Four ways the leadership cream rises to the top

What highly evolved sales leaders are doing to drive teams, growth and revenue.

What are highly evolved sales leaders doing well to create flourishing sales cultures and growth opportunities now and into the future? And is there a certain sales leadership style or approach that has risen to the top as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that enables teams to hit sales targets and prosper?

Sue Barrett, CEO of Barrett Consulting Group, works with people and organisations across the private, public, not-for-profit and government sectors, to help them sell better using human-centred and sustainable sales and business growth strategies, systems, processes and practices.

“Encouraging open dialogue and an environment where ideas and feedback are welcomed is the key to a thriving sales culture.”

Barrett, with Jo O’Reilly, managing partner at ReillyScott, a specialist sales recruitment agency, discusses four key areas that set highly effective sales leaders apart.

From small business to enterprise, they reveal what leaders are doing with their sales teams to create thriving sales cultures and workplaces that drive sales growth, starting with strategy and the lessons and opportunities COVID-19 has brought about.

1. Progessive leaders are flexible and adopt changes quickly to seize opportunities

Barrett says with COVID a lot of people were caught short, as they had one strategy with a backup plan.

“Your sales and go-to market strategy should be focused and directed but it shouldn’t be rigid. It should have a little bit of slippage to make sure we can read forward what our markets and our customers are doing. Having a good go-to market sales strategy is something where you have a plan A, B and C.”

In a crisis, she states, there’s always opportunity. “How are we growing as teams, businesses, markets – be open to ideas that weren’t visible pre-COVID. You want to hold the line of where you’re going but be aware of what’s going on, as that may precipitate new opportunities,” she says.

O’Reilly saw examples of this with many of her clients.

“Last year, we saw many of our clients have a record sales year,” she says. “Government incentives definitely played a role, but really, it came down to the ability to pivot and adapt. This is where SMEs clearly had the advantage over large corporations.

“Strong leadership was needed to weather the storm, particularly in February to April 2020, when Australia first felt the effects of the pandemic. The true leader quickly shifted their way of operating, set up sustainable remote working environments for their teams and ensured their people felt supported in a time of extreme uncertainty,” O’Reilly explains.

She says a mindset adjustment was required by some small-business owners, who had yet to see the value in staff working remotely. “Nearly two years in and our conversations with business leaders had shifted. Most agreed that productivity was actually up, due to a work-from-home or hybrid working arrangement.”

2. Highly evolved leaders adopt trust and transparency while holding their team accountable

Barrett says people are learning how to do things in a hybrid manner. “We want high levels of transparency about what’s expected and this is where leaders need to become good leaders.”

She says a good sales leader creates an environment where people feel trusted and enabled to do their jobs properly. “You want someone with gravitas, substance, guidance and stewardship to help people flourish and create flourishing cultures. And that means you trust people yet hold them to account.”

O’Reilly says the really highly evolved sales leaders create cultures that are built on trust and transparency. “And they encourage open communication where feedback goes both ways. This has a major impact on culture and a sales leader’s ability to prevent staff turnover.”

3. Effective sales leaders know that success by default, not design, is unsustainable

Sales leadership and management are different from selling. “If you end up with a sales leader who’s a super salesperson who wants everyone to be like them, that’ll cause problems in sales teams,” Barrett says. “They tend to be great at selling, but by default, and not design, as we don’t know what they’re doing or how they’re doing it.

“They need to be able to demonstrate and articulate what good selling looks like. Which is where having a well-structured sales system is important. If sales leaders don’t understand how to present what a good sales system and operation looks like then everyone’s unaware of what’s going on.”

O’Reilly seconds this and states that sales leaders need to be able to look at their sales systems and set up proper structures and processes to help their sales people flourish.

“Otherwise, they’re not really managing or leading and they’re failing to understand and demonstrate what good looks like. Although there is a place for player/coach-style leaders within certain organisations, the personal sales element of the leader’s role can’t outweigh the people/leadership piece.”

4. When you think you have a positive sales culture, but your team says otherwise – knowing what to ask to identify the problem

If your sales team isn’t performing as you’d like them to, Barrett says, there are six layers to assess. “Firstly, what framework, tools and processes are in place so people can do their jobs properly? Next, define the behaviours that you want to see in terms of good sales performance, and what knowledge and skills are required to perform properly.”

She says these are the ‘can-do foundations’. “If your culture’s not working right or your sales team’s not working right, check that. The other three layers include identifying the right mindset for the roles and teams – and attitudes. Attitudes are judgements and hard to change.”

Next is role clarity and role identity. “Have I made it clear for my people so they know what’s expected? If there’s no alignment, you’ll have issues. Then finally, what’s the purpose of our organisation and our team – the why factor.” These are what Barrett calls the ‘want-to factors’.

She advises thinking about your sales team across these six layers and assessing each of the people in your team to identify where people need support or if it’s, in fact, a systemic challenge. “This allows us to discern what’s actually causing issues in your team’s performance and culture,” she explains.

O’Reilly regularly speaks to candidates who say that their primary motivator for leaving their current employer is a poor sales culture.

“A sales leader who is not connected to his/her team will typically be made aware of this only when they are receiving a resignation letter. Encouraging open dialogue and an environment where ideas and feedback are welcomed is the key to a thriving sales culture.

“We see the burden on small businesses is often greater than on a large enterprise, where issues are more easily absorbed, due to headcount. From lost time and missed sales while finding a replacement, to further missed opportunities while onboarding the new team member, we know that a new salesperson can take anywhere up to 12 months to be profitable, especially if the organisation has issues with its sales readiness, systems or culture,” she concludes.

This article first appeared in issue 36 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine