline need revision because you have more predictive data about closing rates.
With these principles, forecasting can become a strategic endeavor with a positive impact on results versus an inspection exercise that produces an educated guess. The best sales leaders I have worked with use the forecast as a tool to help them manage and lead the business, support strategic decisions, and determine how to allocate resources. Not just another spreadsheet to check the box on. Use these principles to help your sales organization to forecast more effectively and you will have created great value for your company and made your job much easier in the process.
What’s better than a really excellent engineer working on a project? Not just more engineers working on a project but more engineers who can collaborate effectively.
I’ve been working on an engagement focused on increasing the productive output of teams of software engineers. One part involves identifying who the most successful software engineers are, so their performance can be replicated. To supplement my own observations, I had the chance to talk with a team at IBM that was doing much the same thing — analyzing data from surveys of more than 200 software developers to determine the traits that made them successful in that role. They had expected the most successful to be the ones most technically competent, but what they found was that best were those most adept at teamwork, collaboration, and building relationships.
“Most of the time, rightly or wrongly, software engineers and developers are typically thought of as loners, preferring to work independently and not necessarily working well with others,” says Bryan Hayes, a director with Kenexa (which IBM acquired last year) who was a researcher on the project. “But in fact, according to IBM’s findings, the most successful software engineers buck the common stereotypes.”
In particular, IBM found, the most successful technical staffers are the ones who:
- Make a contribution to others. One of the ways already expert technical leaders can further strengthen their technical and professional skills, as the article “Making Yourself Indispensable,”explains, is to become better at the complementary skill of developing other people. Coaching and developing others enables technical professionals to share their knowledge and experience, broadening their impact on the organization they work for. The old saying credited to Yogi Bajhan— “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it” — is particularly apt for technical experts. If you’ve ever prepared to teach a class or even coach someone, you know that it forces you to think much more explicitly about how and why you do what you do well.
- Focus on working together in complementary ways to accomplish a common goal. The most effective technical experts develop working relationships and forge alliances with colleagues so they can effectively share both information and resources critical to the success of a project. They recognize that their expertise is only a means to an end of accomplishing common goals. On one very effective team I observed, for instance, software engineers were particularly deft at dividing up tasks in a way that would help the group reach the company’s goals the fastest. They focused on who could most effectively get each task done even when that meant some people would have to give more effort and time than others.
- Display a highly collaborative spirit. I know, you don’t often think about a lot of spirit when it comes to engineers, but the most successful possess it. Dan Goleman highlighted a study at Bell Labs in his seminal book Emotional Intelligence that sought to identify what set apart the top 10% of this already elite group. The critical difference, detailed interviews revealed, was not academic pedigree or IQ but the stars’ interpersonal skills and how much their professional relationships contributed to their engineering work performance. When technical experts don’t do a good job developing relationships, their technical competence is hidden.
- Are highly responsive to the needs of their customers. It will not surprise the less technical among you that the most effective software engineers kept a firm eye on the purpose of their efforts by keeping the customer at the center of their activities. This should go without saying, but any software engineer will tell you how easy it is to focus on the details of a job and lose sight of its ultimate purpose. Rather than just designing or building to specs, the best technical experts use questions like “How will customers ultimately use this?” and “What is the client trying to accomplish?” to spur creative solutions or anticipate unintended consequences.
So the best of the best shatter our stereotypical image of the technician working away in isolation, coding, solving, building, and fixing. They are in fact, among the most relationship focused people in an organization.
As the economy has been growing, so to has been deal activity with mergers and acquisitions on the rise. About half of my clients are involved or have been involved in some kind of merger activity and in the Tampa Bay area as well as the nation as a whole, M&A activity has seen substantial increases over prior years.
Chris Matthews of Time reports that “U.S. firms are on pace to have the biggest year in M&A activity since 2000.”
All of this activity is worth watching as most reports on the topic indicate that somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of these mergers fail to meet their stated objectives for growth and profits. How then, does an organization that completes a merger or an acquisition ensure that they end up in the top 10 or 20 percent? By following these four keys for bringing organizations together.
Don’t forget about leadership and culture during due diligence. Too many dealmakers are myopically focused on the financial analysis of a potential acquisition. While it is true the deal has to work with the numbers, the difference between success and failure is not about the rigor of financial analysis. The success of mergers and acquisitions is about people working together. So don’t forget to do an assessment of the leaders and key people involved on both sides of the deal. If you need to, get some help to work on understanding the strong elements of each culture and where there are potential synergies as well as clashes and prepare for how you will deal with them. Also, figure out how your new leadership team is likely to shake out with members from both organizations, but don’t make any promises. Sometimes in an effort to appease leaders, commitments are made during due diligence that come back to bite later in the process.
Make sure the leadership team works like a team, not a committee. Once the merger has taken place, most leaders will, understandably, be focused on protecting their turf and meeting their performance objectives. While that might work in some organizations, your real success and dramatic growth in blending two cultures comes from getting them to work as a team with shared goals and shared failures versus individual objectives. That will cascade throughout the rest of the organization, and greatly influence the cultural dynamic of teamwork and collaboration. A lot of profit dollars can slip through the cracks of silos that get created during a merger.
