Sales Leadership in Challenging Times

August 20, 2020
Rob Evans
Sales Leadership in Challenging Times

A lot of my leadership background comes from training and “hands-on” experience in the Navy. So, when the discussion turns to leadership and leadership style, I find there are useful comparisons between my naval career and my corporate experience. I believe there are fundamental principles that differentiate strong and successful leaders.

The Power of Leadership Demands a Light Touch

Regardless of context, when you put someone in charge of a group, power can go to that person's head. I’ve seen this at many companies, where first-time managers will run rough shod over their team because they want to do things “their way.” Likewise, young officers in the military will sometimes act as if they know everything because they’re in charge, and they have the rank.

There are two types of leaders — in the Navy and in corporate America. Those who want to make changes because they have the authority to do so, and those who realize they need the team to buy into their leadership. Leaders need to be coaches, not dictators. They need to understand the individuals on their team — their motivations, their career objectives, and what they want. This is the difference between hierarchical leadership and side-by-side leadership.

Leaders, whether in business or in the military, need to understand that the success of an organization is dependent on everyone working together to achieve maximum results. The “incremental” effort your teams are willing to invest in the success of the organization is sometimes the difference between meeting your goals or falling short.

Leaders need to be coaches, not dictators. They need to understand the individuals on their team — their motivations, their career objectives, and what they want.

The military does a fantastic job training and enabling its personnel and leaders. I spent four years in a Reserve Officer Training program and five months at Surface Warfare Officer School. However, there is little that can prepare you for assuming your initial assignment onboard a ship, plane, or submarine.

When I set foot on the battleship New Jersey for the first time, I was given a division of 40 people. I had the rank and authority to lead the division, but was one of the youngest and most “green” on the ship. It was a seminal moment in my life and my career. How would I respond and lead senior enlisted members (some of whom had been in the Navy for 25 years already) and earn their respect?

It would have been incomprehensible for me to enter that situation and think I knew the best way to run the division. Yet, I saw many an officer attempt to do just that and fail — because they assumed their position equated to leadership, which often alienated the individuals who could “make or break” their success.

I’ve been fortunate to work with and for some fantastic leaders in the military and in corporate America. I’ve found that effective leadership can be boiled down to a few succinct characteristics and common traits.

8 Tips for Sales Leaders

There’s no magic formula for becoming a successful sales leader, but from my experience, here are several recommendations.

  1. Start with an open mind — Listen and observe. Spend time learning why the people on your team are successful and what may be holding them back that you could incrementally change. Don’t prejudge. One of the biggest mistakes first-time managers make is thinking that what made them successful as an individual contributor needs to be the way everyone operates. That’s just not the case. One of the challenges (but biggest joys) of management is to understand there are ways other than yours to be successful and embrace creativity.
  2. Communicate efficiently, effectively, and often — Communication is vital, especially in a crisis. People want information; they want to know what’s happening within their team. Right now, people are anxious; so, the one thing we can do as leaders is overcommunicate. When in doubt, continually talk to people and gauge where they are at.
  3. Be consistent — Consistency is one of most important traits of an effective leader. Nobody likes an inconsistent relationship, whether it’s your spouse, a friend, a relative, or a coworker. You can’t be empathetic one day and tyrannical the next. Team members need to know what to expect when they talk to you, regardless of the topic. Inconsistency creates a toxic work environment.
  4. Recognize value — Take time to recognize the people who are doing things that are valuable for the company, valuable for your team, and that we can all learn from. I would hazard a guess that everyone wants to be recognized for their hard work, for their efforts, and when they do something right. Take the time to recognize team and individual efforts. Do it in emails, at all-hands meeting, in win-wires. Recognition builds trust and loyalty. And it doesn’t cost a dime!
  5. Praise in public. Correct in private. — Take the example of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. When Alabama won, it was all about the team. If they lost, responsibility fell on the coaches. Deflect praise; take on criticism. You’re put in the position as a leader to do that. That’s why you’re in the role.
  6. Solve problems for your team — Your job is to break down barriers that prevent salespeople from optimizing their time and being effective. When they have a problem, it’s your job to solve it, so they can do what they do best which is sell. If you’re not solving problems and making their jobs easier, you’re just overhead.
  7. Don’t micromanage — Maybe you have more time on your hands during the current crisis. You can put that time to good use by looking more deeply into issues that affect the company. But don’t use it to micromanage your team. It puts pressure on people that causes fear. And, over the long term, fear erodes productivity.
  8. Be kind — It’s more important than ever to be empathetic to people’s personal situations and the challenges they face, whether that's working from home, home schooling kids, or taking care of an aging parent. And, as a leader, you will sometimes have hard conversations. But there’s always room for kindness, empathy, and respect.
Take time to recognize the people who are doing things that are valuable for the company, valuable for your team, and that we can all learn from.

Front Line Management is the Foundation for Success

My favorite job in sales management has always been the first line manager. I firmly believe that our regional sales directors (RSDs - first line management) are the most important people in any sales organization. They will directly affect revenue, customer engagement, and product direction more than anyone else in the company. If you have great front-line managers, you will have a great sales team and a great sales trajectory.

If you ask most officers in the military they will tell you that “The Chiefs run the Navy” (just like Sergeants run the Army and Marines). And, I would submit that in corporate sales, RSDs are analogous to these senior enlisted leaders in the military. You don't run an effective sales organization without great front-line managers. So, hiring and motivating those managers is Job One for me. I’m super fortunate to have some of the best, if not the best, front-line managers I’ve seen in any company. These are the people who will help greatly determine whether your organization and company are successful moving forward.

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About the Author

Rob Evans is Boomi's vice president of North American sales.