Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a recent podcast, talked about lessons she has learned trying to succeed in a male-dominated world. She makes three points that resonated with me, because they apply to everyone who faces the challenge of being taken seriously in meetings, sales calls, presentations, or simply general conversation.
Prepare: Chao says, “I prepare so much more than some of my male colleagues, and I know women who are prepared more and we get ridiculed and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s just preparing so much. She’s such an automaton. Can’t she just like, wing it?’”
This one resonated with me, because it is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career in sales. That’s because I’m not a “natural salesperson” who knows exactly what to say and when, or who has the confidence to just wing it. But when it comes harder for you, you get a little paranoid and plan a bit—actually, a lot—harder. That’s how I’ve won deals against competitors who were natural salespeople, and who were overconfident and therefore unprepared. So if you think you’re too good to plan, I hope to compete against you.
Don’t be afraid of mistakes: Chao says that coming from an Asian culture initially made her very worried about making a mistake, because Asians pay close attention to everything being said, and every word counts. But that doesn’t happen in American culture, because a) we’re just not good listeners, so we are less likely to catch small errors or remember everything that was said, and b) we’re much more forgiving when we do.
This point is the corrective to overpreparation. Plan as carefully as you can, and then relax. Mr. Murphy will inevitably show up and something will go off track. If you make a mistake, the crucial point is to immediately acknowledge it, own it, and move on. Especially in speeches and presentations, I’ve found that people will remember how you recover from an error far more than the error itself.
Expertise empowers the person: I love this quote! When asked what made her successful in a very male environment, Chao responded, “because I knew what I was doing.” She always had “incredible subject area expertise.”
Many of my coaching clients ask for techniques to deal with nerves or increase the confidence that they display. Of course, there are numerous techniques, and I do share those, but not without first asking them why they have been chosen to speak to this particular audience on this particular occasion. The answer is always that they know more about this particular topic than anyone else in the room—otherwise someone else would have been asked to speak. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman, a minority, or the youngest person in the room; if you have something useful to say, that no one else knows, you will always have power.
The title of this post is a bit disingenuous, because these three points actually have nothing to do with gender. They have everything to do with the fact that the best people to learn from are those who have to overcome the greatest obstacles to achieve success. Their initial lack of confidence is precisely what drives them to do the things that make them more confident and more successful.
 Although Sean Spicer may disagree on this point!
For a prince, is it better to be loved or feared? That was the question that Machiavelli asked, and his answer (although much more nuanced about it than generally thought) came down mostly on the side of fear. His prescription for power depended heavily on force and craftiness.
Five hundred years later, the debate still goes on, and it’s just as important as ever. For anyone striving to increase their influence and make a difference, whether within your own organization, for customers, or in the lives of those you care about, it’s a central question that dictates what you do and how you act toward others.
There’s another related question that is just as important: is power something you can grab, or is it given to you by others?
I just read The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. Keltner comes down firmly against the idea that power is about fear. He argues that the world has changed substantially since Machiavelli wrote. It’s less violent, organizations are less hierarchical and more egalitarian. He also stresses that “We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks. Our power is granted to us by others.”
If you believe that Keltner is right, your approach revolves around what I call outside-in thinking: focusing on others and striving to find ways to improve their states and contribute to the greater good. You develop your capacity for taking the perspective of others; you give far more than you take; you enhance the power of others by respecting them and listening to them. And as you grow in power, you are aware of the many ways that enhanced power erodes the very attitudes and behaviors that helped to get you there: empathy, humility and self-control.
Read this book and practice its recommendations, and you will become more influential in whatever sphere you participate in—in effect, everyone around you will “give” you the power of influence over their sates.
After I read Keltner’s book, I went to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of Power: Why Some People Have It –and Others Don’t, by Jeffrey Pfeffer, which I reviewed in a previous blog post. Pfeffer argues that Machiavelli is alive and well in corporations today, and you would be naïve not to know this and apply its lessons. I don’t know if he and Keltner have ever debated the issue, but I suspect that if they did, Pfeffer would accuse Keltner of holding on to the “just-world hypothesis”, in which people believe that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished.
The harm of this belief, according to Pfeffer, is that it prevents you from learning real and practical lessons about what really works in the real world, and holds you back from a self-centered quest for personal power and influence. Follow his advice, and you will be able to grab power—because no one is just going to give it to you.
Actually Pfeffer agrees with Keltner that respecting others is a good path to power, but the others he refers to are people who are already in power and have the ability to help you. He also believes that empathy is a crucial skill for acquiring power, so you can figure out what to give them to gain their support.
It could be confusing to read both books, because each author cites impressive academic research to support their points. I believe that interpersonal relationships are complex enough that it is easy to find proof for almost anything you want to look for. Maybe there is some confirmation bias at work in both books, or maybe it’s the nature of these sort of books, which force the author to take a stand for one point of view or the other.