It’s not over when the technical systems are integrated. It is not easy, but what needs to be done to integrate systems is often straightforward. People integrations, on the other hand, don’t always work as they look on paper. When I worked with AT&T as they merged four large organizations to create one Fortune 10 company, CEO Randall Stephensonsuggested to a group of officers at the start of one of our sessions, that while he felt good about the technical integration of the businesses, what kept him awake at night was getting leaders from the different companies to work together. It is easy to remember the importance of communication at the start of a merger but it is at 6 months, 12 months, even 18 months post-merger, that you need to be focused on how you are communicating and the messages people are receiving about the integration. Create an integration team whose primary responsibility is the creation and adherence to a new culture for the new entity.
Celebrate gains, and sustain progress. It is not uncommon to hear at some point about “merger fatigue,” a very real phenomenon that exists when people are working at maximum capacity and feel exhausted by change. (As an aside, this happens in companies not going through a merger and they just call it fatigue.) Leaders need to be cognizant of this condition and recognize the good efforts made by employees to bring the organization together, and reward the contributions that help the organization reach its objectives.
Ultimately, leaders want to integrate two or more organizations to become one, minimize the risks of the merger, and rapidly achieve the growth goals and objectives. The financial and technical side of the equation tends to get the most attention, but it is the people side of the equation that will produce the value of the integration.
I was just interviewed on a podcast called The Boss Show – which offers “workplace wisdom for the working stiff” in a fun, energetic format. Thought you might enjoy listening!
I have said many times that if you want to know the effectiveness of a leader, then ask those who are led. This is because there is no perfect assessment, no bright-line test for what makes a leader effective, and no model that can perfectly determine great leadership. We all know of examples of leaders who excelled in one environment and failed in another, as well as leaders who were average in one organization and proved spectacular in a new role. One of the factors explaining this phenomenon is that leadership is a relational skill; it is about how you interact with others. Sometimes we relate well, and other times not so well, but how we relate is always having an impact on our leadership effectiveness.
So how then can we relate more effectively as leaders? Here are seven simple steps for improving your ability to do so:
- Express genuine care and concern. Odds are, unless you are some kind of misanthrope (in which case I am surprised you are reading this article), you have some level of care and concern for those you work with. Expressing that professionally will help you relate well. Ask “What are the issues you are facing with this assignment?” and then listen attentively to the answer. Asking questions about the impact of something and focusing intently on the answer is one of your best methods for developing quality relationships.
- Establish high standards. When you set expectations with those you work with and establish that your criteria for success are at a level of excellence, you communicate value. Belief in someone’s ability to produce quality output will forge a connection based on performance. Think about a time when someone expressed a belief in you to achieve at a high level.
- Bring in the perspective of others. Ask people what their opinion is and share your interest in the views of others. This will allow you to increase the opportunity of others to contribute to discussion and provide value. This is particularly helpful if someone is shy or reticent to share their opinions, and does wonders for developing a participative team dynamic.
- Share relevant information. Give people the information they need to perform their job better. That may be information about how to complete a task or it may be as simple as sharing new information about an upcoming project that will affect them. I’ve never worked with an organization where I heard that people are kept “too informed.” Go out of your way to transparently share information that affects those around you.
- Role model the behaviors you want to see. You may wonder how this affects your ability to relate to others, but as a leader, you are always being watched. People will pay close attention to what you do, as it will establish a standard for behavior and interaction. This has a lot to do with how people will relate to you. If you want to have a culture where everyone works hard, show a strong work ethic. If you want customer focus to be a priority, behave in ways that highlight customer centricity.
- Clarify your understanding. We have all been misunderstood enough to know it feels bad when it happens. One of the most important contributions you make as a leader is to prevent misunderstandings, and you do this by clarifying and confirming. This also allows others the opportunity to thoroughly express their thoughts to you, which further enhances relationships. Checking for understanding by paraphrasing or summarizing ensures that you have a clear and complete picture of what is being communicated.
- Provide your reactions and candid opinions. People appreciate feedback, and withholding your approval or disapproval comes across as a lack of engagement. Help others to see that you are in fact engaged with them by responding to what they say, even non-verbally. As you provide your reactions candidly, support those you agree with and be appropriately candid about those you do not. People may not be thrilled when you disagree with them but you will establish great rapport by sharing your real reactions with people.
I should highlight that while these ideas may be simple, that doesn’t mean any of them are easy to do. The right behaviors are frequently filled with common sense, yet that doesn’t mean they are common practice. In the same way I completely understand how to swing a golf club, but am borderline incompetent when I have to actually do it. Consistent effort and attention to relating will improve your skill.
To make it in any job, you need to be able to convey ideas clearly and effectively. There are three things the best communicators employ to deliver their message:
- Credibility. Prove your authority by demonstrating technical expertise in a specific area, which helps convince people that you know what you’re talking about. If you can’t do that, display integrity and character, which convinces them that you’re not going to lie to them.
- Emotional connection. People need to believe that what you’re saying will matter to them. Connect by giving them your undivided attention and linking your message to something they care about.
- Logic. All the authority and empathy in the world won’t help you if people don’t understand your basic idea or how you came to your conclusions. Make a clear argument that people can follow and use data and analysis to back up your points.