Sales leaders are a unique breed. They are the lifeblood of the company, counted on to cultivate customers and to sell products and services — and always at a greater clip than the year before. They also tend to be the executives on the team who, if they don’t get the job done quickly, get fired.
There’s a lot of pressure, even when they’re doing the job well, and often not nearly enough support.
Shawn Donovan, one of the most successful sales leaders I know, has a 20-plus year track record of re-engineering sales teams for high performance. As the Chief Sales Officer at Neustar, Fiserv, Acxiom, and President of Sales at EDS, his sales teams didn’t miss sales goals often. It’s hard to come up with a winning streak in sports or any other field that compares with his record. The secret of his success is precision and simplicity.
He’s in good company: General Electric’s legendary CEO Jack Welch once said the key to running an organization is simplicity. “Real leaders don’t need clutter,” he said. “People must have the self-confidence to be clear, precise, to be sure that every person in their organization — highest to lowest — understands what the business is trying to achieve. But it’s not easy. You can’t believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple.
Shawn has an approach that simplifies the complicated business of building, leading and often transforming a sales organization. In a recent hour-long conversation, he shared principles that can be applied to any company. (Click here and here to find a full transcript of our conversation.) Whether you are new to an organization or ascending to the top where you are, you may find that in the brutal world of sales leadership, you can live or die on this advice.
Listen, Learn and Assess. Before you start changing things, you need to understand what’s working and what’s not. You have to know what you’re up against and establish a starting point—the diagnosis, so to speak—before you can develop a plan for improvement. Start with a holistic top-to-bottom analysis of corporate performance: sales growth, revenue growth and loss, and client satisfaction and retention. These metrics tell a story of what’s working, what needs to be fixed, and what the priorities should be. I have seen many sales leaders felled by not bringing this prognosis to management at the beginning of an engagement, and getting full buy-in. Next, dig into the go-to-market model, the organizational design and the roles and responsibilities as currently assigned. The sales processes and disciplines—from reporting and forecasting to deal review and advancement—also must be evaluated. Finally, comes the market opportunity: what is addressable and attainable. If you short-cut right to the endpoint here—as many sales leaders do—you will likely hit the rocks.
Establish a Plan and Selling System. You must have a core set of tools. You need a common language around sales and performance. Everyone needs to understand what the guiding principles are, and how that determines your approach to clients. That's everything from being courageous, responsible, accountable and disciplined to working smarter, being results-oriented, operating with integrity, being respectful, working as a team and being loyal to the company’s vision, mission and values. Setting those guideposts lets everyone know what they will be held accountable for.
Build a Culture of Growth and Team Performance. Once you have the groundwork set, it’s time to play the game to win. Once you establish your selling system, practice it. If you have a call plan, review it and role play to make sure that it's the best call plan possible. Everybody has to know the opportunity strategy. Have a means to document the customer’s decision-making process so everyone knows what has to be done to get a prospect to sign a contract. Quota and compensation plans have to incentivize the behaviors and outcomes you desire. Sales quotas that aren’t achievable are demoralizing. Shawn also believes in paying salespeople over market salaries to attract talent and then rewarding those who excel on metrics.
Be a Coach/Mentor and Leader/Manager. Shawn quoted from the movie Braveheart to illustrate his point: “Men don't follow titles; they follow courage." If your subordinates see you taking on the hard problems and challenges on their behalf, then they'll follow you through almost anything. Key to being a great sales leader is making sure your team has everything it needs to be successful, including training. Companies don't invest in their employees like they used to. Decades ago, salespeople trained for a year before they ever met a customer. Make your people more marketable by enhancing their skills and competencies. Once you do that, you can start weeding out those who don’t improve and focus on the ones who do.
Set expectations and hold people accountable. Without expectations, any organization or individual is going to struggle. There are three areas to focus on: You have to have the strategy. You have to have a plan. Then you have to have the talent to execute that strategy. And everyone needs to understand their roles and responsibilities. Shawn suggests that salespeople who can’t meet at least 75% of their sales quotas should leave the organization. As leaders, we need to do everything possible to get people into the 75% to 100% achievement range. Those who exceed 100% of goal are the top performers and should be recognized, including having input on what's working and not working in the organization. Some (and not all salespeople like to be pulled into this) can mentor their colleagues.
Establish multiple growth channels: For Shawn, a key driver of opportunity revolves around having an excellent inside sales and sales development organization. Make sure your field sales staff is operating at a high level. Look at what you're doing around lead generation. And then incorporate marketing, especially putting on display what you stand for as a company. Customers gravitate to that. Take a long look at how clients are involved in product innovation and how your sales executives are delivering value. If you aren’t filling the top of the sales funnel, it will hurt performance. That may sound obvious, but it’s also how sales organizations regularly get into trouble.
CEOs, by nature, are impatient since they ultimately have to answer to shareholders and customers who want to see improvements as soon as possible. It’s critical that sales leaders have an open and honest dialogue with the CEO and board about challenges and progress. If you are new to an organization it is especially important that dialogue continues throughout the turnaround process.
Shawn’s process works and produces results within the first year. It all starts with conviction and commitment from the top. Remember, C-suite execs, you’re a team: your company, clients and sales team are counting on you.
Challenge for leaders: If your sales performance needs a reset, take a holistic approach to analyzing and energizing your operation. Focus on what’s working, what isn’t and where you need to improve. And keep it simple.
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