How to Build a High-Performance Sales Team - You Just Inherited
“Be curious, not judgmental”- Ted Lasso
I received a text from a former employee earlier this year asking if I had heard of the TV show Ted Lasso. I replied that I had not, and she replied in all caps...” YOU MUST WATCH! THIS IS YOU-HOW YOU LEAD”
And so, I watched, and am currently watching and hope this great show continues.
If you haven’t heard of it, the premise is that this US football coach is hired to coach a soccer team in England. He knows nothing of soccer, the Country, the rituals, “rules” or the language. What does he have? The strong basic principles of leadership and team building. And it is a true ensemble show demonstrating effective team principles
Watching this show spurred some ideas on leading a new team I thought I would share. Now, there are a zillion books and articles on this topic and “7 Ways” or “15 Steps “type recommendations. In my opinion, you can’t limit it to a few steps or thoughts. I created some topics of things to consider and a lot of questions to answer.
So, let’s begin with how you arrived at this new role. These are very different scenarios, and each comes with its own and different set of challenges and pitfalls to watch out for.
Are you being promoted to lead the team you were on?
Here you know the strengths and opportunities about your team from a team member perspective, which can be beneficial. You also typically have some degree of a personal relationship with other team members. One area to guard against here, we will address down the page is going from buddy to boss.
Are you coming from outside the industry?
This gives you a steeper learning curve as you must learn the business and the people. The challenge that you may face here is your team may feel they know better, and they have to train you. It is easy to turn this into a positive from the beginning!
Was this a promotion from rep to manager? (not now leading the team you were on)
Again, this affords you a shorter ramp up as you already know the business. You may not face the “buddy” dilemma, but there may be preconceived thoughts on who you actually are and what you bring to the table.
The first step in your new role, regardless of the circumstances that helped you arrive here, is to garner the answers to many questions. Think of yourself as a detective! Here are a few I recommend you start with. This actual list could go on for pages.
What was the situation before you arrived? Did you get the true picture?
Were others on your team or in the company in the running for this role as well?
What kind of support can you expect from the company, your boss?
What is the performance history of the team? Did you get realistic numbers to analyze?
Are there underperformers on a performance plan?
Has your boss set clear and written expectations for your first 100 days?
Do you understand what you were hired to do?
What kind of training will be provided if you come from outside the industry or are in a first-time manager role?
DO know what you bring to the table…you may not know the industry or the products you are serving but you do have strengths and you need to be able to articulate them.
In several roles I was tapped on the shoulder to do, I had no industry experience. I made it clear that I knew I didn’t know the products, or the industry and I would learn from this new team I was leading, but what I did bring to the table was a clear understanding of the art and science of the sales process and how to apply it across any business. What many experienced leaders bring is objectivity to look at the business strategically and glass half full approach which can be of great value to the team. What an emerging leader recently promoted can bring is a high degree of empathy from walking in the team's shoes. Growth from one job may play out in another!
Many of us were schooled in the importance of the “elevator pitch.” This is especially true if you are in the sales industry. This ability to deliver a concise message of who you are or what you do is an essential skill in any role. In taking over a new team it is even more critical.
Knowing your “brand”, what sets you apart and knowing your leadership philosophy, and being able to effectively communicate them both anywhere to anyone is critical. Think about a time when you were interviewed and were asked “What kind of leader are you?”
This is mine:
Brand: “I build teams that will walk through walls for me to deliver results”
Philosophy: “My leadership philosophy is the belief that if I help others get what they want then I will achieve success as well. It isn’t about my goals, promotions, or earnings, but yours.”
Now, I can quickly drill down on both of those when asked, but there is the basic “elevator pitch”. Be careful not to get trapped in cliché’s or be too general. Being able to speak to this clearly will help you build trust with your new team. Stay grounded in who you are and your strengths, know and be ready to communicate your personal leadership philosophy.
This should be part of the air you breathe!
Whenever possible, have a professional coach of your own on speed dial. Self-doubt is bound to creep in at some point in the beginning, even Imposter Syndrome is very common. You need a coach you can lean on to keep that doubt to a minimum and talk through different issues/strategies for the first few months or potentially longer depending on your level in the company. You may need a coach to help you with a particular skill. In one role I was promoted to, I didn’t feel as strong in my Profit &Loss skills as I would have liked to be. I hired a retired CFO to help tutor me for a few weeks until I felt stronger.
Yes, I do talk about culture a lot! The culture you walk into and the culture you want may be very separate. I entered a role where there had been a very toxic culture and inherited a team with a bad leadership hangover as a result. This required not only communicating my leadership philosophy but also sharing the kind of culture I hoped to create with their help.
What changes are needed and how will you build a culture of support and success for this team? How can you create an environment where the team trusts and supports one another? They may have this already based on having a great manager prior to you OR having a poor manager and having to rely on each other for survival. A great deal of this can be determined from the next section on conversations.
This is THE most critical step in taking on a new team regardless of how you got there. It is also the time where Ted Lasso's philosophy of Be curious, not judgmental is paramount!
Once you have clarity on the above questions/situation, plan to have a lengthy one-on-one with each rep. Be prepared to listen to anything and everything, which can be tedious depending on the previous situation.
What are their personal goals and professional goals?
Do they have a family?
What do they do for fun?
What has been their greatest frustration in the past 12 months?
Learn about what is most important to them!
