Sales Leaders Must Create a Culture of Selling

rain-today-logoIt’s common for a CEO to say he wants a sales culture, or more specifically, a culture that supports sales. It sounds good especially to shareholders and corporate boards who have a sense that selling is kind of important for achieving revenue growth. Sales teams like to hear it, too, as it feels like recognition for the importance of the role.

But most efforts involving culture devolve into big science projects led by human resources and disregarded by others. With no disrespect to HR—in fact, I started my career in HR—that department will never be able to change the culture of a business. That is a job for the leaders of the business, and sales leaders have to step up to the challenge of working across the organization to drive this change.

To create a culture of selling, you must consider three fundamental principles:

1. Focus on the Value Sales Creates

Culture is about mindset. That means to create a sales culture, you must start with what people believe about selling. Our beliefs shape our behaviors, so you need to know what people in your organization think or feel about the sales force. Do they view the sales organization as a vital part of the value created for clients, or do they see it simply as the distribution function?

Companies that have a strong culture of selling focus on the value that is created because the sales organization does considerably more than communicate the competitive advantages of products and services. They are the advantage.

2. Practice What You Preach

Actions more than words cause people to change their beliefs. While leaders must actively communicate how the selling function supports the value chain of the entire company, they must also show how it does that.

Role models need to be recognized throughout the business as the standard for performance. Publicly identify those who achieve strong results for the business. This goes beyond revenue generated. The real exemplars are those who achieve strong results for the business and do so in a way that demonstrates how they helped differentiate your business from a competitor or how they positioned your products to form a unique solution that the customer hadn’t considered.

Yes, profit and revenue are the quarterly (or monthly or weekly) report card. But highlighting them as the only things that matter undercuts the importance of how those results are achieved.

3. Reinforce the Right Behavior

The culture you create depends on your reinforcing the right behavior and having consequences for inappropriate behavior. Leaders must, therefore, determine specific expectations and standards across the business and translate those into actions. What are the appropriate response times on proposal support requests? How are members of the sales team expected to participate in territory research?

By asking such questions as “How would I know we have a sales culture?” or “What would be different if our culture were more sales-focused?” you’ll quickly come up with answers that decode what it looks like in your business. Then provide the rewards and consequences for sales reps’ behavior.

Note: it’s a mistake to recognize someone for results if they were achieved following undesirable behavior. For instance, if a seller reaches his quota but does so by significantly discounting prices, that is not something to recognize when you are trying to increase margins. You need to provide recognition for actions that will drive future success.

Organizations that have a strong sales culture understand there is a significant connection between the value customers are willing to pay for and the role of the sales organization. Great products and services are table stakes for selling today. The companies that win most have a culture in which everyone recognizes that the sales organization is part of the competitive advantage of the business.

How to Use Your Sales Team Most Effectively to Drive Organic Growth

chiefexec-author-picOf all the strategies for growing your business, organic growth is the most daunting. But with the uncertainty and high failure rates of M&As and partnerships (most studies indicate between 70% to 90% of the time they fail to meet stated objectives), organic growth is also the path to the highest value for your business.

To drive that kind of growth with new clients, new product or service configurations, and expand your business with existing clients, use the most powerful lever you have—your sales organization. Effectively mobilizing your sales team involves much more than setting a stretch target and funding a compensation plan to reward its achievement. It is about utilizing your sales organization to shift from communicating your competitive advantage, to being your competitive advantage. Here are three points to help you accomplish that goal.

“The moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when your strategy comes to life.”

1. Involve your sales team in corporate strategy and goals.As the CEO, you’ve thoughtfully formulated a winning strategy, but the moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when that strategy comes to life. According to a study by McKinsey, organizations that made the sales organization a vital part of their strategy outstrip their peers 50% to 80% in revenue and profitability. Make sure your sales leadership team gets your strategy. That doesn’t mean just understanding the strategy at a basic level, but being able to pragmatically apply it to daily decisions, especially relating to priorities and focus. Is your sales team working with the right kind of prospects? Are they playing to the advantages you’ve carefully invested in and determined matter most?

