5 Sales Leadership lessons I learned in 5 years
“In sales, it’s not what you say; it’s how they perceive what you say.” — Jeffrey Gitomer.
Managing a team of sales superstars is never easy. Especially when your team is an eclectic mix of strong-willed personalities who like doing things their own way.
In the last five and a half years of my professional career in sales and marketing, I have had the fortune of experiencing action-packed B2B sales stints in a large business conglomerate as well as a fast-growing ‘cool’ startup. Diametrically opposite experiences that have immensely helped me be a better sales leader.
My first sales stint took me through textile processing plants and taught me how the conventional Indian trader/entrepreneur works. Very particular about managing their credit cycles and always on the lookout for avenues to invest money and earn interest. You can never fool them for they’re always in the thick of things and pretty much anticipate the ways in which you, as a salesman would try to pitch your product or service’s value propositions.
Selling to such a quintessential Indian entrepreneur is no mean task. I had started doing well. My managers were no doubt excellent salesmen themselves and their traits namely perseverance, patience and tenacity had rubbed off on me. It was a wonderful thing to happen. I hadn’t realized nor acknowledged my transformation from an introvert thinking strategist to an astute salesman. Not to boast, but now have no qualms claiming so. I spent a good one year picking up the traits necessary to be a good salesman and had soon got enough opportunities to be a sales leader, albeit working with a small sales team, selling polyester thread and PET within the hyper-competitive Indian market. This sales stint was a smooth sail because I had known my team for quite a long time, had earlier trained and worked alongside them and eventually had established a great working rapport with all of them.
An urge to experience steep learning curves brought me eventually to a startup where I had been assigned a larger team to manage. I was a newbie and to manage an existing team as well as seamlessly induct new hires into the team proved to be a seemingly daunting task. Thankfully, my evolution as a ‘complete’ sales leader was still to happen and it eventually happened in a dramatic fashion while working in this startup. I had to endure bouts of uncertainty while managing this team. Turned out eventually to be an experience I would take lots of learning from. It was an incredible experience managing a great team of sales superstars and at the same time, watching myself transform my selling capabilities. I had been always a good salesman but now I have learned and picked up what it takes to be a better sales leader. But amongst many traits that a good sales leader possesses, I believe the following five lessons that I learned in the last five years, hold me in good stead:
Be a Visionary and act towards being one
Without a ‘Vision’, you’re blind. Literally and figuratively. You lose your way. And yet, conjuring a mere ‘Vision’ without setting realistic targets and working towards achieving set goals would do you no good. I have always been a bit of a stickler for protocols, punctuality, and basic hygiene when it came to team dynamics. And that’s how I had envisaged my team to be, setting achievable goals and getting high whenever the set goals were met. Vision determines the kind of principles a leader lives by. My vision was to lead a team that would get good customers for the business. Customers who would stick to us and not churn. Where the product/service’s value proposition perfectly fits in with the prospect’s requirements. And I can definitely say that I have had a fair degree of success in making sure my team builds a great rapport with prospects who would eventually do good business.
Collaborative Leadership works the best
Addressing the team during weekly team meetings would always give me a high. And I realized I probably derive the greatest sense of power when I am part of a collective team. A team with a shared vision working towards common goals. And that’s what has made me a collaborative leader. The teams I have led have always been productive for there was never a sense of fear of the leader. Whenever I have asked for feedback, I have got one from the team. Be it the ways in which ‘sales conversions can be improved’ or the ways in which I could have better handled a conflict that directly affects the team. I had never discouraged unsolicited feedback — although it could sometimes negatively affect you as a leader — for I always believed that it was better having any feedback than not having any.
When it comes to Enterprise Sales, being a collaborative leader has always enabled me to handle a team of superstars in a conflict-free manner. Good salesmen need their space, where they could evolve with their responsibilities and challenge themselves to do better all the time. And when they falter, personalized coaching and an open feedback system always works. Helps in keeping the team motivated and as a leader, you give your team a sense of entitlement, leading to increased efficiency levels and an eventual sales closure. When you handle a team of superstars, you as a leader must acknowledge that you can’t always be right. Sometimes, you must let yourselves be taught by your team. And that worked for me. I evolved to become better at my job, thereby letting my team also scale greater heights of success.
Walk the talk
A team can only function as a well-oiled unit only if the leader earns the respect of his/her team. I had always believed that to become better at my job as a sales leader, I must dirty my hands. I must go out there, be it in the field or during a remote demo, and close big names, the team would be proud of. And I did that fairly well. Glad I did so because my team looked up to me and I was able to earn their respect. So, while I set targets for my team, I make sure I also have a target too. In any case, I had always wanted my team to chase the big names. Large prospects with a potential for a long-standing business association, demand greater attention levels from salesmen. So, it was crucial that I be there with my team member whenever he/she was trying to tame the proverbial Lion!
Conviction & Courage
A sales team is always affected by the ‘seasonality’ factor when the demand waivers up and down. In the face of unforeseen perils, a strong sales leader keeps the team stable and secure. There are times when the sales leader will have to stand up to what he/she believes is right. And I have had my share of such scenarios playing out. Not sure how I have fared here but I definitely have run into rough weather a couple of times, fighting for my team. This is when it is important that your team backs you up as well. And that can only happen with the firm conviction and courage that whatever you fight is worth fighting for. A good sales team, full of superstars, is a team worth fighting for. Period. Of course, definitely not in the literary sense of ‘fighting’ (Pun Intended!). Conviction and Courage are two unique and yet inter-dependent aspects leading to one common goal — Leading a great sales team effectively. And I am pretty sure I now have both in fair measure.
Learning is a continuous process. I am glad the first five years of my career in sales has taught me valuable lessons in Leadership. With the confidence, that I can better manage a sales team in more ways than one…signing off!