Leading with Compassion: The Art of Staying Available
Staying available in all aspects of work and life feels harder than ever – here are some ideas for sales leaders seeking balance
September 9, 2020
Effective leadership in general, and effective sales leadership in particular, involves mastering the art of availability. Keeping yourself mentally and physically available – and signalling that availability to others – allows you to support without micro-managing. It enables you and your teams to stay attuned to your customers’ needs without pushing too insistently or aggressively. It’s key to building supportive relationships that feel natural and empathetic.
As LinkedIn Sales Solutions’ Head of Customer Business for the UK and Ireland, my role involves both managing sales managers – and supporting existing customers. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months thinking about the best way to cope – and support others in coping. This is a time when it’s vital for managers to listen – and to communicate clearly about what our expectations are. And we can’t listen, reassure and clarify if conversations aren’t happening. Those conversations depend on an intentional approach to availability.
There are two dimensions to staying available. You need to safeguard your own mental availability by protecting the energy levels it depends on. You then need a method for projecting that availability so that others respond. As with so much at the moment, there’s no tried and tested playbook for achieving these things. However, I’ve found the following things helpful both for myself and for my team as a whole:
Bookend your day to help build resilience
I never imagined I could miss my commute to and from work. Now that it’s gone, I realise that something valuable was happening during all of those hours stuck in traffic: a clear separation between the state of being at work and not being at work. For millions of people, that separation has suddenly vanished and it’s causing lots of different problems.
For myself, I’ve really struggled to separate my work and family life – because on the face of it, it’s all happening in the same space. I experience guilt on both sides. I work longer hours than I should because I worry that time spent chatting to my wife and three children during the day is making me less productive. Because I work late, I miss crucial time with my kids. It’s a vicious cycle. The lack of separation threatens to make me less available all round – professionally and personally.
Coaches and instructors who specialise in resilience talk about the need to keep recharging your energy levels. You can’t cope with setbacks and help others cope with setbacks if you are feeling drained. Your capacity for imagination and empathy drop off. Your mental availability shuts down. Over the course of these last few months, I’ve learned that bookending my day is crucial for maintaining these energy levels.
One thing that I’ve found really helpful is a set moment at 6.30pm when I head outside with my kids to kick a ball around, try some rollerblading, or simply go for a walk. It’s a shared experience that alleviates guilt, switches my brain off from working – and enables me to relax in the evening and be ready for my next day.
Aim for continuity in team meetings and one-to-ones
In a situation like this one, it’s easy to focus on the things that change – and miss the importance of those that don’t. As a manager, continuity is crucial in keeping yourself visible and available to the individual members of your team.
As lockdown has eased in Ireland, my colleague Derek Murphy, who also works in Sales Solutions for LinkedIn, has made a point of travelling to see members of his team. He’s prioritising socially distanced catch-ups in back gardens or parks that provide a useful break from screen time, and invite people to communicate on a different level. If that’s not possible (and for many it isn’t), then a regular video or phone call at a fixed time still has real value. Try arranging for yourself and your direct report to each go for a walk – and chat while on the move. It can be a useful way of keeping your conversations fresh while keeping them as a consistent feature of your calendar.
Be available for your customers
It’s easy for sales teams to assume that customers don’t want to hear from them in difficult and challenging times. In my experience, the reverse is more likely to be true. Customers appreciate active support at times like this – support that is thoughtful and respectful, anticipates their needs and makes solutions available rather than pushing them onto people.
In LinkedIn’s State of Sales 2020 Report for Europe, 87% of buyers describe their sales contacts as ‘trusted advisors’. And you don’t remain a trusted advisor by disappearing when things become complicated. We need methodologies to help us understand when customers have a problem that we can help solve. We then need to communicate how we can help – and how to get in touch with us when the time is right. Understanding a customer’s business needs and schedule helps sales reps to offer support in a way that’s well-timed and appropriate. However, we need to match this with patience and resilience within ourselves, if those offers of support aren’t immediately taken up.
Make a positive plan for annual leave
The final piece of advice I have on remaining available might feel slightly counter-intuitive – but it’s actually the most important advice of all. And it’s particularly important during the summer months.
Take your annual leave!
It makes sense to do this at a time that’s right for your business and right for you. There may be a different balancing act involved in identifying when that is, this year. However, it’s vital to make a positive plan to still take time off. Whether it’s a week or a fortnight, whether you travel abroad, stay in your home country or stay at home – whatever feels comfortable and appropriate to you, the value of shutting your laptop and switching off emails for an extended period is still the same.
There’s growing understanding of the draining impact of the pandemic on mental health and resilience – the exhaustion that comes from trying to assimilate and make sense of contradictory information in a fast-moving situation. Annual leave is actually more important at this time than ever – and yet many people will put it off altogether. That’s partly because they don’t feel they’ll get as much out of it as in previous years, and partly because there’s concern about the signal that going on holiday sends to the business. This is why it’s vital for sales managers and leaders to model this behaviour – and give clear permission to others through their actions. Even better, use your regular communication with others to enquire about their plans and encourage them to take time off when it’s needed.
As a leader, your availability is crucial for your team. But their mental availability is also crucial for your team’s performance. You need them active, energised and present when it counts. Delineating time for them to recharge is a vital part of that process.