2. Be as engaged with your sales leader as you are with your executive team. I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs whose main interaction with the sales organization is an inspection of last month’s performance and next month’s forecast. CEOs often are more comfortable working with finance, technology or operations, and as a result, push a lot of the sales interaction to the VP of Sales. Obviously, those other areas are crucial, but don’t make the mistake of delegating the direction of your sales organization. You must establish the focus of this function of your business to ensure it creates value for your clients. I describe that in my HBR article, Would Customers Pay for Your Sales Calls, which highlights that sales is much more than just being the conduit for your products and services to reach clients.

3. Marry sales and marketing. These are two sides of the same relationship. Sales nurturing, for example, actually takes place within marketing. Define your expectations for collaboration as a means to better acquire, expand and serve clients. Establish interdependent objectives and let investment decisions flow from them. If they are separate, you are the only person in the company who can steer their relationship toward a powerful synergy.

When CEOs utilize their sales organization as a substantial part of the value or differentiation the company provides for clients—not just the communicators of that value—it becomes a considerable advantage. It is difficult for competitors to recognize or copy, and it becomes an additional source of brand equity. The key is that this can’t be delegated to your VP of Sales, or worse, to HR to run training programs. It’s a strategic decision about organic growth that the CEO must lead.

The Hidden Leader: Discover and Develop Greatness Within Your Company

td-logoWho are the hidden leaders in your workplace? Can you spot them? They could be right in front of you, mixed in with the worker bees and confident extroverts. Hidden leaders are enthusiastic employees who make good decisions, listen well, and are considerate of others. With a strong sense of fairness and integrity, they often help others to succeed. They are focused on business goals and the customer experience.

In The Hidden Leader, Edinger and Sain explain that organizations must be open to discovering leadership traits in unexpected people. They sometimes remain hidden by choice, chance, or position. It is up to managers to recognize the value these unsung contributors bring to the organization’s bottom line and long-term success.

After hidden leaders are identified, how do we engage these “strategic energy sources”? Edinger and Sain suggest two ways: Flatten the organizational structure so that they “pop up in the landscape,” and provide opportunities for hidden leaders to maximize their contributions.

Organizational culture also can help hidden leaders thrive. According to the authors, a culture with an emphasis on performance measurement is key. This allows managers to expose all employees over time to the core characteristics of hidden leaders. With guidance and measured results, all employees have an opportunity to develop leadership qualities. In this way the performance we expect from hidden leaders becomes the norm for all.

A culture where initiative is rewarded also is imperative. Too often managers skip over employee efforts in their pursuit of results. Initiatives that fail may still serve as paths to innovation. To create a culture of innovation, management must be willing to reward those who try something new, even if it doesn’t get the desired results. The Hidden Leader helps readers identify, encourage, and reward initiative that can lead to innovation.

The authors provide detailed worksheets and questionnaires for immediate use, accessible through quick response (QR) codes and URLs. The book’s website ( provides additional information to guide readers through the process of discovering and grooming hidden leaders.

By following the steps in the book and its supplemental materials, organizations can cultivate their best employee advocates. Full chapters in the book are devoted to enabling integrity, building relational skills, creating a results focus, and instilling customer purpose. The authors also identify steps organizations can take if one or more of these key traits is missing in employees.

With their straightforward and accessible writing style, Edinger and Sain provide a fresh look at leadership potential. They weave in personal examples to show readers that hidden leaders can be developed and nurtured, becoming a company’s hidden competitive advantage.

Don’t Obsess Over Getting Everything Done Before a Vacation

HBR-logoLike most people, I find the week before a vacation to be something of a nightmare, as I attempt to clear the decks before I go. One the face of it this seems like a good idea – get your work done (and ideally the work you would have done during the time you’ll be on vacation), and you can go off with your mind at rest. But I believe I’ve been thinking about this entirely backwards.