Simply because human nature is so complex, I believe that both hold valuable lessons for increasing your personal power and influence. It’s not either/or, it’s some elements of both approaches, and the relative weight of each is highly situational. It may depend on the culture of the organization where you work, the nature of the problem you are facing, and so many other factors. And don’t forget what Al Capone supposedly said: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”
It’s also in many ways a personal and an ethical choice. I know—we all know—people who are very “successful” in life despite what we consider to be shady characters and behaviors. For me, if that’s the price to pay for being powerful, I’d rather not be. On the other hand, if you have a larger worthwhile purpose in mind, doesn’t it make sense to pull out all the stops? LBJ was about as Machiavellian as any president we’ve had, and he used his power to push through his Great Society programs.
Do the ends justify the means? I don’t believe anyone can give you those answers. You have to decide for yourself—and live with the consequences.
A man goes to a doctor for advice, because he’s concerned that his wife is losing her hearing. The doctor says, “The first thing we have to do is find out how bad it is, so when you go home, stand in the doorway and say something. If she doesn’t hear, move halfway into the room and say it again. Then, stand next to her and say it.”
So the man goes home and looks into the kitchen. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”
He walks halfway into the kitchen and says, “Honey, what’s for dinner?
Again no response.
Finally, he gets right behind her and says, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”
She turns and says, “For the third time, CHICKEN!”
I liked this joke when I first heard it earlier this week, and it especially resonated because of a speech I delivered on the topic of creating an ethical sales culture. What’s the connection?
One of the points that I made is that often when a sales leader is unhappy with sales behavior, their first instinct is to figure out what’s wrong with the salesperson. Maybe they need a little more motivation, or need to be counseled on ethics, or maybe they’re just the wrong person for the position. But, how often do they look within for the causes of the behavior? How often does it even enter their minds that maybe the fault lies within themselves?
The example I used in my speech was Wells Fargo. After their scandal broke, they touted the fact that they had fired 5,300 employees for unethical behavior. I wonder how many of those employees were actual perpetrators, versus how many were victims? By that, I mean victims of an ultra-high-pressure culture in which they were monitored up to four times a day and “hounded, berated or demeaned” when they were inevitably short of impossible quotas. Under such conditions, is it any wonder that many saw no recourse but to cheat and open unauthorized accounts?
But it does not have to be as egregious in scale or degree as Wells Fargo to be a potential problem. I’ve seen it on a much lesser scale in so many ways. The sales VP who stresses the value of long term relationships but rewards and punishes short term results; the sales manager who wants her reps to take initiative but immediately steps in to rescue a sale; the director who overlooks a little white lie about delivery dates because it salvages a big deal.
My point is not to deny the importance of personal accountability, but to affirm it. Someone should definitely be held accountable—but look within first. This is not only right, but practical. If the behavior is caused by something you’re doing or not doing, it’s not going to go away just because you counseled or fired the rep. It will likely infect the rest of the team, and anyone you hire to replace the “bad apple.”
Maybe the first rule of sales coaching should be: “Check your own hearing first.”
One of the tenets of lean is constant and continuous improvement, and in that spirit I have modified my model slightly, thanks to a new Harvard Business Review article by Nick Toman and Brent Adamson, The New Sales Imperative.
As I’ve written before, your purpose—in fact, the only reason salespeople are relevant—is to help your customers make effective buying decisions. Complex decisions can’t be made without investing time and effort to gather, understand, analyze and apply a lot of information, but salespeople often make it much harder than it should be. To that end, the goal of Lean Communication for Sales is to improve your buyers’ RoTE, or Return on Time and Effort. In lean terms, you provide useful information that helps improve their outcomes, and express it concisely and clearly.
To a great extent, their article reinforces what I’ve been saying about the importance of making it easier for people to decide. As their research shows, making buying easier results in a 62% increase in the likelihood of winning a high-quality sale.
But as new research that Toman and Adamson adduce shows, there is another hidden form of waste that needs to be removed from the buying journey: uncertainty. Their research shows that customers are “deeply uncertain and stressed”, and second-guess their decisions more than 40% of the time! This uncertainty can be paralyzing, and paradoxically it’s the good intentions of the salesperson that exacerbates it. That’s because they try to be responsive and attack uncertainty with even more information. But unfortunately, beyond a certain point, more information and more choice actually increases uncertainty, as you can see in the figure above.
This is a useful reminder, but most of us already have at least an inkling of this. The real difficulty is figuring out where the bottom of that curve is so that you can get uncertainty as low as possible but then stop. That’s where their article is particularly helpful. They lay out a four-step approach for being less responsive and more prescriptive. Out of deference to them and to HBR, I’m not going to try to summarize their ideas here—I encourage you to read it here.
What I am going to do, however, is spend some serious time thinking about how to incorporate the idea of reducing uncertainty into Lean Communication for Sales. As a start, I’m changing the goal of improving RoTE to RoUTE!