Make sure you share your goals…if your goal is to climb the corporate ladder, they need to know this…they can make or break you, but also, they need to know you are not going to climb at their expense or over them.
Become comfortable with your ignorance! Let the team know that you see them as the experts (if you have come from outside the industry), respecting the knowledge and expertise they have and that you don’t pretend to know the products or the industry and will learn from all of them.
When leading your first team call use Teams or Zoom!! This would have been a huge advantage early on in my career. Nonverbal is such a critical part of communication and this format can make a difference in developing the culture, giving the team the ability to really get to know you and start developing trust.
What is the core message you want to deliver?
How you can best support them?
Where are they facing the most challenges?
What IS working well?
What kind of resources will help them perform better?
This will help you start to develop in your mind clear expectations you will be able to deliver back to the team once these conversations are complete. Remember, this may be the needed venting to start to put the past behind and move forward and you can let them know that is your expectation.
I also recommend having the team go through the StrengthsFinder™ assessment, even if they have, it is worth the team sharing their strengths and you sharing yours. It is a great tool to help break the ice and build a winning team. The DISC profile is also a value-added tool but requires a deeper time and financial investment to be implemented effectively. Either of these can help you know behavioral styles and what makes them tick.
This is where a keen understanding of why you became a leader comes into play. If you are in this role for any other reason than to elevate and enhance the lives of those you lead, please stop reading this and go look for a role as an individual contributor.
Your belief should be to help others become the best versions of themselves, not a “mini-you.”
Setting up regular one-on-one’s is an important part of your coaching along with virtual or actual co-travels. In my opinion, the first fifteen minutes of a one-on-one should be focused on how the human being is, not the business. What is new with them, their family, how was their weekend or what are they looking forward to?
This process is especially hard for first-time managers.
John Hennessey, the former Stanford President recently wrote an article on Leadership in strategy + business speaking to first time managers:
“It’s not the technical issues, it’s not the numbers; it’s the people issues.” That is where experience is crucial. To coach somebody who reports to you, who has great potential but is not living up to that potential – that is a really hard thing to do well so that you don’t either destroy the person or mislead them. This is a skill that you grow over time, and lots of times when we catapult people who are very young into leadership positions, they don’t have those skills yet.
Lead with careful empathy. People respond more to inspiration, to being challenged to do something great. If you need to use a stick (and for deep performance issues you sometimes do) you already lose some level of productivity that you could have gotten from the team. Understand that if you are a first-time manager and grew through the sales ranks, your way of how you succeeded may not be the best way for everyone! (This is addressed in the next section too.)
Through the above conversations, you should be able to determine a general sense of expectations that you can discuss with the team and provide in writing.
What are the priorities?
What will you want to accomplish as the manager?
What are the non-negotiables?
Process expectations? (using CRM, expense reporting, weekly reports)
Don’t assume the way you lead the last team you supported will work with this team. This was a big mistake on my part when I took on a new role in a new company in a new industry. I moved too quickly to set up a process that was familiar to me and had been successful within leading a group of directors. It failed miserably and I lost credibility. Fortunately, I was able to pivot, and re-group based on what I learned was the strategic imperatives. Your prior experience can help you succeed but may hurt you if you can’t adapt.
When I was in development for a leadership position, we went through Fortune Management Training Program which used the “13 Fatal Errors Managers Make and How You Can Avoid Them” I am not sure it is even in print anymore, but it provided one key “watch out” that I have lived by and coached to through the years:
“Be a boss, not a buddy”. This is especially tough if you have been promoted to lead a team you served on. It doesn’t mean you cannot be friendly, there must be a separation. Hybrids rarely work. “When a manager is in the company of an employee it is never entirely social.” I had a leader once recommend that if there are cocktails involved at the end of a dinner or meeting, buy the first round, and then leave. This demonstrates team comradery but helps keep the delineation of buddy and boss.
Additional areas to guard against that I have learned the hard way are:
Trying to force your way of running their business. This one requires a bit of explanation. Being promoted from rep to manager, there is a tendency for you to coach the process that made you successful. I did this! I wanted “Judy” to go from point A to point B the way I would when in fact “Judy’s” way was just as effective, accomplished the same goal and fit her style and personality. Her trying to do it my way resulted in losing the “Judy” qualities that had earned her several award clubs and the admiration of her customers.
Another team member thinks THEY should have the job. This can happen if you were promoted from your team, within somewhere else in the organization or came from outside the organization. The team member may not have been adequately told why they were not given the role. Bottom line, you may have a tenuous situation/relationship that has to be dealt with on day one! It is important to clear the air early and have a conversation about it.
Understand you are no longer an individual contributor. Once a manager that I had begun to mentor called concerned that HE was not going to be making HIS bonus because his team was underperforming. In time I helped him understand that if he helped his team earn THEIR bonus, he would likely earn his as well. He was being a manager, not a leader.
In closing, the most important question, I believe, is why do you want to be a leader? What led you to this journey? The answer to that is individual, but in my experience, if it isn’t clear and about serving others and creating opportunities for them, then you need to reconsider. Also, know the difference between being a leader and being a manager. In this leader’s experience, managers manage tasks, leaders lead!
If leadership IS your passion, then bravo! Know that there will be hard times, that self-doubt will creep in, that you will be overwhelmed. Just focus on bringing value to the team, take a deep breath, give gratitude, and celebrate small and big wins.