Change and Culture at the Forefront of the Sales Leader’s Agenda

Regardless of the changes on the horizon, organizations with sales leaders that can adapt to change and cultivate their sales culture through learning will be the ones able to keep pace and stay productive through any business cycle.

By Will Milano

We joined two hundred senior sales leaders gathered last month in Atlanta for the Sales Management Association (SMA) Conference to explore emerging trends and research affecting all facets of the sales organization. This year’s event shed light on some of the more pressing challenges of sales today. It also revealed the opportunities sales leaders and managers have to step up to the plate and make adjustments to improve sales force productivity in this ever-evolving business environment.

In a keynote address on preparing managers to lead sales transformations, presenters Adrian Voorkamp of Johnson Controls and Andy Williams of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health highlighted the four hats a successful sales manager wears:

  • Strategy — answering the question, Where are we going?
  • Leading — inspiring motivation and fostering a growth mindset 
  • Managing — focusing on task-specific prioritization
  • Coaching — growing their people and helping them develop their skills

Each of these areas has a connection to the broader themes Bob Kelly, SMA Chairman, says he’s seeing in the sales management profession today. Here’s a closer look at those themes and the related issues that were explored during the conference.

The New Sales Leadership Competency: Change

Bob noted that 80% of sales leaders say the speed of change has increased in the past three years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, 92% expect the pace to continue to pick up over the next three years. As a result, change itself is an emerging competency that sales leaders need to develop.

In fact, change is most impactful when it’s driven by the frontline sales managers. The all-company emails from the VP or C-Suite may set the stage, but it’s the immediate managers who have the biggest influence over whether their people will be on board or resistant to the message. This is where the successful sales manager puts on that leadership hat and connects with people in a way that is personally meaningful and motivating to them.

The Most Overlooked Area for Impact: Values

As Bob points out, culture is at the center of change. When everything else is uncertain, it’s the one thing you can rely on. A positive culture honors who and where you are but also points you to what you aspire to be in the future.

And that brings up a question: How are your sales leaders building their culture, defining it and adapting it over time? Culture is what drives behavior, and that means it’s up to the sales leader to exemplify what good and what possible look like and show people how they’re expected to treat each other, communicate and work together to serve the customer.

Culture also impacts sales and productivity. In a session exploring the power of values and integrity in the sales organization, our CEO Mike Esterday and Chief Sales Officer Bruce Wedderburn noted that, when it comes to improving sales productivity, many companies are overlooking some of the most important drivers of success. In fact, there are three conversations salespeople have that impact their results: with their customers, with themselves and with their coach. While the customer conversations are important, the inner talk they have creates the boundaries. In other words, salespeople will sell what they believe is possible for them to sell.

The conversations they have with themselves and with their coach get to their mindset—how aligned their values are with the organization’s, what they believe is possible for them to achieve and how connected they are to the organization’s purpose. Salespeople need to believe in what they are asked to do and understand their role in the organization’s success. And they need a coach who sees the potential in them. That’s what expands their boundaries and opens the door to higher achievement. It’s not just about “working harder.”

The Key to Getting Salespeople to Use Technology: Managers

SMA research shows that CRM adoption correlates to a 24% higher likelihood of achieving sales targets. Yet many organizations still struggle to get their salespeople to use it. And that can spell an even bigger problem down the road. Bob Kelly called the CRM “bellwether technology” for sales organizations. If companies can’t get that right, then adoption of other technologies will likely fail as well.

What does it take to increase adoption? As Johnson Controls’ Voorkamp says, “The single biggest lever in any sales organization is the sales manager.” Sales managers directly impact behaviors, and that includes whether or not salespeople are going to use the CRM. Are your sales leaders talking about CRM adoption but then calling reps for pipeline update review meetings instead of reviewing what’s in the CRM? Are they telling salespeople they need to get more involved with social selling but aren’t active and visible on social media themselves? Again, the sales leader has to exemplify what’s expected of everyone else. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.

Learning and Coaching Bring it All Together 

Regardless of the changes that are on the horizon, organizations that can adapt to change through learning will be the ones that will be able to keep pace and stay productive through any business cycle.

That means more than just putting people through a training course. Reinforcement is what makes change stick. It’s how you get sustained impact and long-term behavior change. Coaching—that third pivotal conversation every salesperson has—is also critical, especially given the relatively high turnover rates in sales. A Gartner study found that every salesperson should receive at least 3 hours of coaching a month. That means a sales leader with 10 sales reps should be wearing that coaching hat for a minimum of 30 hours of month.

And it’s time well spent. As we saw from the case studies and strategies presented during the conference, the companies that are committing to these practices are retooling their sales organizations to create better leaders, retain high performers, build positive cultures and ultimately strengthen their competitive advantage.



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