Sales Leaders: Is It Safe for Your People to Fail?

Six Management Mistakes that Sabotage a High-Growth Learning Culture for Sales Teams

August 1, 2017

  • sales-leaders-management

The most successful sales teams we work with, at companies of all sizes and in all industries, create what we call a high-growth learning culture. This is a working environment intentionally focused on supporting the ongoing growth and development of each and every member of the sales team. Below is a list of six common management mistakes that undermine such a working culture—or make it impossible to create in the first place.

1.     Not setting up areas within which it is okay to fail

When salespeople believe that any failure will cost them—financially or professionally—they are likely to minimize or conceal areas where they need to expand their knowledge and experience. This “cover-up” mentality (often modeled by the manager) makes a learning culture impossible. Successful sales leaders set up clear areas, understood by both manager and salesperson, where the salesperson not only has the right, but the expectation, to learn through trial and error. Having this discussion ahead of time means the manager agrees not to second-guess decisions or punish mistakes—as long as the salesperson agrees to “color within the lines.” This is a productive, essential agreement that supports the productive learning culture—and dramatically reduces the chance of a catastrophic mistake that could carry major negative implications for the team or the company.

2.     Not understanding how people learn.

This overlaps with Mistake Number One. One of our trainers, Josh Seibert, is a Navy veteran. Josh points out that, when the U.S. Navy gives a recruit a new technique to master, they expect you to fail a number of times as you implement it. They give you a safe environment in which to do so—an environment in which you are expected to fail—as part of the learning process. Why do they do that? Because time and experience have shown that the only way adults learn is by doing ... and the only way adults work their way forward to doing something at an acceptable level of mastery is by failing and trying again. It’s just how we are wired as human beings.

3.     Assuming that telling people what to do, or showing them what to do, will result in sustainable positive changes in performance.

This is perhaps the most common mistake among sales managers we meet. Simply telling people what to do overlooks the attitude and behavior points of what we call the Success Triangle, which targets the three major points of personal development: attitude, behavior, and technique. Focusing on the “here’s what you need to do” discussion is basically technique training, but it completely overlooks the attitudes and behavior patterns that support optimum performance. All three points need to be addressed: your technique, your attitude, and your behaviors—what you need to do every day to be successful.  Most managers leave two of the three points of the Success Triangle out of the equation entirely, which results in a low-learning, low-growth working environment.

4.     Confusing training with coaching.

Coaching always takes place in a one-on-one environment. It is always customized to the individual salesperson’s learning style and unique needs. The coaching discussion is not hitting about particular numerical targets, nor is it about “here’s what you should have done instead.” Many managers fail in the coaching role because they focus on achieving desired numerical results—rather than supporting significant behavior modification and growth. The truly effective sales leader uses the coaching discussion to shift away from the need to direct change and fix problems, and focuses instead on helping the salesperson discover for himself the most effective way to act in the selling situation.

5.     Withholding one or more of the “Three P’s.”

A high-growth learning culture has trust as its foundation. In such a culture, there are three critical elements associated with a sales leader’s relationship with each and every salesperson within a high-growth learning culture: potency, permission, and protection. Effective sales leaders lead by serving, and resist any tendency to position themselves as authority figures, so that the salespeople assume full potency within their own career. Additionally, they give the salespeople permission to speak freely with them. Finally, they provide salespeople with protection from any reprisals as long as the agreements about learning through failure within certain clearly defined areas are kept.  These three assurances allow each salesperson the freedom to learn and grow—and create an enduring respect between management and staff.

6.     Assuming that a top sales performer is, by definition, a natural manager.

This is another extremely common, and extremely costly, mistake that undermines the learning culture. The fact that someone is good at moving high-value deals through your sales process is no guarantee that he or she is well positioned to support the development of each individual member of the sales team. In fact, salespeople promoted to management without the necessary support are highly likely to make all of the mistakes identified in this article.

That last mistake is particularly important for a company’s senior management to avoid. Sales management is a complex job with a very different set of professional requirements from the position of professional salesperson. Don’t mistake the two. Identify the skill gaps, and create a plan for filling them, before you promote a star performer to management.