Manage your career like a top sales rep

Study and emulate top sales reps to become more effective in advancing your career

Published: Jan 10, 2018

g_101921_article_bg_280x210.jpgMichael C. Wenderoth is a professor at IE Business School in Madrid and an Executive Coach
 
“You want me to emulate a top sales rep?” executives will ask me in disbelief, sometimes in disgust.

Yes. Improving your ability to present and convince others is important if you work with other people, period. But adopting the mindset and strategies of sales stars is even more critical for mid- and senior level executives who want to rise in their organizations, inspire, and lead effectively. 

As you go up the corporate ladder, political and influence skills become critical to success – in fact, they are greater determinants to effectiveness than working hard.  Because sales, let’s be honest is dedicated to actually getting things done – much more so than its more palatable cousin marketing. 

Sales isn’t sexy. That’s why non-sales executives don’t study it, or apply lessons from sales to  managing their careers or leading their organizations. Sales people are often seen as slimy, under-educated hacks who focus only on commissions.  Because of that, elite academics and MBA programs give even less exposure to the discipline .  Executives therefore self-handicapmissing out on effective leadership techniques that pushes them out of their comfort zone, and thus personal growth .  

So yes, I emphatically respond to executives: Study and emulate top sales reps to become more effective in advancing your career. Specifically, executives should focus on five core areas:

1) Treat Colleagues as Customers
The best way to advance one’s agenda is to help powerful stakeholders advance theirs. This means executives must move from a competitive to a collaborative mindset, and find ways for their product or service (or agenda) to align with the needs of those stakeholders. A great place to start is the hallmark opening question many sales representatives deploy: “How can I help you?”  

One bank director I worked with was a star contributor but suffered after getting promoted. His senior-level peers didn’t want to help him because they saw nothing in it for them. To re-set the relationships, he spent time analyzing, directly asking – and genuinely listening to – the needs of colleagues. For example, a senior group VP had been blocking the director’s initiative, but rather than employ his usual gut response to “pull rank,” the director invited the VP to join him to speak at a key forum, thus finding common ground and giving the VP critical personal exposure. That gesture warmed up a frosty relationship and created an “us vs them” alliance, and dramatically improved the director’s cause. 

2) Map where the Power Lies
Executives analyze to death the ROI of their corporate initiatives, but barely examine how they spend their own time in their organization. When executives I coach track their week, they discover most of their attention is spent down, with their reports.  They need to be focusing up – up the corporate hierarchy to those who hold power, give promotions, bestow resources or can move mountains quickly. 

Top B2B sales reps create a stakeholder map to understand their customer’s buying process and chain of influence.  They carefully analyze what motivates stakeholders not only from a business perspective but also from a personal perspective, knowing the ego is often a more powerful motivating force. They then become ruthless on how they spend their time. Reps may say hello to the rank and file, but they save deep engagement for a select few – because even in the age of social media, direct interaction is the most influential factor in purchasing decisions

A client service director wanted to get promoted by year-end. By first studying the landscape, it was clear two VP’s would have the biggest say on her ascent in the organization. She radically reorganized her focus, enlisting one VP to become a key advisor on her top work initiative and making sure the other VP would be the first to pilot – and benefit – from its impact. She stopped trying to attend all meetings, delegating a key report to update her weekly. “I realized I needed to be much more strategic and deliberate in how I spent time with those key relationships,” she told me.

3) Get Noticed and Get Engaged 
It’s one thing to identify the key decision makers, but getting their attention is more difficult.  This is where an “insight selling” approach can open doors and create engagement.

Insight selling is about shedding new light on a customer’s business - future trends, threats, opportunities, solutions – to engage them .  Essentially, it serves to position yourself as a source of new knowledge and ideas.  People in power – just like customers – are attracted by strong relationships   and hard work - but they’ll leave if you don’t bring them value.

To get access and build key relationships in her company, one senior manager culled innovative business ideas from her constant travel to the company’s high growth regions, which she then strategically and exclusively shared with ranking executives. Another director I coached used his executive education course to bring big data insights and innovations from other sectors to a VP he was angling to work for. By providing valuable information, both executives were asked by higher-ups, “Let’s meet for lunch: Can you tell me more about that?” Likewise, blogging on a trending topic and using social media can create an expert reputation that attracts powerful people and opens doors

4) Understand and Take Advantage of the Network 
Constantly developing reasons – or excuses – to meet key people can be draining. Grabbing a coffee to seek advice gets old quickly. What best serves an aspiring executive is repeated exposure to stakeholders, ideally meetings or activities that are embedded in the calendar or initiatives of the company. To do that well, executives must take advantage of centrality in their company’s networks .  This involves knowing where key information flows – from and to who, how, when – and then positioning oneself in the right committees, projects, meetings or events. 

In sales, account managers commonly embed within a client’s critical work flows, provide free audits to gain intel, or identify and ally with a well-connected employee in the client organization (in sales lingo, this is called having an inside “coach” who supports you). Reps don’t do this out of the kindness of the heart, but to be privy to information that could later lead to a big sale. Executives can be equally savvy and position themselves strategically within their organization - and outside of it. Quite simply, being the first to obtain, act on or share information is powerful.

Young employees are served well by taking on seemingly unimportant tasks, like volunteering to run a cross functional project or even taking minutes, if these actions get them closer to key stakeholders. One manager seized a role to bridge two countries, making him vital to brokering connections. Another volunteered to help HR, creating an annual speaker series for high potentials, giving him exposure to the company’s future leaders. Outside one’s company, being connected to information brokers - venture capitalists, industry associations, alumni networks, journalists, headhunters in particular – leads to even more opportunities. Success is less about being a hyper-extroverted networker who talks to everyone – and more about being strategic about utilizing networks. 

5) Go “Do” and Be Persistent 
Following these first four strategies requires deliberate practice, getting feedback – and persistence. Most executives are hesitant to use influence-building techniques to advance in their career, even though these techniques are fundamental to how power is obtained, wielded and maintained.  

We can learn from sales reps because they don’t shy away from strategically using influence to advance their agenda. They constantly deal with rejection, so they develop a thick skin and learn to reframe setbacks, knowing that most sales are made after multiple contacts and they miss 100% shots they never take. Sales people know the goal is to increase the odds of success, and anything that can help shift decision making in their favor is worth examining. Reps aren’t hung up on perfection, they focus on doing and persevering – a critical quality to reaching goals in the face of obstacles

Many executives try an influence technique once and then give up, so I get them to commit to practicing the technique multiple times over several weeks. Those that persist not only pick up more data points, but toughen up: they realize that repeated exposure gets results. The executives who culls and shares insights? By diligently reaching out to executives over several months, tweaking weekly based on responses (or lack of), she locked into the best way to get the attention of higher ups. 

Very often, we self-sabotage: the barriers to inaction are simply in our heads. A young director, despite her introverted nature, finally mustered the courage to ask five top executives for their advice. To her amazement, three said yes. “Making the ask was powerful, and those meetings led to more insights and opportunities. I realized I was aiming too low with who I reach out to. I realized people really don’t know about me or my goals, so I need to make them aware and build relationships there to advance,” she said. She now reaches out on a regular basis. 

Towards More Respect
Executives wield impact through others, and should learn from the proven strategies of those that do so for a living. The late Rodney Dangerfield famously quipped: “I ain’t get no respect.” It is high time top Sales people finally got theirs. 

Michael C. Wenderoth is a professor at IE Business School in Madrid and an Executive Coach. He writes on Leadership, China and Sales
 

[This research paper has been reproduced with permission of the authors, professors of IE Business School, Spain http://www.ie.edu/]

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