Is Your Team a Momentum-Maker or Momentum-Killer?

By: On September 18, 2017

Ben has a problem. He just took over the leadership of a company that until recently had been on a bad losing streak. Two years ago, the board brought in a turnaround artist who used a combination of hard work and brute force to arrest the decline.  As a result, a large portion of the current leadership team is new to the company. The good news is that they think of themselves as a collection of winners, pulled together with various experience to reverse their company’s fortunes. You can feel it in the nervous tension in the group. The bad news is that they aren’t winning as often as they should.

Ben thinks through what to do in his first few months as CEO. He knows his team members want to get moving, to get things done, to create results. Their instinct is to do something. Ben knows the typical tools used to get an organization rolling; restructuring, incentives, public floggings, optimistic road shows. He’s skeptical that these moves will work here. He’s no rookie. He’s seen what happens when you try to manipulate an organization. Smart people check out or become completely self-focused just when you need them to care about customers, the company, and most important each other.

While there are structural issues to address, Ben’s gut tells him that he needs to get his team together and do something, but it’s something that they’re going to hate: work on how they interact as a team. Without this, they can restructure all they want but the magic still won’t be there. He can imagine the thought bubble above the heads of many team members: “A kumbaya session? What does any of this have to do with getting results for our company?” He gets it. It’s a thought he remembers having at points in his career too.

From hard experience, Ben knows that there is often a strong connection between how his team works and the results they’re going to get. When his past teams were able to work through challenges without having it get personal, they could tear apart a miss in the last quarter’s numbers without damaging drama. When those past teams carried relational baggage, even deciding where to hold the next year’s sales meeting got sporty. Forget about dealing with the really tough issues that drive performance. You could almost feel the wind come out of those organizations’ sails.

Ben knows a secret that many leaders don’t grasp:  Leadership teams are responsible for managing one of the most elusive commodities in the world: momentum.

Momentum is the degree to which your people sense progress, excitement, and confidence in what’s happening. You know you have momentum when people are going the extra mile for each other, watching each other’s backs, and resiliently handling setbacks. You know it’s missing when everyone is looking out for themselves and maybe looking for a job in their spare time.

Momentum is either working for you or it’s working against you. If it’s working against you, you probably feel like you’re running in quicksand while banging your head against the wall. Which is a lot of fun if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sure, you can fake momentum. That’s called hype. It works for little while but it’s not sustainable. Once exposed, hype gives your credibility – and the company’s – a mortal wound, after which you will need to brush up your resume because the ship will likely sink.

Here’s how leadership teams – and how they work together (or don’t) – affect organizational momentum. This explanation builds on thinking from Mike Blansfield via Marvin Weisbord who first articulated these observations. Hats off to my colleague Mark Demel for making the ideas visual.


Like many things in life, momentum works in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  1. In an organization that’s stuck in neutral or going backward, the trigger event for another trip through the cycle is usually some sort of result. Usually it’s a crappy result. Profits are down, quality is poor, maybe a video of a customer being dragged out of your place of business after losing teeth at the hands of your staff goes viral. You get the picture.
  2. This trigger forces you to examine how things are getting done, or perhaps not getting done. As a leadership team, you need to look at plans, systems, processes, policies, structures or people. Probably a little bit of all of that. You’re on the hunt for the real issue.  In itself, this is not bad. In fact, a really good team does this well and gets to the root of the issue as quickly and deeply as possible resulting in useful course corrections. But pity the leader whose team has poo-poo’d the human stuff. Because right now, at this moment of trying to optimize or fix the business, that willful ignorance will be exposed.  Just try searching for ways to fix a business – especially one in any sort of crisis – when there isn’t a solid level of trust, openness, and shared understanding. Get ready for some totally awesome Leadership Team Theater as team members posture, attack, defend, and hide. You’ll be able to hand out Emmy awards but the problems will be obscured behind the drama.
  3. That’s because every team member is constantly asking a few questions about their participation in their leadership team. Yes, that includes your leadership team.
    • Am I in or out around here?–  Do people accept me and include me? Do I have to watch my back or do they have my back?
    • How are power and control handled here? – Team members often loathe the fact that they aren’t in total control when in a team, especially leadership team members who often crave control of their own destinies. The real question is who wields power and do I have any influence over what happens here?
    • How are skills and resources handled? – Everyone wants to make a contribution. At least everyone who deserves to be on your team. They wonder whether they’ll be given the resources so that they’re able to make their best contribution. If not, talented team members want to take their skills elsewhere.
  4. When leadership team members can’t answer those questions positively, cue the Leadership Team Theater. Your fundamental business problems will go unsolved. Maybe there will be a cosmetic fix, but nothing that’s going to reverse the momentum in any long-term way.