Far from freeing you to enjoy that time away, what’s really happening is that you are stealing the energy you’re exerting to clear the decks from the future, and as a result turning your relaxation time into recuperation time. I need only go back to the last vacation I took to demonstrate this point. See if this sounds familiar: I was working on some deadlines (self-imposed, of course) and for three days leading up to our departure, I put in significantly more time and energy than usual. I stayed up very late the night before leaving, working until the early morning hours. Caffeine and excitement helped me get moving early the following day, but by mid-afternoon I was toast. It took several days to make up the sleep deficit, and I missed out on having fun with my family, while I got that extra sleep. Three days of a week-long vacation is no small percentage. Worse, I know I was far less attentive and focused those first few days than I typically am. I certainly didn’t maximize that precious and important time away from work.

I’m not suggesting you need to be a slacker the week before, but too many of us burn the midnight oil to get work done just before a holiday, mistakenly thinking that we’ll make up for it with rest during the time off. As much as you can, try to make the week leading up to vacation a typical one in terms of the energy you expend or hours you put in. For those of you who will say “I run hard all the time,” you know the difference between high speed and your maximum.

Second, if it’s not a good idea to entirely clear the decks before you go, I’m going to suggest that it’s also not entirely necessary to unplug completely from work while you’re on vacation, either. I’ve made this suggestion before, and you may not be surprised to find that it’s the one I received the most hate mail — and the most fan mail — about. The detractors were the vacation purists who believe that any kind of attention to work during a vacation is a violation of one’s time to recharge. Those who appreciated my perspective felt that finally someone was giving them permission to simply check in and screen e-mail for critical issues. Interestingly, both groups included every sort of executive, ranging from entrepreneurs to senior executives in Fortune 500 companies: there was nothing about role or title that determined their position on this. The point here, though, is to move beyond the “should I or shouldn’t I?” question to consider whether a constructive compromise wouldn’t do more good than harm.

The compromise is essentially an exercise in containment that recognizes that when you succumb to the seemingly sensible notion of stealing the odd moment of vacation downtime to slip in some work, your mind is as far away as it would be if you were physically in the office, as all of your companions are acutely aware. If you doubt this, just picture your spouse our your children sitting at dinner with eyes cast down looking at their cell phones just at the moment some intriguing, surprising, or funny notion popped into your head that you want to share.

So, the idea is not to forbid contact with work but to establish clear ground rules about when you will engage in it, with the explicit recognition that when you’re engaged in work you really aren’t on vacation, you really are at work. There’s no right way to do this, but here’s my rule of thumb: During a one week vacation, take at least 72 consecutive hours with no work, no e-mail, and if you are daring, no screens. For longer vacations adjust the time accordingly or oscillate between the two. Then only spend 30 to 60 minutes a day quickly checking in on truly urgent issues. This allows you to be unplugged for the remainder of the day and still be able to check in.

When I tried this, I experienced a major epiphany about how much checking my e-mail via smartphone is reflex versus need. I asked my 11-year-old to take my phone and only give it to me when we needed to check something on-line related to one of our trivia games or vacation plans. It was shocking to me to see how often I reached for my phone, entirely out of habit rather than necessity. I reminded myself in those embarrassingly frequent moments to look up, take a breath, and notice something happening around me. As I became more fully engaged in the world around me, I discovered I really liked the feeling of not having my phone for a few days. It is decidedly liberating. And when I returned to my phone on check-in days, it was easier to avoid being sucked in by the tractor beam of its e-mail.

My third point is at once self-evident, critical, and very difficult to accept. To be able to truly go on vacation you need to be convinced that the world can do without you during that time. I’m not saying you don’t make a difference, or even that you won’t be missed. But I am suggesting any negative impact will be modest and quickly ameliorated upon your return. Here’s what I mean.

I own my own business, and so the stakes for its success could not be higher for both me and my family. But even so, much so-called “urgency” I’ve created isn’t urgent at all. A lot of deadlines or expectations, with clients, staffers, and (most difficult) myself can be negotiated. One of my clients said to me a few months ago, “I don’t really have the time to take this vacation.” If you’re nodding your head here, that’s a clue that you need to take a step back and realistically think through your concerns. I find making them physically concrete, by actually going to the trouble of making a list of your concerns, can help. Then consider the impact and the worst possible consequences of each. If you are anything like me, I expect you will see they are rarely unrecoverable. Add to that the likelihood of anything occurring at its most severe level, and you’ll be thinking clearly.

