Why do some sales organizations produce growth year after year while similarly situated competitors wallow in stagnation, often for years on end? Both those that grow and those that stall have smart and motivated professionals leading their sales teams. Both offer products or services that clients need and buy. So, what makes the difference? In my experience, it comes down to one thing: accountability.
You already know that it’s difficult to grow without a detailed vision of better results and a better future. That vision must be supported by accountability. But not just any accountability: consistent accountability built on a positive culture, one that expects everyone to do what is required of them and to keep their commitments. Do not mistake it for a negative culture, where leaders use threats, pressure, and other forms of coercive force to, ahem, motivate their sales force.
I once saw a new CEO chastise his sales leaders and his sales force, wasting an opportunity to create a positive culture. But he poisoned the room by criticizing both the sales force and their leaders, even cursing at them for poor results he believed were their fault. In a single afternoon, he created a negative culture and caused several leaders to look for a way out of the company. Soon after his tirade, the company’s industry melted down, reducing their already meager revenue and increasing the leader’s desperation. But by then the sales team knew where he stood, so when he needed them to move heaven and earth to regain lost revenue, they were unwilling even to try.
Coercive force is the choice of weak leaders, the kind who lack the emotional intelligence and persuasive skills to influence others. You often see it when leaders are self-oriented, believing their people should cater to the leader’s needs instead of taking care of the people on the team. The autocrat is not capable of creating a positive culture of accountability, which is the surest path to sustainable growth.
Balancing Autonomy and Discipline
Few professional roles come with as much autonomy as sales. Those with a strong will and self-discipline do well in roles that provide maximum freedom. However, there are others who lack the discipline to do what is required without resistance—even if they don’t audibly object, they often avoid necessary work, especially necessary work they don’t personally enjoy. Without enough self-discipline to temper the autonomy of sales roles, salespeople fail to do the right work at the right time in the right way.
My preference is to hire people with enough self-discipline to do their work without being told or reminded. I already have three children, and I am not interested in acquiring additional dependents at work. Besides, my primary leadership style is laissez-faire, making it difficult for me to live with a person who needs me to nudge them to do their work. A salesperson who can’t take advantage of opportunities is too great a risk to revenue growth.
Fortunately, there are ways to provide discipline to your team, and accountability is one incredibly powerful strategy for producing revenue growth. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to create a positive culture of accountability that supercharges your results.
Psychological Safety and a Positive Culture
In Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secret of Being Productive in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg recounts how Google, the search engine that has effectively replaced the term “search engine,” did a study to discover what made great managers so effective. To their surprise, the deciding factor was less about the leader and more about how their teams operated: it was the norms established in the workplace. As Duhigg put it, “Norms determine whether we feel safe or threatened, enervated or excited and motivated or discouraged by teammates.” In another study, a scholar named Amy Edmondson was studying medical mistakes when she discovered that “it wasn’t simply that strong teams encouraged open communication and weak teams discouraged it .. . . In an interview, [a] nurse manager explained that a ‘certain level of error will occur’ so ‘nonpunitive environment’ is essential to deal with this error productively.”
This makes sense if you think about employees’ needs. Maslow’s model identifies a hierarchy of human needs, organized as a pyramid. At the base are our physiological needs, followed by psychological safety and then belonging. When you threaten a person’s job, like the CEO who created a negative culture, you create uncertainty about the three foundational needs that make up the widest part of the pyramid.
What the nurse manager called “a nonpunitive environment” is the core of psychological safety. Like nurses, salespeople often work long, stressful hours, and both groups often face poor treatment from colleagues and managers. They’re going to make mistakes. But in a positive culture of accountability, those mistakes are opportunities to improve, since every salesperson knows they have the support of their manager and team.
I learned this long before I ever read Duhigg’s book. Having worked in staffing for decades, I noticed that companies that provided a positive environment not only had the best retention rates but could often offer lower pay rates. I also saw what happens when a company treats employees as a means to an end. One person commented during an exit interview that, from an employee perspective, the company was “a cross between a daycare center and a maximum-security prison.” Soon afterwards, candidates would refuse to work at the company before they were even offered a position. We tried to change the company’s bad behavior, but a fish rots from the head, and the managers were the spitting image of their executive leaders.
While the challenges are real, you control the consistency of your leadership. The second most common mistake leaders make when establishing nonnegotiable actions and outcomes is not constantly communicating their importance to their teams’ results. The most common mistake is not setting expectations and holding your team accountable, with an eye toward a positive culture.
About the Author
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, a best-selling author, a speaker, a sales leader, and an entrepreneur. His primary focus is human effectiveness in sales, management, leadership, and personal and professional transformation. His latest book, Leading Growth, (Wiley) is on sale at Amazon now.