September 7, 2013

The Healthiest Sales Team Culture I’ve Seen

Every once in a while we see something special. In 1980 I was thirteen and I can remember watching the winter olympics on a little black and white TV in my basement bedroom. After we (sorry Canadian and European friends), beat the big bad Soviet Union (remember the CCCP on their jerseys?), I forced my younger sister to watch the Gold Medal Game with me and together we chanted “USA, USA, USA” as the clocked ticked down to zero and Al Michaels’ famous line became part of our lexicon forever. Honestly, it’s one of my strongest sports memories, even to this day. That was an incredible team that accomplished incredible things.

Last month I saw something special, so special, that I recognized it instantly and knew it was worthy of sharing with you here. I spent two days with an incredible company, who, without a doubt, has the healthiest sales team culture I’ve experienced. Their culture was so strong, so ideal, and unfortunately so rare, that it took a full week for me to process it to the point where I could articulate it well.

We all talk about the importance of culture. And for the most part, I bet most executives and salespeople would agree what a healthy sales culture should look and feel like. But the truth is that I almost never see one. Sure, I worked at one company back in the late 1990’s that came as close as any to having what I’d call and ideal sales culture. And occasionally, I’ll see elements of a healthy culture within my clients’ organizations, but after having worked with about 80 sales teams, I can say with certainty this company last month had, by far, the best I’ve ever seen.

Before sharing more about this particular culture, let me direct one strong shot across the bow of the cynical anti-sales executive reading this post who thinks that “culture” is a soft, mushy topic not tied to results. This company that invited me in to help take their new business development effort to the next level is already outrageously successful. They’re a dynamo in their space and members of their team produce twice the industry average. And as you’ll read in a minute, there was nothing soft about this culture.

The Healthiest Sales Culture I’ve Seen:

1.  An engaged, pro-sales CEO and executive team:  Wise mentors in my life have taught me a lot about leadership. Some of the one-liners that have stuck in my head include: as goes the leader, so goes the organization; the fish stinks at the head; if it’s broken at the top then it’s broken everywhere; the level of the team rarely, if ever, exceeds the level of the leader; all roads lead to the leader. Need I go on?  Let’s just say I learned the hard way, early on, that sales coaching isn’t all that’s necessary to fix broken sales organizations.

This company’s CEO is fully engaged with the sales team. He is pro-sales. He took great pride in sharing many success stories about how they’ve groomed talented individuals. There were John Wooden books prominently displayed on his shelves. He talked a lot about the culture at the company. When I started mentioning the buzz in the office, what I was observing from members of the team, the pride in the company that many of the reps described, the CEO stopped me. He leaned in, and said, “Mike, everything flows from culture.”  I almost cried right there. And then I asked him if he wanted to consult other companies, because I know quite a few that need to hear his message!

2.  No confusion; a crystal clear strategy; laser focus:  What a rare treat to see a laser-focused sales team. There was no fog. Everyone understood the company’s mission, what space they played in, what they were selling, their position in the market and whom they were targeting. And even better, the sales team understood that their job was to sell. There were no mixed messages from management about helping out operations, no excuses about working on other projects or getting caught up in customer service issues.

3.  Crazed focus on goals and results:  Everywhere you turned there was a report or white board with sales data on it. Results were posted, published and public. The salespeople submitted their own performance goals to management, and management would regularly review those goals with each salesperson.

4. Love:  There was a fraternal bond among members of the sales team and between management and the sales team. This group was tight. They had each other’s backs. There was a company rule that you could not talk badly about another person. If you had a problem with someone, you were to go to that person. Management admitted that it wasn’t perfectly enforced, but they tried. And the very fact that they had the policy was powerful.

5.  Competitive, self-policing team:  This team was in it to win it. Make no mistake, this was not a recreational sports team; they were a select team committed to winning a championship. And it felt like a winning locker room. There was a standard of performance that was a given. Complacency would not be tolerated. No coasting allowed.

6. Brutal feedback:  I was shocked how brutally honest management was with members of the team. We were working on incorporating their sharpened “sales story” into conversations with prospective clients and several salespeople were asked to role play in front 30 people in the room. Members of the team teased each other mercilessly, but in a fun and funny, not demeaning way. And when someone on the team swung and missed or sounded terrible, it didn’t take an executive two seconds to stop that person and let them know how awful they were doing. At first, I was uncomfortable with the brutal honesty. But after seeing it play out, especially because it was done so well and with love, I really appreciated how effective it was. It was a glaring contrast to most organizations where people rarely provide honest, direct feedback to those who need it.

7.  Servant leadership:  We hear a lot about servant leadership, but it’s pretty rare to see it in action. I’ve shared stories from my favorite airline, and occasionally will see it from senior executives. But it was a way of life at this company. The key managers were actively involved with their teams, even sitting on the sales floor with them. No ivory towers here. Executives were not far away or living the life of the absentee owner barking orders from afar. As an aside, I see way too many senior leaders express frustration with their sales team’s intensity or performance while taking extended vacations thousands of miles away.

8. Celebration:  One of my mentors, Donnie Williams, who I mention frequently in my book, was a master at pre-celebrating success. He understood that sales was as much a matter of the heart as it is of the head. He loved to celebrate with the sales team, and so does this new client of mine. They not only socialize together often, management rewards them. Just recently they dropped a bundle to take the entire team to the Rolling Stones concert. When the CEO told me the story, he simply said that it was the worth the money and they wanted the team to feel special and appreciated.

 

Sales leader, senior executive, CEO or small company owner, scroll back to the top and take a minute pondering the image of that 1980 US Olympic team. Wouldn’t it be great to create the kind of sales culture that could produce a gold medal for your organization?

Can I be so bold as to ask you to grab a sheet of paper and write down the eight attributes of this incredibly healthy sales culture I’ve described. What would it take to start down the path of creating that type of success-breeding culture in your organization?