Herminia Ibaraan, an INSEAD professor, recently published a provocative book arguing that in today’s market if you desire to assume a leadership position you must get outside your comfort zone. Being stuck in outdated mindsets or ways of doing things will not lead to success. Would-be leaders must learn to pivot – it is more about doing something different rather than just the same thing better.
Although Ibaraan was writing about business in general, we thought her message held particular insight for the world of sales. In industry after industry companies are going through disruptive changes. This has lead to dramatic shifts in what companies buy, how the buy, and what they are willing to pay for it. If buyers change how they buy, sellers need to change how they sell and sales leaders need to bring the insight to make that happen.
Simply put, Ibaraan’s central message is: “In an age of constant disruption, you better redefine yourself before the rapidly shifting sands of corporate America and technology redefine you. You have to act like a leader before you’re appointed to a leadership position, and you have to manage your own leadership path … only be exiting your comfort zone can you develop “outsight”— the term she coins to describe the valuable perspective gained through actions.”
So let’s translate this message to sales management. Imagine a senior sales manager who desires to move up the sales leadership ladder – say a Regional Sales Director. What could our sales manager do to action Ibaraarn’s message?
Increase the time you spend with prospects, new customers and lost customers. If you are going to get unstuck and develop a new mindset there is no better way to get started then getting on the other side of the table – update your perspective of the customer. When conducting this exploration be mindful of the following traps.
- Assume the future looks like the past. We live and sell in a time of “compressed history.” Changes driven by the global market and advances in manufacturing technologies make the past a bad predictor of the future. As a result, competitive advantages that once lasted a long time now disappear quickly. In major accounts, if you want to prosper, assuming what worked in the past will work in the present is a risky assumption.
- Know a lot about the problems and not so much about the successes. If you don’t understand your customers’ problems you can’t provide viable solutions. This of course all makes great sense and is a story that needs to be told many times.
But there is another chapter to the story. If new insight is to be achieved, it is also necessary to understand the customer’s successes. What are they doing, when they are doing something great? What are the pieces of the puzzle that contribute to their greatest successes? What will be expected from their customers in the future as a given that is now considered exceptional? Which of their competitive advantages will be most difficult to maintain as the future unfolds?
- Learn more about more of your company. If you are going to be in the position to manage a sales team that can deliver an updated value message to your customers, it will be necessary to understand and marshal the resources of your entire company. Customers are looking for salespeople that are more than product facilitators – they want trusted advisors.
Developing a sales team capable of meeting that expectation requires creating a sales culture – everyone in the organization needs to come to the party. It is difficult to provide the leadership to make that happen if you have not developed the understanding of the other functions’ potential contributions and the relationships to leverage that potential.
- Be the canary in the coal mine. You can’t create new ideas and try out new ways of getting things done without some risk. The caveat is – manage the risk. For example, when trying out a new strategy for capturing business use a skunk-works approach – a small account with just one of your salespeople. Blueprint what works and what doesn’t and then try again. Bold and disciplined are not opposite ends of the same continuum, you can and must be both in order to be innovative.
- Don’t wait for training – go get it. Here there is a limitless amount of good news. Whether it is your preferred blogger or your favorite online university, the sources for getting smarter are now at your fingertips. Training is easily accessed and affordable so don’t wait for the national sales meeting – create your own pathway for getting smarter.
In summary … Inertia pulls potential leaders towards a more traditional path. There are powerful incentives and protocols pushing everyone to do what they do well. But Ibaraan warns, “When we allocate more time to what we do best, we devote less time to learning other things that are also important.” The result often can be failure when the business environment changes.
Ibaraan goes on to note that her advice is difficult to adopt in many corporate cultures. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. Try carving out a small percentage of a day or week for exploring new ideas – whether a new kind of presentation, a client call with people you don’t usually meet with or a new strategy for capturing new business. It’s all part of the puzzle for a pathway to leadership when you are in a disruptive business environment.
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