In my last post, I shared some reflections on my personal development as a Sales Manager. If you just read that post, you now know my opinion on where most sales leaders miss the mark -- they confuse "leadership" with "problem solving". As a result, they perpetuate the inability for their teams to solve problems on their own and never become the leader they could be because they are not coaching.. which is what I believe to be the secret to being a highly impactful sales leader.
As I also discussed, I further believe that most people get sales coaching wrong, because they confuse the concepts of training and coaching. Let's break the two apart and give some definitions:
- First, sales training can be loosely defined as the base of knowledge that an individual needs to consume and become educated on in order to do their job effectively. Without proper training, coaching cannot happen effectively.
- Sales Coaching on the other hand, is no about learning facts, how systems work, what the rules are, etc. Instead, coaching can be loosely defined as a communication method that connects and engages someone in an empowering manner.
Building on these concepts, this post is about what you need to understand -- and what you can do -- to STOP being a problem solver and START being a coach (i.e. - Great Leader).
Truth #1: For Better or Worse, Your Sales Team Is a Reflection of You
When I heard this for the first time, it was a hard truth to accept. When I thought about all of the wins and losses my team had over the first two years, I felt good in a way, worse in others. I felt great that I had helped many people reach their full potential. I felt great about bringing new people together. I felt great about helping individuals find meaning in their work, which ultimately helped them achieve significant personal life goals.
Conversely, I couldn't believe that I was the one causing the problem when I had team members ask me the same question for the 10th time. I was disappointed in myself for all of the months that any team member missed their number. The list goes on.
The bottom line is that I realized I cannot care about anyone else's success more than they do; but I also needed to face the reality that any systemic problems on my team were more than likely being caused by the way I was coaching, or absence thereof.
Truth #2: Your Role as a Leader is NOT "Chief Problem Solver"
When Keith Rosen presented this idea for the first time, I thought, "Duh, of course I'm not a Chief Problem Solver." Then I gave it more serious consideration. How many times did someone come to me with a challenge during the day? How many times had they pulled me into difficult situations, either customer-facing or internally? How many times did they want me to solve their problems for them as opposed to them solving their problems on their own? The answer to all of these questions and more was, "TOO MANY."
The more I thought about this, the more I became disenchanted about what I thought management and leadership was, then quickly found the silver lining. I was surprised, as I reflected, to see that I had quickly answered my team members' questions quickly and willingly when I taught them time and time again that the way to more effectively sell is through open ended questioning and digging deeper into what a prospective customer was really asking them. Why hadn't I taken this same approach to management and leadership!?
Truth #3: To Effectively Coach People, You Need to Enroll Them and Make Your Intentions Clear
This is a somewhat opaque principle to grasp, but Keith did an excellent job teaching our sales leadership team how to do it well. In short, if any of the shortfalls I described above resonate with you -- being a Chief Problem Solver, or leading with solutions instead of questions when working with your team -- then you probably need to re-think whether or not you're actually a coach.
If you're not a coach yet, but want to become one, the first thing you'll need to do is to enroll people into a new communication method. However, to do that effectively, you will need to clearly state your intentions. One of the best ways to do this, and it's nuanced so pay attention, is to sit down with your team members and explain why you're going to change your communication and preface it with, "What I want FOR you..." Did you catch the nuance? It is critical that you use "FOR you" as opposed "FROM you" because the "FOR" implies that you have your team member's best interest in mind whereas "FROM" implies you have your own agenda in mind.
Moreover, without stating your intention behind the change, your team members will resort to fear. They'll think, "Am I on a PIP?", or, "What's going on at the exec level that's making my manager do this?", or "What's about to happen at the company that I don't know about?". By simply stating your intentions you can remove this fear; and by simply changing the way you phrase your intentions, using "FOR" as opposed to "FROM", you will start getting better results as a coach almost immediately.
Truth #4: Your People (and all people) Believe What they Say, Yet are Resistant to What they Hear
And this is exactly why it's so important to be a good coach. If YOU are the one actually giving people answers all the time and telling them what to do, their is a much lower likelihood that it will stick. Instead, if you coach someone into problem solving either for themselves -- or at least with you -- then THEY are the ones actually stating the solution, not you. Because they state the solution themselves, they are far more likely to believe it, and thus, act on it.
Getting a little existential, I'll pull a quote from the father of Taoism, Lao Tzu:
"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."
Here's a modfied, hypothetical example of how this might play out in reality...
Your team member comes to you with an issue. Before anything else happens, you need to make sure you are able to give your team member your undivided attention. If you can't, tell them you can't, but ask them for a time that works for them because you really want to give your undivided attention.
Once you do sit down, maybe open the conversion with: "What's going on?"
They say that they're struggling to close a deal because a new decision-maker was introduced late in the sales process and they want to know what you think they should do.
At this point, most sales managers will jump in and joyfully offer a solution. Why? Because we all want to be valued as human beings and we're usually flattered that someone is looking for our amazingly "sage" wisdom on how to handle only the "most challenging" sales problems. This is the very first trap you must avoid. Instead, pivot the conversation back to your team member and ask one of the following questions:
"Well, I'm happy to share my opinion on it [BRIAN], but since you're so much closer to the situation it sounds like you know best on what the next step should be. So, what's your opinion on what we should do next?"
If they resist this, consider backing up a few steps and ask a more open-ended question, such as, "Tell me more about the situation. What led up to the point you're at now?"
After learning more about the situation, continue asking open ended questions until you think your rep might be more receptive to the first question you asked, which is, "What's your opinion on the next step?" I didn't clarify this earlier, but I'll clarify it now -- it is CRITICAL to use the word "opinion" because an opinion cannot be right or wrong. By using that single word, you eliminate the potential fear or self doubt created when ask use a question like, "What do you think the RIGHT thing to do here is?" It seems like such a simple question on the surface, but by simply injecting the word "opinion", you create a safer space for discussion.
At this point, if you have a very frustrated or difficult rep on your hands, they might just say, "I don't know. That's why I'm asking you!"
Most managers also fall into this trap -- they think the jig is up and they succumb to their team member's frustration. But when someone says, "I don't know", it rarely means they actually don't know, or at least have an opinion. Instead, it means, "Just give me the answer because I don't want to think for myself." Unless of course, this isn't a coaching issue, and is actually a knowledge gap -- an example might be something more mechanical such as logging a call in your company's CRM. So don't fall into the "I don't know" trap. Instead, counter and continue coaching by asking a question such as...
"Ok, you don't know... [PAUSE] ... If you DID know, what do you think that might sound like?" Or, you could as a slightly less tongue-in-cheek question such as "If I weren't here, what would do?" You'll probably break the tension, you might even get a smile or chuckle out of your team member, and they're likely to at least share their opinion.
Remember, coaching is all about EMPOWERING your team to make the right decisions for themselves on a continuous basis. When you do this, you build confidence. When you build confidence, you earn more respect and trust from your team. When you gain this trust and respect, the team will not only work harder with you when no one is watching, you will also have given them a framework to think through an solve their own problems... as well as the daily grind challenges of others... over the long haul. Who knows, they may even just become a leader themselves, which in my opinion is the highest form of a leadership you can aspire to attain.