A sales leadership lesson from IBM’s Executive School

Lessons from IBM for Sales

Way back in 1955 when the average cost of a new car was $1,900 and a gallon of gas was 23 cents, Louis Mobley was given a blank check by Tom Watson, IBM’s CEO,  to create a school for training IBM executives.

The first step he took was to locate a group of the very best executives he could find.  Then he developed a battery of test to find the skill sets they had in common.  The logic being find out the skills the very best possess and then develop a comprehensive training program to help others learn those skills.

So on which skills do you think the very best executives consistently scored high?  Interestingly, the answer was – there weren’t any.  Regardless of the skill tested the proven top executives were all over the normal distribution – on any given skill some were at the top, some in the middle and some at the bottom.  Maybe the tests were flawed – possible but unlikely since Mobley had contracted with the Educational Testing Service to help in the testing.

But given that Mobley was a pretty smart guy and had a substantial bankroll, he continued to try.  After a fair amount of time and effort, he solved the puzzle.  Unlike supervisors and front-line managers what successful executives had in common were not skills, but values and attitudes.

For a comprehensive review of the values and attitudes that Mobley identified take a read of August Turak’s excellent article – 10 Leadership Lessons from the IBM Executive School.  A couple of examples: great leaders want options, great leaders stick their necks out, and great leaders are tough enough to face facts.

But for Mobley finding out what the very best had in common was only a way station on the journey, the objective was to develop a series of training programs to help build future top executives for IBM.

The breakthrough on that next step was the realization that since the right answer was not about skills but values and attitudes, then the standard step by step curriculum was not the answer. Instead Mobley turned to experiential techniques such as simulations.  The rest is history – IBM’s Executive School has become legendary.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the challenge of developing sales leaders.  First question – Do we believe Mobley’s findings and conclusions are applicable for developing today’s Sales VPs and Regional Directors?  Our experience working with Fortune 1000 companies would lead us to the answers – yes and yes. Yes – what separates the best from the rest is about values and attitudes. And, yes – experiential learning experiences are the most effective training vehicle to help people become the very best.

So what is the lesson for developing sales executives?  Today it is getting harder and harder to differentiate by product alone. Having a great sales team is one of the few sustainable advantages remaining.  And, having a great sales team in the absence of great sales leadership exists only in middle-earth.

The good news is in the last several years the work on sales simulations and other forms of experiential learning has expanded exponentially.  It’s now possible to design sales simulations that can help sales executives reach the level of excellence that Mobley was attempting to achieve.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Richard Ruff

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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