After a client declined to hire a high performing salesperson for fear he would be a “lone wolf” I began to think about the lone wolf candidate. Is there a place for him or her in today’s sales world? I asked this question to several heads of sales and the responses varied from maybe to no.
The candidate I referenced above once worked with two people from the prospective company’s team. Ten years had passed and in the interim he continued to be a top performer. Let’s assume the company was right in its concern he might march to the beat of his own drum. Is that a reason not to hire him today?
Today we operate in a team-selling environment that is sophisticated and complex. In such a world it would be hard for one person working independently to succeed. Without a doubt a lone wolf without internal relationships would struggle without team participation. We are in an era of collaboration with colleagues and customers alike.
Yet the lone wolf often brings the characteristics of creativity and innovation that sales organizations desperately need today. Sales organizations want salespeople to “challenge” their customers to think differently and question the status quo. Well these professionals have that in their DNA.
To add to the puzzle, I interviewed Doug Hughes, Professor of Marketing at Michigan State University, author, and Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management for the February 3 issue of Top Sales magazine on gaining sales force commitment vs. compliance as a way to increase productivity. You can read the interview here. Doug raised a red flag on sales managers who over rely on process and metrics. His research showed that what he labels behavioral controls such as over adherence to process diminish sales force creativity and problem solving. He recognized that process, metrics, and directives are important and needed, but his research shows that it is sales force autonomy and self-efficacy that produce long term, superior sales results. The bottom line of his extensive research is that greater autonomy increases sales performance.
When I asked Doug if he would hire a lone wolf he qualified his answer. Factors to consider he said are the culture of the organization and how extreme the candidate is. But he reinforced that sales organizations need salespeople who can and will think outside of the box and question the status quo and that lone wolves bring with them some of the qualities they need.
Can a lone wolf fit in? I recently saw the academy award nominated movie The Imitation Game, largely based on the life of Alan Turing who broke the “unbreakable” German Enigma machine code during the Second World War and in doing so saved countless lives. Mr. Turing, credited as the father of computer science, was the quintessential lone wolf. But in the right environment he collaborated and built relationships.
Of course disruption to the whole organization or system is not ok but wouldn’t it serve organizations well if sales managers could make a place for what may be a lone wolf in a more team-centric sales world? In the article I referenced above, Doug gives some ideas on how to do just that. I certainly appreciate that research, data, and process have permeated the world of sales and made for superior performance. But data alone isn’t the answer. We need to balance that with judgment and trust.