If it makes you feel better, you can take your peers, direct reports, and perhaps even your boss through the same thought process, asking them to consider the implications of your time off and think through the probable scenarios, as well as the odds of their happening. On the other hand, a little self-deprecation might be all that’s needed. When I was executive vice president of a consulting firm, I suggested to my team that they “Call me immediately if there is a leadership development emergency. Otherwise, it can probably wait until I return.” Perhaps I needed to reassure myself that I could leave without any dire consequences as much as empowering my team members to think for themselves in my absence. For many of us, our work is such a vital part of our lives that we have a distorted view of our own importance. When we take a step back and change our perspective, we give ourselves permission to not be indispensible for a time. Odds are, the world will be okay if you’re out for a week or so.

Roman philosopher Seneca stated: “Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure, to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.” Invest wisely in your time off, through preparation, shifting your mind-set, and limiting your engagement with what’s going on back at the office, and you can expect to accomplish great things when you return from vacation, truly rejuvenated.

Harnessing the power of your hidden leaders


In my latest book. I describe Hidden Leaders as the people in companies that provide a powerful leadership presence despite the fact that their title or position provides them little to no authority. In fact. the topic I’ve received the most feedback on from the book is the importance of leading through relationships.

To the naked eye, it may seem they are simply able to get things done. Look closer, and you’ll see that they are demonstrating strong leadership and influence by dint of relationships they’ve developed. Look closer still, and you’ll see that it isn’t simply niceness or collegiality that has earned them this influence. Too many people seek to establish trusting business relationships centering on likeability. I’m not suggesting that likeability isn’t good, only that it isn’t sufficient. When I observe Hidden Leaders in action, they lead through relationships in the following ways:

  • They possess a technical or professional expertise. That expertise may be based on their function, like engineering, manufacturing or specific to technology. The technical expertise needn’t be technological though as it may come from a discipline like sales, or customer service, or accounting where they’ve established a track record. Whatever the source of that proficiency, it strengthens relationships and supports the connection to others in the business, because with expertise comes trust, which is the foundation of business relationships.
  • They are recognized as having good judgment and rational thinking. Colleagues view them as being able to understand what the business is trying to accomplish, and having the ability to think of pragmatic approaches. That doesn’t mean they are always right, though. But even when they aren’t correct, it is easy to see the reasoning and course of thinking they used. In this way, Hidden Leaders are frequently able to express their rationale for an idea to be implemented, an innovation to consider, or a process to be changed. So even when there is disagreement, the logic is clear.
  • They are good at making emotional connections with others. I’m always careful about using that phrase. In fact I wrote an article for Harvard Business Review on the ways leaders make emotional connections, and I’ll reiterate that I’m not talking about wild displays of emotion or what is pejoratively labeled as “being emotional.” I could replace “emotional” with “human,” I suppose, because the essence of these connections is that logic supports thinking and emotions support action. So using emotions as a means to connect with colleagues is powerful. That could be the energy-creating effect of enthusiasm or passion, the collaborative sense of mutual concern or frustration, and the effect of engagement on shared goals. People rarely act on information or data alone, and when we influence each other, emotion is almost always part of the equation. Hidden Leaders tap into those emotions.

The last thing I’ll note about the relationships cultivated by Hidden Leaders is that they tend to be across the entire organization, spanning divisions, geography, and even hierarchy. That is what enables them to get results, as most of the pain points in businesses occur in the cracks between organizational silos. Hidden Leaders are able to rely on relationships in spite of boundaries in the organization, to fill in those cracks.

Try identifying your Hidden Leaders. Who are they? What do they do differently? Ask yourself what kind of an impact it would have on your business if more employees behaved as they do — even 20% or 30% more? My bet is that you’ll see great power in cultivating more of them. And if you are reading this article, it is likely that is your job.

In Plain Sight: The Important Leaders We Often Don’t See

In this podcast, Scott discusses the hidden leaders that are often not given credit within an organization. He also talks about the 4 characteristics of leadership behavior that all employees can exhibit and why it’s so important that employees understand what it means to really act as a business owner.