January 8, 2015

Sales Management Challenge: Good Corporate Citizens & Team Players or Top Producers?

Last month I wrote a piece critiquing salespeople wearing logo shirts I was certain would cause many to throw rocks and call me names. Turns out every social share comment was positive and it ended up as my most popular post of the month. So, what do I know? Having said that, my confidence is a bit higher that today’s post is going to make more than a few cringe, and I’m ready for the arrows from the HR folks, the politically correct and the academic-types. Regardless, this is a topic worthy of serious discussion.

The subject of managing difficult, even misbehaving, top-producing A-player salespeople was already on my mind, and two recent events compelled me to share these thoughts here.

First, I watched the Seattle Seahawks dismantle the Arizona Cardinals on December 21 to earn the top seed and bye-week in the NFC playoffs. But more than the game, it was Marshawn Lynch that captured my thoughts. I don’t like this guy – not even a little. He’s rude. He behaves like a selfish child. He mocks NFL policies. He often intentionally acts like a punk. Frankly, he angers me. Compared to my favorite Seahawk, Russell Wilson, who is not only an exemplary leader, poster-boy ambassador for the league, and a selfless man who makes more visits to kids in hospitals than you can count, Marshawn Lynch looks pretty darn bad to the public. But from everything you read, Lynch’s teammates love him, and there are reports that behind the scene he’s quite likable and rather generous. His coach not only tolerates his antics, he appears to even bend over backwards to accommodate them. Why? I’ll address that in a minute, but if you have 30 extra seconds, watch this clip from the game because it displays part of the answer. Many have described it as one of most incredible runs they’ve ever seen:

The second recent catalyst for this post was an interview I did with a client’s sales manager candidate. I wasn’t loving the candidate’s answers about what makes a healthy sales culture so I moved on to asking about the traits this candidate desired when recruiting and interviewing salespeople. The very first trait out of the candidate’s mouth was team-player. Then he/she provided a few more run-of-the-mill characteristicsbut I was stuck on the choice of team-player as the first thing he/she would look for in a salesperson. Words I didn’t hear during the interview but wish I did: results-focused, winner, resilient, driven, fearless, empathetic, relationally gifted, articulate, problem-solver, hungry. I can stop now; you get my point. But the truth is that I hear a lot of executives and managers talking about their desire for collaborative team-players on the sales team. While it would be wonderful if there were an abundance of high-producing, perennial all-stars in sales who also happened to be model citizens and great corporate ambassadors, the harsh truth is that there are not.

In most sales organizations, if they’re truly blessed, they’ve got twenty percent of the team that you’d call A-Players. But in most companies the actual number of A-Players is between ten and fifteen percent. We’ve all seen the stats that almost half of the total population of salespeople miss their goal every year. So with that as the backdrop, let’s go back to Marshawn Lynch. By all accounts the guy is a beast. In fact, for you non-NFL fans, when Lynch runs like he did in the clip above, it’s referred to Beast Mode. The guy is a top-producer among top-producers. He’s clutch. He gives it his all on every play. He is an impact player. He’s the sales stud who goes hard after every opportunity. He wins big deals – tough, hairy deals. He destroys the competition. He puts up numbers. He delivers for the organization time and time again. Period. But he’s also a jerk and certainly a burden to manage.

My question, my sales management challenge: Would you want a Marshawn Lynch on your sales team?

marshawn maskMore questions: If Lynch, or someone like him, was a top-producer on your team, how would treat him? Would you make exceptions for him? How much leeway would you offer? What type of behavior would you accept and where would you draw the line?

If you would not hire or keep him on your team because of his bizarre (off the field only, not in front of customers) behavior, what’s your reasoning? Are you so stacked with A-Players and your team so strong that you don’t need one of the very very best in the entire industry to keep winning? Would you let him go because there is something about preferential treatment for a star that violates the very core of your management philosophy? Or is your answer even more plain – where like many of us, your credo is simple: No jerks.

Before I declare my position, let me be very clear about a few things: I am not encouraging you to hire jerks. And I am not saying that you should encourage prima donnas, or that rude selfish behavior is desirable in a salesperson. I am not saying that sales team culture isn’t a factor because it’s a huge factor. And I am definitely not saying that I’d tolerate anywhere close to this type of behavior from a middle-of-the-pack average producer.

If it’s my call to make, I want a Marshawn Lynch on my team. Why is that a pretty easy decision for me? Let’a start with the fact that most sales teams under-produce, and a main contributor to that sales shortfall is a shortage of good talent. Why else? Because there are very few people who can make runs like the one in that video. Said differently, there is dearth of sales stars, so if you have one, I’d sure want to keep him even if he/she was more than a handful to manage. You can’t teach someone to run like that. It’s talent and it comes with the person. And there’s one more big reason:

The managers, HR folks and sales theoreticians who tell us we need collaborative team-players are wrong. Dead wrong. If I personally introduced you to all the top sales producers I’ve worked with across dozens of industries, do you know what you wouldn’t see? People you’d describe as team-players and good corporate citizens. Oh sure, some of them are truly wonderful people that play nicely with others. But the dominant traits you’d most notice about these world-class sales stars is how they’re laser-focused, results-driven and selfishly-productive. Team-player is typically way down the list.

Those are my thoughts and I’m curious for yours. Since we turned off the comments feature on my site for reasons outlined here, you can share your response on your favorite social platforms and I’m happy to continue the conversation there. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the NFL Playoff games this weekend. I will.