Hello everyone and welcome to a new year. It is early January and as such, it is an appropriate time to set some resolutions for the new year. Of course, setting resolutions is a highly situational and personal task, but that said, I will offer up some suggestions in the spirit of getting the readers thinking, perhaps as input to your existing list. Or if you don’t yet have some specific resolutions for 2018, maybe this will provide the impetus to create one.
My list follows below:
- Create, Don’t Compete
When one looks at the winners and losers in the market, certain things become clear. For one, the companies that tend to do the best are those entities who figured out a way to do something different, something better, compared to their competitive set. For example, Apple figured out how to build products that no one ever considered they needed but became complete game changers. Salesforce discovered the need for a new way to think about CRM. Whole Foods established the legitimacy of a healthier alternative to the standard grocery store. Uber, Airbnb and other category leaders all discovered it is far better to create than it is to compete. Certainly, all of us must compete in the markets in which we operate. Every organization ends up with competition eventually. But competing solely on a better service experience or a lower price is a very difficult strategy to employ, and highly likely not to succeed over the long term. Regardless of your role, the company you work for or the team you lead, there are ways to embrace the create don’t compete notion, by changing your approach so that you can better articulate what you do, how it is different from the alternatives, how it is better, and then offer proof of this – from a customer’s point of view and with a customer’s voice. If you can effectively execute this this across your entire organization, you will see meaningful and rapid gains in productivity and revenue.
- Grow or Die
In a book I wrote in 2013 (Second Stage Entrepreneurship, Palgrave/Macmillan), I had a chapter titled: Grow or Die. Nothing I have seen in the four years that have passed since the publication of the book has changed my view on this subject. If you are running a company, or if you are in charge of a sales team, or if you are in charge of your own life, you must find a way to grow. Failure to do so sets in place the path toward death. Death may not come quickly, but it surely will come. Given that the alternative is unpleasant, we should all be asking ourselves, are we doing all we can to chart a future that sets in place the most robust growth possible given the constraints we face (i.e., the capital, free cash flow or time we have to invest in growth initiatives)? Not all growth initiatives require cash, but real growth will not come without investment of time and effort. For example, driving increased revenue performance of a sales team does not happen by accident. There are many levers that can be pulled to drive growth; more people, better people, enhanced training, sales focused technology, better execution, etc. The important thing is to determine the levers that will work best for your situation and then plot out a written, specific and measurable path to set yourself up for growth.
As important as it is to do this in a business setting, it is equally important to commit to growth on a personal level as well. Do you want to improve your fitness, reduce your weight, gain knowledge you do not have, learn a new skill, enhance your relationship with a loved one or your family? As an example, perhaps you can create a specific goal for cycling miles for the year (higher than the previous year), create a list of books to read, or commit to places you wish to visit. It sounds a bit trite to say, but just as lack of growth has real consequences for a business, it does for a person. As you start the year this January, can you articulate how you grew personally and professionally in 2017, and how you will grow in 2018?
Finally, one passing notion about growth. Driving growth becomes a virtuous cycle. Growth creates opportunities for talented employees. Talented employees produce results far disproportionate to the results produced by average or below average people, which drives more growth which creates more opportunity which attracts additional talented individuals. You get the idea. The only downside to this “Grow or Die” mantra is that if you have recruited a very talented team based on the growth premise, and you fail to deliver on this, you will likely experience significant turnover as people will look for other places to work that are delivering on the promise. Grow or die.
- A “Realistically Critical” View of Talent
The current statistics from CSOi regarding overall sales performance remain depressing. Fully 50% of all salespeople failed to make quota last year, the fourth straight year of declining performance. There are many reasons, of course, for this situation, but my interpretation of the data would suggest that well over half of today’s sales professionals are not a good fit for the role they are in. They do not possess the innate behavioral competencies that are required for success for the role. As a result, far too many do not perform up to established standards. Sales leaders know who their best performers are, and they generally know their weak links. But far too many sales leaders are not sufficiently “realistically critical” about their team. They tolerate individuals who would be better served working in a different role or at a different company. They don’t make the hard decisions unless forced to.