That cycle of failure leaves team members – and the rest of your organization – deflated. They’re less confident in the ability of the group to make good things happen. They’re less confident in their own ability to influence the group to make good things happen. Momentum sags.

But flip that story around.

  1. Imagine a leadership team that invests in the human side of their work together. Ideally, they’ll do this before they’re under the gun although there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. Imagine they work hard to answer the perpetual team questions positively so that each team member can say:
    • I’m in. People value me and my contribution.
    • I can influence things around here.
    • I can make a contribution here. I have the resources to do my best work.
  2. They can address the fundamental drivers of the business with gusto. Trust, openness, and a common understanding of where we’re going – and why it matters – are going to reign. No, team members do not have to be best friends. But they buy into the team’s core purpose and their place in it.
  3. Do that long enough and deep enough and results start to improve.
  4. Pretty soon, the team has a growing confidence in the collective and in their own individual abilities to get stuff done.

That team is going to have some serious momentum. That team is going to leave its positive mark on the world. Ben wants that team and I’ll bet all of us want to be on that team.

What’s the next step you can take to build momentum on your team?

Be Bright.

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Six Shortcuts Salespeople Are Tempted To Take

By: On June 19, 2012

A while ago, I had the opportunity to shadow a top-performing salesperson who sells an innovative service to small businesses.  We spent a high-energy day visiting business owners to see if this service was a good fit for them.

It wasn’t easy to get past the receptionists. They sized us up as one of two things: a customer or an inconvenience. They went from smile to sourpuss the instant they realized we were selling something. And even if you get past the gatekeeper, the decision maker isn’t usually too happy to see you either.

Staring down grumpy receptionists and business owners for one day is a fun challenge.  Engaging in these unfriendly interactions every day for weeks, months, quarters, and even years can be a grind. But you have numbers to make so you take shortcuts to close the sale. Unfortunately, shortcuts often lead to a trap door right out of the sale as well. Here are the usual shortcuts:

  1. Be vague and evasive – Some people in my high-performing client’s industry don’t tell receptionists who they work for, even when asked. If you’re asked a direct question (especially one as basic as “What’s your name and who do you work for?”) and you dodge and weave, there are only two natural responses: confusion (bad) followed by suspicion (worse). It’s better to have credible answers to legitimate questions.
  2. Pitch first, ask questions later – We often forget that customers are really profoundly disinterested in our stuff until we understand them.  Oh, they’re endlessly fascinated with themselves and they love to know that you’re interested in them – and better yet understand them too. You’ll get to share about your products and services eventually. It’s better to ask questions first and really understand your customer. If nothing else, it will reduce the time you spend answering objections.
  3. Exaggerate about your product or yourself – We’re all tempted to try to look impressive. But while lying about your product, your company, or yourself may get you through the door, it will eventually get you kicked right back out. “But I can’t sell our product if I tell prospects the truth. They wouldn’t say yes often enough for me to hit my goal!” As one of my clients once said, “If the truth about our product doesn’t sell at our price point, then we have a product problem – not a sales problem.” It’s better to tell the truth and face the fact that you won’t win every sale, but you will build a strong reference stream with those who do choose you when you’re straight.
  4. Commit the sin of omission – There’s bad news about almost any product or service we sell. There are situations where it just won’t work. Even when it does work, we often serve up pain along the way with our solution. But we rarely tell prospective customers the bad news up front. “I don’t want to scare them off,” is the reason salespeople give. So you’d rather have them freaked out after they bought from you – and then tell all of their friends and colleagues to avoid you like the plague? It’s better to acknowledge that your product/service isn’t a panacea.
  5. Avoid objections/blow through objections – One of the toughest moments for any salesperson comes when a customer voices an objection.  It takes legendary self-control and a very focused mindset to not give in to the temptation to either avoid objections or blow right through them.  But everyone has legitimate concerns and questions about a buying decision. It’s better to be curious and helpful instead of defensive about objections.
  6. Create false urgency – “I have to close that customer on the spot or they might change their minds after I leave.” It’s a classic plea of a desperate salesperson – but it belies a failure to really get the prospective customer to understand and own the decision to solve their problem for themselves. If you need to create an atmosphere of false urgency, you’re really trying to create an “impulse sale.” But as my friend, Rick Gibney, says, “Impulses go away; problems don’t.” It’s better to help your customer see if she really has a problem you can solve.

