There is a wonderful quote in the John le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy;
“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
While the context of Mr. le Carre’s novel surrounded espionage, it offers wonderful perspective to the world of B2B sales.
Although the applicability of this concept isn’t exclusive to sales or espionage, it none the-less serves as a perfect example of the theory that the desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world for senior sales leaders because if you’re behind a desk, you’re not out in the world, and as we all know, the world is a rapidly changing place.
It is only natural that the evolution of sales management principles and sales leaders is based on experience and the mastering of a craft. For a sales leader, the journey likely started years before, perhaps fresh out of school with their first position as a junior sales person. Subsequent advancement and promotions probably included roles as a sales manager, sales director, or area vice president. This is a graduation process, usually taking place over years or decades in many cases.
The wealth of experience and expertise acquired over this time can not be dismissed. Most sales leaders – and specifically the good ones – are those who have immersed themselves into their trade and earned their stripes through hard work, diligence and accomplishment. Generally speaking, these are people who have walked the walk time and time again, garnering them a position of knowledge coupled with wisdom.
The more successful the leader, the higher they climb the food chain, taking on increasingly more senior positions until the very best reach the top tier of sales leadership, usually with the title of SVP or EVP Sales.
Of course, the larger the company, the larger the sales departments become with most SVP or EVP of sales responsible for hundreds of people or more. There are VP’s reporting into the SVP, AVP’s reporting into the VP, directors reporting to the AVP’s, managers reporting to the Directors and finally, sales people to managers.
As time goes by, the role of the SVP evolves until the job becomes more of a general management job with focus and attention around larger macro issues impacting the organization’s sales. Budgeting, compensation, and HR are some good examples of the many tasks that the SVP or EVP of sales is responsible for. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define these tasks as “off street” functions of managing a large sales force.
Make no mistake; these are vital and complex components to running a successful sales organization. However, these are functions that often have little to do with the day-to -day direct customer challenges that actual sales people encounter each and every day, and for which the sales person requires coaching, training and support.
The impetus behind this post comes from my years and years of experience working with both ends of the stick, the most senior of sales leaders, and the most junior of sales people, and the experiences encountered as a result.
With strikingly little exception, I have found that the more senior position the sales leader has ascended to, the further they have drifted away from truly understanding many fundamental challenges faced by their sales force, particularly at the client direct level.
These can be simple subjects like how dress codes have changed, or how automation has changed the way people communicate at the “street” level. But there are often more egregious examples of how little the most senior of sales leaders understand the circumstance facing the sales person. Things like cultural shifts in a customer category, or expectations of service parameters that have changed since the “leader” was a “sales person”.
Often, the precursor to a mis-guided pronouncement is when the leader begins with… “Back when I was selling”, or “The way I used to do it that was so successful for me”. There are other iterations but unfortunately the message is the same and usually falls on the same ears, those of a street level sales person who struggles to reconcile the reality they face with the solution they are hearing.
To be a successful senior sales leader in today’s fast paced world, those that win actually slow down and take a step back. They will go to their closet and dust off the shoes they wore years ago, and personally experience the reality that their team encounters at the street level.
Successful leaders still need to be experts and top tier performers when it comes to forecasting, creating business plans or pricing strategies, but they will also spend more time in the field. They will experience what their team experiences, not from their preferred perch as SVP of sales, but achieved without the unfair advantage their title bestows.
The really smart sales leaders pick a time and a place – perhaps once a month – where they temporarily demote themselves to the position of “sales person” and in that position, contact, engage with and interact with their customer base so that they experience what the sales person experiences.
They employ the same product or service offerings, tactics, strategies and approaches available to their sales force and experience the test-drive first hand.
Top sales leaders possess a keen understanding of what works, and what doesn’t in the present day, and are able to provide first hand evidence to the legitimacy of their direction.
Remember, the best leaders lead by example. If as a leader, you can offer authentic empathy to your team, versus your notion of how things were back in the day, then you will truly understand what it takes to get better, by getting out from behind the desk!