What if the whole company went to a transformational conference except for the executive team? How likely would any of the actions, strategies, and ideas generated at that conference gain traction? I was in western Canada at a conference in the early part of last week, way up into cold country, in what at that moment was the very heart of the Polar Vortex, about which news anchors everywhere breathlessly warned us. While trying to thaw out my semi-frozen brain, I got to thinking about that. What would happen?
The conference I attended was at a client who was taking the opposite approach. Their executive team was all-hands-on-deck leading by example, exposing their vulnerabilities, and welcoming the team to take risks and solve problems together. They illustrated the point using well-curated examples from the movie, Apollo 13. I got to thinking about the alternative approach because I have seen it before in sales organizations. A failure to engage at the highest levels of the company creates a toxic force working against the progress most companies desperately seek.
This article is another installment in the series, The 7 Sales Training Success Factors and How to Avert Failure. Read the original article by clicking here. Today, we'll address number 5, below: Training the Managers Before Training Salespeople.
7 Sales Training Success Factors
- Pre-evaluate the sales team, systems, and processes (Article published 10/8/18)
- Formal, staged, milestone-centric sales process (Article published 11/4/18)
- Trainable sales team (Article published 8/14/18)
- Trainable and coachable sales managers (Article published 1/7/19)
- Training the managers before training salespeople (This article)
- Salesperson training with sufficient time scale (Article published 9/23/18)
- Sales leadership accountability (Coming soon)
To be fair, I haven't heard about exactly that scenario where leadership skips the strategy retreat, annual conference, transformational event, etc., except one old story about Ben and Jerry (the ice cream company founders) showing up when such an event was well along and well after participants had experienced important and deeply-moving events together. Having missed it in real time, the founders drummed up their usual round of stories and legends, not getting it, and completely deflating the mood. I forget where I read that but I'm pretty sure it was from Tom Peters, who wrote the In Search of Excellence series of business books in the 1980s.
Companies thrive or die on the strength of their sales organizations, whose ability to fill capacities and grow revenues makes it arguably the most important function in the business. (But don't argue it with me because I'll just block my ears and hum the theme song from Sesame Street till you go away.) Even for its high relative importance, however, sales remains a mysterious profession about which the rest of the company is happy to simply complain or celebrate as circumstance commands. Even sales management, it seems, can sometimes let salespeople do their thing as they watch with awe or frustration from the bleachers.
I stepped off the plane in Canada last week directly into the gasping, lung-shocking air temperature of minus 30 degrees F, which lived up to the hype from all those news anchors. That kind of cold was a first for me. When I saw one person smoking a cigarette without gloves on, I had new respect for the hardiness of the Canadians in this deeply-entrenched hockey town hundreds of miles north of the border. I noticed no one complaining about the temperature like they do in my hometown of Boston, because really? "Who's the new guy?"
So leaders must be involved, and deeply so. It might seem obvious to most readers that for a sales training program to be successful, one must train the managers first. However, too many sales training programs do not even include the managers. The thinking goes like this: "Our salespeople are not filling their pipelines, the sales cycle is too long, and forecasting is woefully inaccurate. So let's get them trained up." A sales training program ensues and the managers assume that since it's really just for the sales team, they don't need to participate.
The results of this hands-off approach to sales training are predictable and can be summarized as follows:
- Sales training lacks continuity. Managers aren't picking up where sales training leaves off.
- Sales and sales management are not aligned. Salespeople learn methodologies not supported by managers who continue to coach to their own process. Instead of coaching up, they are coaching sideways. The salespeople will eventually forget what they learned in an environment where the core concepts are not supported.
- Sales managers lack the knowledge of key skills and can neither coach nor support what they aren't directly learning along side the sales reps.
This is precisely how the cynical "flavor-of-the-month" label gets slapped on the latest program. In the absence of management support and follow-through, the salespeople fall back on what's comfortable without consequence. If managers only want an increase in sales, for example, and send their people off to sales training, they won't get their outcomes. The impact of the training will dissipate and will eventually be forgotten, creating more cynicism and reinforcement of non-supportive beliefs about training.
Sales managers who engage personally in the training and see it as a useful tool, will create lasting benefits for their sales organization. They will:
- Improve their coaching by using a consistent and proven set of processes and methodologies
- Support a culture of constant improvement that includes management
- Reinforce the training material by using the tools and strategies in the context of real-life examples
- Stay aligned with corporate goals and leading by example
- Demonstrate the importance of the material to improve buy-in
The key element in all this is not what the managers know, but when they know it. When managers are trained on the sales improvement processes and methodologies before the sales people, there are few more critical benefits:
- When salespeople push-back, they find a consistent message throughout leadership, already in place.
- Managers have a chance, before sales training occurs, to add nuance and tighten the message to improve buy-in.
- Managers' confidence in the material improves. The salespeople see that, which further reinforces buy-in.
- Salesperson training gets off to a fast start because leadership becomes part of the training and coaching team.
- Sales training typically dissipates or accelerates on the backs of the managers. Getting their buy-in first, therefore, is critical.
After canceled flights and unexpected overnights, I arrived in Alabama later that same week for a meeting with a different client. I stepped off the plane into the calm soothing warmth of 77 degrees F, "improving" the temperature by over a hundred degrees from two-days earlier, and remembered once again why I respect and admire the Canadians, but don't live there.
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