As we saw in the previous article, there are significant advantages to having salespeople with a learning orientation, including more planning effort, willingness to take on difficult challenges, and greater engagement in their work.
This article attempts to answer the next obvious question: what can sales managers do to influence the goal orientation of their salespeople?
First, though, it’s important to clear up a potential bit of confusion. Learning and performance orientations are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to be high in both orientations, for example. You can have a strong desire to master a subject and still be highly competitive, wanting to prove that you are the best among your peers.
It’s also important to note that, while the specific orientation one chooses seems to come more or less naturally, it is not an indelible trait. It can be influenced, and it can be situation-specific. It even changes over time. (More experienced salespeople tend to become more learning-oriented.)
We also need to recognize reality. No one is going to give you or your sales team quota relief just so you can pursue your learning goals. If you don’t pay your “tuition” in the form of making your numbers, you won’t be allowed to stay in school long enough to learn all you want. So, it’s important to balance near-term targets with long term growth.
As we saw, however, a learning orientation provides many short term and long term benefits, so it behooves the sales manager to find ways to foster and/or encourage that. Learning is particularly important in complex sales environment because of the sheer volume of information needed and the rapid pace of change in most markets today.
So, the task for a sales manager is to find ways to reinforce a learning orientation without weakening the performance orientation. In other words, let’s hit the numbers and grow our people at the same time.
How to encourage a learning orientation
The first step towards reinforcing a learning orientation in your sales team is to take stock of yourself and shift your own mindset if necessary. If you believe that ability is fixed and innate, that’s what you’re going to get from your sales team. Your salespeople will tend to rise or fall to your level of expectation. You must believe that ability is limited only by effort, opportunity and learning.
Next, you have to communicate that belief to your sales team, both explicitly and implicitly. Make sure you stress that everyone can and should get better, and set the example yourself. Ways you can do this include:
Provide a climate of psychological safety. Make it safe for people to ask questions, seek feedback, present new ideas, and try different things.
Make it easy to share information. Compile a list of best practices, including how to answer specific objections, best techniques for gaining access to high-level executives, etc. Devote time in sales meetings to lessons learned. Share success stories when someone tries something new and succeeds. These formal methods of information sharing are good, but the best
Conduct after-action reviews (AARs). This tool has helped make the US Army probably one of the best learning organizations today. Every sales call or customer contact is a learning opportunity that should not be wasted. (Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players ever, used to grade his own performance after every one of the more than 1200 games in his career; he never once gave himself a score over 65 out of 100.) Encourage your sales reps to spend a few minutes as soon as possible asking themselves the following questions:
· What were our intended results?
Pay attention to abilities, skills and learning. Sales managers generally can pay attention to three areas: results, activities, and abilities. If you pay attention only to results, you’re going to encourage a performance orientation and probably discourage learning. If you pay too much attention to activities, particularly routine activities such as filling out call reports and CRM input, you run the risk of demotivating the more experienced members of your team. You have to devote some time to monitoring, measuring and encouraging learning and growth activities. This means of course that you have to become closely involved with each member of the team. Get out from behind your desk and attend calls, ask questions, pay attention.
Don’t try to teach, try to help them learn. Remember what Churchill said: “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” When it’s their lesson, it’s more satisfying and reinforces the pleasure of learning. This means that you must resist the temptation to jump in and save the day when you’re on a call. Or, if you’re asked for advice, try not to immediately answer the question. Use the Socratic method to draw out the answer and understanding from the salesperson.
Set the example—show your own willingness to learn. This can be one of the hardest things to do, especially for newer sales managers who might think they have to be perfect to command respect. There are three ways to do this. First, ask a lot of questions, but make sure that they are phrased as sincere attempts at understanding. Too many managers make accusations or give advice or directives disguised as questions. (Why didn’t you ask her about the problems they are facing?) When you conduct AARs, do as the Army does—“take off the hats” that indicate rank and invite feedback on yourself as well. Finally, if possible attend sales training with your team and attempt the activities.
Be consistent. Be continuously involved in their learning and growth, not just once a year when you do their performance review.