Tl;dr - Every company professes to have a deeply caring culture that values employees. Precious few manifest that in the way they manage sales reps. Great sales managers understand (and are accountable to sales leadership) they must help reps set and achieve personal goals, and tie attainment of sales targets to progress toward those personal goals. That requires real, deep, empathetic caring that is rare in most sales manager/rep relationships, whether high-pressure SaaS sales or product-focused industrial sales.
Hypocrisy in Business Pop Culture
Sometimes, it's hard to take seriously the pronouncements from companies.
We hear a seemingly endless stream of platitudes about caring for employees, authenticity, candor, work-life balance, etc., etc., etc.
But how many of you work for a company where the pitter-patter matches the chitter-chatter? Or for a boss (and that could be the board if you're the CEO, the VP of marketing if you're an individual contributor, or your Sales Manager if you are a rep) who knows your goals and dreams; the crosses you bear personally at any given time; your spouse; your kids' struggles and wins?
Yet, this is fundamental to leadership.
Of course, any pencil pusher can be a manager - listing and delegating tasks, tracking performance, and perhaps enforcing some accountability. But that's distinct from leadership.
As business gets harder, revenue growth (like other business functions) requires leadership. Great strategy and tactical execution are necessary. That requires well-rounded, intelligent, creative people. But it also requires motivated people.
Motivation comes from the likelihood of achieving goals. Leadership shapes motivation through interest and caring.
Caring, Army, Human, Flow
I follow Sean Hurd on LinkedIn because he draws helpful connections between hard aspects of Army life and business. He's rekindled many memories for me.
A strong set of memories relates to caring - leaders I've known cared for me (or didn't), and my recollections of times I've cared for those working for me. The resulting reflections have reminded me of many lessons learned.
- caring ≠ "touchy feely"
- leadership is built on caring
- we have to be inspired to do hard stuff - and that inspiration normally comes from not wanting to let down those who care for us and for whom we care
While I certainly had leaders in the Army who were careerists and didn't care, I had a much higher ratio of those who did in the Army than in my civilian career since.
And watching the performative culture pronouncements that are not consonant with how companies actually act, I'm guessing most people haven't had many of those caring experiences either.
I also recently read David Ehrenthal's article on setting sales targets for sales reps. David explores sales targets and "flow" through the idea of matching the magnitude of the challenge to the current skill level.
In some ways, I think David is right that managers need to set goals that are aspirational yet attainable. On the other hand if you have one rep with $1MM skill level, 5 at $2MM, 15 at $3MM, 7 at $4MM and 2 at >$5MM, is it appropriate to set the realistic sales goals commensurate to the skill level for underperformers? Or to upgrade the team?
The only reasonable business answer is the latter. You can try to do that through training and coaching. At some point, though, that means replacing people. Sales talent follows a distribution like every other attribute in nature. The goal should be to build a team of second and third-standard deviation talent and incorporate sales coaching for continuous improvement.
Here's the thing. Caring and flow aren't binary alternatives. Great teams will figure out how to merge them.
Goals Drive Success
Abundant research affirms the importance of goals, purpose, and mindset to success. Sales, fraught with rejection and circumstances which can't be controlled, requires transcendent motivation even more than other situations.
That means that sales reps must have meaningful personal goals. They must be written and supported by a system for tracking, review, and attainment.
Great salespeople will do that naturally on their own. Good salespeople may need a nudge.
Sales managers must be involved.
- mutual respect and trust between sales managers and sales reps
- sales managers who help reps set their personal goals, and create and adhere to a structure to attain them
- managers who tie the setting and attainment of sales targets to the subsequent achievement of personal goals
- deep, empathetic and genuine caring about the reps' achievement of their personal goals (not necessarily personal friends) and insight into what invigorates and enervates them
- managers must care so deeply that when a rep fails to meet sales targets and therefore falls short of attaining a personal goal milestone, that the manager feels as though they've personally failed their rep
- sales reps must feel that guidance and pressure from the manager are focused on helping them achieve their personal goals, not merely to hit the managers target. Everyone will recognize that the latter is a byproduct of the former, and that's OK, but it can't be the primary goal, no matter how much BS language is used to disguise it.
And yet, only a small percentage of salespeople have written goals. Fewer look at them consistently. Even fewer have a system for tracking progress and achieving the goals.
And very, very, very few sales managers know what their reps' goals are, much less own them together with their team.
That means that sales managers must be skilled leaders who care, motivate, inspire, coach, push, and empathize.
That's one example of why it's so critical to assess sales management candidates properly. Top-performing reps will be very focused on hitting their own goals and may completely lack the capacity to care deeply about their team's goals. Putting such a person in a management role not only takes their production off the street but can be detrimental to the team's performance. It's a sadly common, entirely unforced error.
Sure, setting team sales targets is difficult, and everyone will have heartburn with how it's done. But a strong sales manager and capable sales team will "have each other's backs" bound by caring enough to subsume one's own interests in pursuit of helping the other attain their desired outcomes.
What Motivates Reps to Achieve Quota?
It's also not enough for a manager to know their reps' personal goals.
Those help drive activity over a long arc of time (perhaps quarters or years.)
Sales managers also must understand what motivates their reps emotionally in the near term.
Is it commission dollars and the watch/car/boat/vacation house/investment portfolio/ early retirement they enable? Or is it the thrill of winning? Or perhaps recognition as a substantive contributor to their own company's or a customer's success?
They're different, and require different management approaches.
Sometimes reps will experience enormous growth through what seem to be small steps. Simply (finally) making a successful cold call (a win) the recording of which is used as a coaching example in a sales meeting (recognition) can turn mediocre performance into confidence fueled success. The feeling of "figuring it out" might infuse them with a belief in their ability to execute, and transform their performance.
In other cases, quarterly accelerators (financially rewarding above trend performance toward sales quotas and related criteria) may be most effective for those motivated by financial rewards.
Managers must understand the difference between personal goals (longer term) and motivation style (shorter term) and incorporate both in their approach.
And managers must care for their reps' success beyond the aggregate impact on their own.