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From Sports to Sales: How to Build a Winning System
There is nothing like the smell of fresh cut grass on a baseball field. Or the feel of wet dirt beneath my cleats on the base path. There is nothing like diving for a ball in the outfield and coming up dirty green with the ball in your glove. I’ve played baseball since I was 5 years old. And 36 years later, I’m still playing. Not softball in a corporate beer league. Baseball in a competitive men’s league. With guys fresh from a stint in the minors. And college players on summer vacation. Serious baseball players who take the game seriously.
I’m also a fan. Not just of baseball, but all sports. And I love this time of year. Springtime. When all at once, we’ve got the NCAA Final Four tournament, MLB exhibition games, NBA teams in their final push toward the postseason, and even in the NFL, trades are being made and General Managers are jockeying to attract free agent talent. There’s no shortage of sports news in any league. And I love it.
What I’ve learned in all my years playing and loving sports has shaped how I’ve approach my career in sales. Now, in my role as Global Head of Sales at Percolate, I view myself as a coach, talent scout, and the team’s GM. It’s my job to attract, mentor and guide talent, but also to be the architect of a winning system that will achieve the many victories, large and small, that represent the continuous growth and success of our organization.
At the end of the day, building an exceptional sales organization is as much about finding the right talent for the right role as it is about having the right structure, tools, and support to help them accomplish their objectives: A winning system.
If you examine the winning ways of elite sports franchises, their athletes, and their leaders you’ll find these teams’ success is equally based on finding and developing players and building a winning system that inspires players from opening kick-off to the final whistle, game after game.
Take Head Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, here assessing the strength of one of his toughest competitors:
They play extremely hard down after down after down, week after week, year after year. They compete relentlessly as well as any team or any organization. They’re just never going to let up in any phase of the game.
It’s that kind of intensity and commitment to the team, the players, and the organization that is required to build an exceptional sales organization.
The Coach, the Players, the Team
It’s obvious that creating a winning system doesn’t happen by accident or in a vacuum, but rather by strategic design, constant monitoring, and continuous feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
Look at the Knicks, who brought in basketball guru Phil Jackson to be team president. Jackson led championship-winning teams with the Bulls in the ’90s, and Lakers in the 00’s. But when Jackson introduced the “triangle offense” to the Knicks without the type of players whose playing style could pull it off, the team’s season rapidly tanked and became an embarrassment. As the year has progressed and wins have been harder and harder to come by, it’s no surprise that intra-team finger-pointing and back-page media gossip have replaced a winning team attitude and optimism at the Garden.
But was it the management, the coaching, the players or the system that failed? To suggest a possible answer, I’d like to reference the opinions of two world-renowned winners, one a corporate leader and coach, the other, arguably the best NBA player of all time.
The team with the best players usually does win. This is why you need to invest the majority of your time and energy in developing your people. – Jack Welch
Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships. – Michael Jordan
I agree with both, and I believe each offer part of the solution. And the Patriots under Belichick — who have tied records for most appearances in the Super Bowl by a coach with six, and most wins with four — provide the proof.
To win big, an organization, whether it’s a sports team or a technology company, must tailor a system to the talent at hand, while continuing to develop that talent and introducing innovative new ideas. It’s strategizing and planning and continuously investing in your people so that the system works. You monitor them and take their feedback. You use what you see and hear to improve and further introduce new ideas that work.
Having one great idea isn’t enough. It’s about testing it, challenging it, understanding its weaknesses, and constantly improving it. Sales teams change — sometimes the product changes dramatically or sometimes you lose a top seller to a competitor, but these things can’t stop you. The system should plan for the unpredictable and be able to move the team forward no matter what.
Investment Beyond the Contract
One key piece of a working system is the investment you make in building the team. Coming back to the Patriots, what’s made Belichick so remarkable is that he’s brought new tactics to the field while continuing to develop his core players and bring in new ones. These players range from a wide assortment of superstars like quarterback Tom Brady, tight-end Rob Gronkowski, and cornerback Darrelle Revis, to lesser known players like wide receiver Julian Edelman, who many overlooked until he made the biggest play in the biggest game of his career, the most recent Super Bowl.
At Percolate, we advance a system, and philosophy toward business that’s painstakingly crafted and applied throughout the entire sales team (all of our teams, for that matter) no matter their level or talent. This includes rigorous employee onboarding, leadership training programs, and high performance development initiatives.
One key aspect of Percolate’s approach that our founders have emphasized from the outset is our identity as a scrappy organization. We are resourceful. We take risks. We are comfortable with uncertainty. It’s these traits that were identified by Undercurrent in their recent assessment of the Twenty Most Responsive Companies of 2014 and why Percolate is on that list. But our run-fast attitude and trust in our own employees to make the right decisions requires a commitment to our entire team beyond just compensation.
Sadly, many companies view their sales staff as mercenary and short-sighted. Nothing could be further from the truth here, particularly with the present generation of talent — an extraordinary group of smart and sophisticated sales professionals who develop peer-to-peer relationships with the most senior marketing executives in the world.
Great sales professionals invest their identities in helping to build companies. They are very entrepreneurial in nature and thrive when they feel like they are changing the world. They bring new ideas and passion for what they do.
Practice Like You Play
What made Michael Jordan the great NBA player was his approach to practice. He brought the intensity, precision, and passion he had on the court to everything he did. He was committed to the win and he recognized winning started well before he stepped onto a court. It took planning and training. He didn’t fear failure, because he pushed himself, he prepared himself, and he was about to put aside doubt or anxiety to maintain clear focus 100% of the time.
Great sales professionals succeed when they have the Michael Jordan attitude. They succeed when they are fearless. It’s when they are “in the zone,” that sweet spot of optimal functioning when an athlete, or a seller, performs to their absolute peak potential, without fear of failure. Getting there requires preparation.
At Percolate, our Development Program (which begins on your first day) lays out areas for an employee to grow and the specific actions necessary to get there. This program introduces an informal contract between manager and employee, and a commitment to his or her long-term development.
To accomplish this, we utilize two core tools in addition to our 24-week Sales Effectiveness and Continuing Education Training Program, the Growth Profile and the Action Plan. The Growth Profile asks an employee, “What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What are you career aspirations, strengths and weaknesses?” We get employees to think of this process as their personal blueprint for success.
The Action Plan is where we map out actions for employees and managers. It’s a bi-annual plan that guides us to achieve the long-term objectives that employees first laid out in their Growth Profile. Each quarter we evaluate progress against previous actions, and based on feedback, determine a new Action Plan.
The Action Plan is equal parts patience and ambition. Player development requires time but also requires accountability.
Communication On and Off the Field
Whether it’s zone or man to man, a team’s defense falls apart without communicating. You only have one pair of eyes, so you have to rely on your teammates’ eyes to see the rest of the action. Players communicate where they are on the field and if they need help. They hold each other accountable and communication is their guard against weaknesses in their defense.
The winning system here doesn’t work without a commitment to open communication. It is essential for fostering mutual respect between sales directors, account executives, and sales development reps, and transparency throughout the organization.
With these approaches, support and tools, Sales Development Reps, Account Executives, Managers, and Sales Directors all understand their roles and their importance to the overall success of the organization. Master one role, mentor another as you are mentored. Succeed and you’re ready to move up. This cycle of support not only creates accountability but it strengthens the entire team.
Building an extraordinary sales organization isn’t about individual superstars. It’s about building a winning system. It’s what makes my job so rewarding. I get to lead a group of profoundly intelligent, committed, and diligent sales professionals. We’re a team. A winning team. With a winning system. That wins great clients.