“Leadership” is the sexiest topic in all of business writing, and it’s even more so in sales, with its emphasis on getting the best possible performance out of creative, street-wise and strong-minded individuals. We admire sales leaders like the one personified by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, who parachute in and solve sales problems through an artful combination of incentives and intimidation. (First prize in the sales contest, new Cadillac; second prize, set of steak knives; third prize, you’re fired)
I think it’s time to point out that this emperor’s clothes are wearing very thin. We need to recognize and promote the sales leader’s quiet and unassuming little brother (or sister): the sales manager. We have too many leaders and too few managers.
There’s a wonderful phrase in Michael Webb’s book, Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way: “yelling at the thermometer”. He says that trying to solve sales problems is like trying to fix the temperature by yelling at the thermometer. How many sales “leaders” try to solve sales problems in a similar fashion?
The 4 I’s of Sales Leadership
Sales leaders like to be the indispensable heroes in the middle of the action. They have four major tools that they use as necessary when there is a sales problem:
Intuition: “Analysis is for wusses. I know what worked for me, and by golly, it will work for them.”
Inspiration: “Don’t fire them; fire them up.” (Anyone remember that book from the 80s?)
Incentives: I once worked for a guy who thought the best way to increase sales was to encourage his salespeople to go into heavy debt.
Intimidation: “Of course they’ll use the CRM system. They know what will happen if the don’t.”
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any of the tools above, except when they are all you have. Let’s see how sales managers do it.
Who remembers Gus Pagonis?
We all remember Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf for his brilliant generalship during the first Gulf War, but it takes a geek to remember the real hero of that war. Gus Pagonis was the logistician who accomplished the astonishing feat of moving, equipping and feeding an army of half a million troops to the Gulf and back again. An Abrams tank without gas is just a hot piece of metal sitting out there in the middle of a desert. His fundamental contribution was to make sure the shooters had everything they needed to do their job.
What does this have to do with sales? A sales manager’s job is to make sure their sales teams have everything they need to do their jobs as effectively and efficiently as possible. This requires systems thinking, systematic problem-solving, and process orientation, and future focus.
Systems thinking: Deming said that “a bad system will beat a good person every time.” The sales manager’s job is to implement and maintain a good system-one that gives the right people the tools they need to succeed and gets out of their way.
Problem-solving: Without systems thinking, problem-solving becomes an exercise in “wack-a-mole”, where you hit any problem that comes up as hard as you can (using the 4 I’s), only to have another problem pop up in a different place. Sales managers take the time to analyze problems, get to the root cause, experiment with solutions, gather data, and keep what works. It’s not as exciting as leadership, but it works.
Process: Sales managers know that one of the most important concepts in sales is process. As Dave Brock tells us, “The data shows that people and organizations that use a sales process consistently perform at much higher levels than those who don’t.” While sales often calls for imagination and flexibility, there is a surprising amount of commonality and standard work in all sales efforts, and codifying and improving this work can improve the entire sales organization.
Future focus: Sales managers build for the long term, so that they can leave behind a system that continues to thrive even after they’ve moved on. For example sales leaders like to ride to the rescue to close an important deal (and show the sales team they still have it); sales managers make sure their people get the right coaching, support and training so that they can confidently close the deals themselves.
If you’re a sales leader and find that you have to keep continually applying the 4 I’s of your trade, maybe you should try to ease up—do a little less leading and a little more managing.