As a Sales Leadership coach, I absolutely love the opportunity to work with companies and their sales leaders to establish, implement and then embed game plans that not only deliver consistent results, they are sustainable as well. And whilst many companies are different in terms of the way they operate and certainly in what they sell and produce, from a leadership perspective, common and consistent principles apply that either deliver great results, or not so great results.
This, of course, always comes down to the quality of the leadership. It is amazing to observe leaders in their natural environment, how they communicate to their people, how they interact with their key stakeholders and customers, and notice how many of them achieve different results, with many of the leaders not being 100% crystal clear on why they achieve the results they achieve. If there is one key principle that I have learned, not only through my own leadership journey, but also through working with sales leaders across multiple different organisations, it is that sales leadership success leaves clues.
The more I look into what makes successful sales leaders successful, the more I understand that there really is a blueprint, that when followed and executed against consistently, will deliver successful outcomes, over and over again. And the great thing about the blueprint is that the elements of it are not complicated, they are founded in common sense. That is not to say that it is ‘easy’ to follow, and different leaders may have a slightly different perspective on how to implement based on their personality and behaviour type. However, at a foundational level, the following components, understood and executed well, will deliver consistent results and enable you to continue to develop your sales leadership muscle.
So, you want to be a leader? Consider the following key principles, apply them, embed them, and enjoy the ride:
- Understand there is a difference between managing and leading – this can be a challenge for many, especially those new to leadership, because they are unsure of the distinctions and the patterns of behaviour. In truth, a successful and effective sales leader needs to have the ability to both lead and manage, the challenge is to understand when to do both. At a really high level, a leader tends to look forward and create possibilities and an environment in which the team can succeed, whereas a manager tends to focus on and monitor today’s work, regularly looking backwards to ensure that current goals and objectives are being met. For some people in the team, this can often feel like ‘micro management’, and can be stifling and suffocating. Your ability to be able to both lead and manage, at the right time, will be critical to your success, and the success of the team.
- Learn to deal with conflict and ambiguity – one of the first lessons I received in leadership was that once I accepted the role of leader, a large ‘target’ was placed on me. That is not to suggest that I was constantly being shot at, but as a leader, I was expected to be able to handle issues, problems and conflicts that came from the team, and often from people outside of the team. The ability to deal with conflict in a resourceful way is a key leadership attribute, especially when the people conflicting are highly emotional and not necessarily looking at the challenge in an objective way. You must be able to look at the challenge and conflict, see the multiple perspectives, and then be able to lead the parties to an outcome (and sometimes a compromise) that delivers a win-win outcome, or where that is not possible, minimise the impact on individuals, handling the situation with diplomacy and professionalism, irrespective of your own personal views or feelings.
- Build, develop and earn trust – this is a big one, and something that can be a huge wake up call for new leaders especially. Here is the thing about leadership – the moment you assume the role of sales leader, the level of trust you have in your people must be at 100%. Think of trust like a bank account. The trust bank must be full. However, your own trust account with your people will be empty at the beginning, and it is your responsibility to continue to make deposits in the account, so that your level of trust grows. In other words, you must earn your team’s trust, it does not come automatically just because you are the ‘leader’. Understand that your every move and your every word will be forensically scrutinised by your people, and each interaction will be a moment of truth where trust is either developed or not. Also be aware that what you don’t say and don’t do will equally be scrutinised and will impact trust. And please understand this – the quickest way to destroy trust is to make decisions based on self interest. Nothing will diminish your team’s trust in you quicker than self interest. Don’t do it.
- Set a positive example – nothing builds trust and respect quicker as a leader than taking positive action and setting a good example. Unfortunately I have observed many sales leaders (and leaders in general) over the years set a poor example for their people by choosing to not take action, or take the wrong action. Where this becomes really challenging is when a leader either says or demonstrates ‘this is not my role’ – they literally are saying to others that a specific task is ‘beneath’ them based on their status, and they expect others to do it. One of the quickest ways to set a positive example and earn trust and respect is to do what needs to be done, irrespective of whether it is ‘your role’ or not. A classic example of this was a CEO of an organisation who was observed changing a light bulb in the office one day. Now many would argue that a CEO’s time is better spent on more important and strategic areas, however, the 3 minutes he took to change a light bulb was a small time investment that delivered a massive return in the level of trust and respect he gained. The message here was if the CEO is prepared to change a light bulb, there is no excuse not to do what is necessary to get the job done, irrespective of whether it is my role or not. Set the example.
- Be authentic and serve the team – I love asking leaders, especially new leaders, why they chose to be a leader, and the answers I receive provide a really interesting insight into not only the leader themselves, but also the likely success of the team. What I have discovered is that the leaders who want the position, the title, the prestige and often the pay rise, find it more difficult to generate longer term, sustainable results, primarily because their main focus is on themselves. Those leaders who focus on their team, on helping their team get better, more often than not, deliver higher and more consistent results over time. And here is why – these leaders understand that they are there to serve their team, and that their team is not there to serve them. They know when to get involved and when to get out of the way, and they also understand how important it is to be authentic. For these leaders, irrespective of whether they are liaising with their team, the senior leadership team, customers, key stakeholders, or the office cleaners, they are always the same, looking for opportunities to serve others, and doing it in a genuine and authentic way.
- Be prepared to be criticised and challenged – I often say that with leadership comes great responsibility. The moment you step into a leadership role you will have people who will want to challenge you, who will criticise you, and sometimes even ridicule you. And quite often, the criticism will be unfounded, quite emotionally charged and personal. How you respond to this will determine how successful you will be as a leader. It may be a cliché but it is so true – ‘it is not what happens to you that is important. It is how you respond to what happens to you which will determine your leadership’. Know that people will take shots at you, they will throw problems at you expecting you to solve them, and they will constantly challenge you. Expect it, prepare for it, and know that you can handle it. It will only serve to strengthen you as a leader.
- Be consistent – one of the greatest leadership attributes you can possess is consistency. There is nothing worse than a leader who constantly changes their mind and therefore their message. This reduces trust and respect and ultimately, the team culture and performance. Understand that not everyone is going to like or agree with your responses, your approach or your strategy, and this is okay. However, one of the greatest compliments you can ever receive as a leader is ‘one thing is for certain, they are consistent’. Strive for consistency in everything you do, whether it be your language, your strategy, your message, and certainly, your behaviour. And when you combine this with consistently asking for and seeking feedback, your positioning as a leader will only be enhanced.
So, you want to be a leader? You may have already gathered that leadership is not for the faint hearted, you will have to work harder than you have probably ever had to work before. You will take on a huge responsibility, and I can tell you from personal experience and from working closely with lots of leaders, especially sales leaders, that it is 100% worth it. Embrace these principles, implement and embed them, and enjoy the ride!
To your continued sales leadership success.
If you want to know how you can better lead your sales team, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thank you for taking the time to read this post – I greatly appreciate it, and welcome comments and feedback. Please feel free to comment below, to follow me on LinkedIn, or to connect via Twitter, or Facebook.
Darren specialises in working with Sales Leaders to create, implement & embed a sales leadership game plan that will deliver outstanding and sustainable sales & revenue results. He is also the founder of the Australian Sales Leadership Network, a LinkedIn Group for sales leaders to share insights, strategies, resources and best practices, in order to build high quality, engaged and successful sales teams, delivering profitable and sustainable sales results. To apply to join, please click this link.