Here’s why shortcuts make a difficult sales job even harder: customers (that’s you, me, and every person on the planet) have highly tuned BS detectors and don’t like the smell of it. So the bad news about shortcuts is that customers sniff them out. The worse news is that once you have the stench of shortcuts on you, you can’t get it off. In that person’s mind, you will be a pest perpetually.

Shortcuts aren’t unique to salespeople. Anyone who gets things done through coercive influence versus building relationship blows their main currency – their own credibility.  No matter what or who you’re selling (a product, your IT project, your R&D brainchild), it gets easier when your credibility is high and just about impossible when your cred drops.

The guy I shadowed took none of these shortcuts but he’s not normal. And because so many salespeople do take shortcuts, the door is wide open for someone like him. Salespeople who build a sustainable career do it because they differentiate their products, services, companies – and most importantly themselves – by resisting the temptation to take shortcuts.

Which shortcut do you and your organization need to replace with a better long-run approach?

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Things we love to call salespeople: Heroes, Goats, and Magicians

By: On March 13, 2012

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with certain groups or products.  I love my Mac suite of products – except when I don’t. When they hum along with all of their elegant simplicity, sync’ing my information beautifully while looking and feeling eerily stylish, I love them.  When I’m right in the middle of a really important document and they give me the Mac equivalent of the “blue screen of death” (which means it’s a nicer interface in more languages telling me that I’m still screwed) I hate them.

The same happens with how a lot of leaders feel about their sales team.  In my last post, I wrote about the tendency we have to credit or blame the sales organization for revenue performance.  When sales are up, we love the sales team. When sales dip, we loathe the sales team. Why? I think it’s more complicated than just the numbers. I think it’s often because non-sales leaders often put the sales team into one of three categories – heroes, goats, or magicians.

  • Heroes: I once worked for a company that glorified sales.  When sales were strong, salespeople were the heroes and could get virtually anything they wanted done in the company.  Need to spend a little unbudgeted money? Done.  Need to take a pass on some corporate initiative? No problem. Want a little extra vacation? Go for it.  The firm knew that revenue was its life-blood. While many other people worked hard to win and bill the revenue, those few who had figured out how to consistently get deals done were special. They won the awards. They got limos to the annual meeting. They had their own suites at the hotel. They were the royalty.
  • Goats: Here’s the irony. At the very same company I described above, salespeople were also seen as the goats. If sales numbers stumbled, they were the ones grilled by senior execs. (My personal favorite was an “Account Review” where a senior exec tossed his reading glasses on the table in disgust at the numbers delivered by one account exec.) While a lot of people should have been accountable for dropping sales numbers (and should have contributed directly to getting them to turn around), it felt really lonely on the sales team when the numbers tanked as others gladly let the accountability fall on the unlucky sales schlubs.
  • Magicians: In some organizations, most people honestly have no clue how salespeople actually do their jobs or what separates successful ones from stragglers.  They see sales as a magical art that a few special people have mastered through an apprenticeship with a mysterious master.  Ask them how salespeople do it and they’ll usually say, “Beats me! But I sure hope they keep doing it.”

All of these labels are really unhelpful.  Great leadership teams and great companies see the whole and own the whole. Revenue is everyone’s responsibility. Whether you work in operations, HR, marketing, customer service, IT, legal, or finance, you should have an impact on your organization’s ability to attract, win, and retain customers – and that’s what makes revenue really happen.

When we share responsibility for revenue and help every single person know how they contribute, a beautiful thing happens: Salespeople are seen as valuable members of a the company-wide revenue-generating team who all roll up their sleeves and lift revenue every day of  every month. No more heroes, goats, or magicians – just team-mates who make a difference like everyone else.

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