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.
You are a star salesperson. And after years of exceptional performance, you’ve just become the sales leader. How can you translate star sales performance into star sales leadership?
If you are like many sales leaders I’ve worked with your first impulse will be to try to clone yourself — that is to inject some of your star power into as many sales calls as you can.
Soon (if you’re lucky) and rather a bit too late if you’re not, you’ll see this for the micromanagement it is (or at the least admit that you simply don’t have the time to go on every sales call yourself).
It’s time to set some rules of engagement — not for your team but for yourself.
Don’t go for the sake of going. One of my clients talks about the considerable cost of the “four- and six-legged sales calls” in which everybody and their brother and sister tags along, including you. But you should confine yourself to going on only those calls in which you are essential — where only you can gain access to the right people, owing to your position, your special industry expertise, your extensive product knowledge, or some useful connections. Sure, you probably could always make a difference on every call — you were not a star for nothing. But your job now is to open doors for, back up, and develop your future stars; not to outshine them (or do their work for them).
Don’t go it alone. And while we’re on that subject, an easy rule of thumb is this: Never get involved with a client unless you are accompanied by the salesperson. There are few things more de-credentialing, for both you and your sales team, than to do an end-run around your own staff (what, you don’t believe in them?) and step into an account without their involvement. At the very least, you’ll waste time having to relay all the relevant information from the meeting to the rep who should have been there to begin with. Worse, it starts a vicious, time-sucking cycle in which that initial direct connection leads to your presence on follow-up calls and your responding to minor customer issues that should be handled by the rep. The only possible exception here is in interim periods when you’re making a change in your representation, because then there’s no salesperson to undermine. Otherwise, as we are taught at the beach, use the buddy system.
Have an exit strategy. Who wouldn’t want to deal with the top guy? When clients have the opportunity to work with leaders from an organization, they understandably want to keep on working with them. This might be necessary in certain short-term instances (recovering from a service mishap, correcting a serious problem, launching a new initiative). But stay involved too long, and you just become a third wheel, doing the same job as your rep. To avoid that, you need to have an exit strategy at the outset. By all means, help with the problem at hand. But make sure the salesperson is the one actually making things happen for the client, so that when the crisis is over, the rep remains the main point of contact.
Do your homework. All that being said, I will admit that joint calls can be incredibly valuable for both client and sellers. But they require coordinated effort. Planning too often consists of “Where are we meeting and at what time?” But in addition, you should both be clear beforehand about who is going to cover what topics, what questions each one of you will ask the client, and what you are doing here — are you playing a coaching or selling role? This is critical because it’s almost impossible to sell and coach at the same time, since coaching requires observation and not participation. If you are going to be there in a selling role, you both need to be clear about who will be leading at any point on the call.
Don’t be a closer. I’m guessing that this will be the hardest rule to follow. What, after all, made you a star, if not your ability to close business? This is one of the most frequent mistakes I’ve seen sales leaders make — focusing too much time on closing opportunities. But by the end of the sales cycle, it’s getting too late for sales leaders make a profound difference in the outcome. At that point you should be putting your effort on the front end of the next sales cycle, focusing on expanding opportunities, helping clients to see additional needs, and offering solutions not previously considered.
These are tough criteria to be objective about because most sales leaders have been great salespeople and are still inexorably drawn to making as many sales calls as possible. The best leaders carefully consider these criteria for getting involved in sales cycles and, as a result, make the most significant impact when they do.
Scott discusses the challenge of being a sales leader. He shares seven keys that separate the average sales leader from the best sales leaders. They are:
- Create useful successful metrics that create progress.
- Provide visionary leadership.
- Develop talent and coach relentlessly.
- Pay close attention to selling roles.
- Focus on creating value in the sales process.
- Forecast with an understanding of where the customer is in the buying process.
- Motivate by using recognition and reward.