I worked at GE when Jack Welch implemented the famous (some may say infamous) forced ranking policy in 1980. Take a look at the transformation that occurred beginning in 1980. At the time GE was a $24 billion business, making $1.5 billion, with 400,000 employees. By 1985, employment had dropped to 300,000, revenue had grown to $32 billion, and profit increased to $7.6 billion. By 1990, employment remained constant at 300,000, but revenue rose to $58 billion, and profit grew to $25 billion. Certainly, there was a lot more going on at GE at this time than just a focus on people. However, that said, the intense focus on managing mediocrity out of the business had an enormous impact and was a major force in driving step change improvements in enterprise performance.
We may rationalize this situation by saying “this was GE, they could afford to do this, but how does this work, or does it even work at all in a smaller business?” I’d argue that weeding out marginal performers is even more essential in a smaller business than in a larger enterprise. In emerging or smaller enterprises, each job tends to be more difficult. You have fewer people, so each person tends to matter more. A salesperson gets zero credit for brand or reputation, capital is tighter, multiple projects compete for the same limited capital, and as such, each person needs to be the very best the firm can recruit for the role as the individual sales person, more so than the company, determines success. Thus, the base line requirement for the role in these situations is very high. Making the hard calls that will set you up for getting better talent will have a dramatic impact on your business and is well worth the pain involved. You will see evidence that true “A” level talent will deliver six to ten times the result as someone who is average.
My recommendation for every leader is to form a firm resolution at the beginning of this new year to a specific plan to upgrade your talent to put yourself in a better position to drive results. I would focus on value creation roles only, of which sales clearly is. What is the minimum acceptable level of upgrade? If you have not been relentlessly focused on talent to date, I’d start with at least 10% of your total team to be upgraded for this year and then measure the improvements that you will see. Even if you have been focused on talent for some time, markets change, strategy changes, and these forces typically result in the need for different types of talent who have different skills. This is not easy stuff to do, and it surely is not fun. But it is the right thing to do and your actions will absolutely will be appreciated by the 90%+ of the people who remain. Finally, I do not subscribe to the rule of cutting an arbitrary and specific percentage of your team each year as was implemented at GE in the 80’s. I do however subscribe to a policy of being realistically critical about each of the team members you have, and then making the hard calls necessary to change out the individuals where an upgrade is warranted.
- Team Development
All leaders serve many masters. We are beholden to a Board or an Executive Team or to the Division Head, but we drive results through a team we lead and manage. As sales leaders, we are responsible for developing sales strategy, implementing strategy, hitting the revenue and profit plan, and recruiting and developing a high-performance team, among other tasks. For many of us, the last item mentioned above becomes subordinated to all of the other management tasks. We spend time in management meetings, we meet with disaffected customers, we hone the strategy to drive improvements, and we forecast and reforecast the expected performance continuously. And when we have time, we work on developing the team. The urgent takes over the important. I’d suggest instead that a good goal for 2018 is to reverse this order mentioned above. As leaders, our first and most important objective is to assemble, train, manage and lead a high performing team. This only happens if the leaders prioritize individual coaching and development of the individuals they manage as their primary focus. And it deserves to be the fundamental focus, as having a high-performing TEAM is the only way to drive results over time. You’ll be amazed how much less time you need to spend forecasting and reforecasting, for instance, if you have a great team and you are well ahead of plan. Life is much better this way.
- More Fun
Finally, nearly every committed leader works long hours in today’s world. It is hard to hide; technology keeps all of us tethered to the job nearly 24/7. It is extraordinarily difficult to unplug. But unplug we must if we are to remain sharp. Further, life is too short to not have fun. So, early in this new year, perhaps it makes sense to create a list and commit to a course of action that allows you to better smell the flowers on the journey in the coming year. Go someplace new, do something you have always wanted to do; have new experiences, or do more of what you find most enjoyable. But wake up each day happy to be alive and hopefully healthy; make sure you take care of yourself by increasing your enjoyment of your life day to day. Those around you will appreciate it and so will you. And, your performance on the job will benefit as well. It is a win-win strategy for starting 2018.