This Week’s Big Deal: Lessons in Sales Leadership from John C. Maxwell

February 11, 2019

Female Leader Drawing Attention

In sports, leadership is viewed as both a crucial differentiator and a mysterious intangible. We don’t know exactly how much Tom Brady’s presence in the huddle helped the Patriots overcome the Rams in the Super Bowl, but we know the quarterback’s experience and influence played a big role. He and head coach Bill Belichick haven’t brought home six championships in 18 years, with a rotating roster of supporting team members, by accident.

The same is true in selling. We all know that strong sales leadership is important, and that it can dramatically improve a team’s results. But what makes a great sales leader? Which attributes can we hone to improve our positive impact? How do we go about prioritizing these efforts?

A new book from John C. Maxwell may offer helpful guidance. Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace hit shelves last week, bringing a wealth of tips from a man with considerable authority on the subject. Maxwell runs his own company focusing on leadership development services, and in the past has published works such as The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 5 Levels of Leadership.

His latest release contains plenty of good stuff. Today we’ll call out three chapters (and corresponding “shifts”) that are especially pertinent for today’s sales leaders and managers.

3 Sales Leadership Shifts that Can Make an Impact

“Would anyone seriously consider the idea that tomorrow will be at a slower pace than today?” Maxwell asks early on in Leadershift. “Technology, social media, and the rate of change will never allow that to happen. To go forward, we need to move faster. And as leaders, we need to stay ahead, we need to see more than others, and we need to see before others.”

Oh, so we just need to foresee the future? Sounds easy!

In all seriousness, Maxwell suggests that moving ahead of the curve, and becoming more proactive than reactive as leaders, requires 11 fundamental shifts. These three spoke to me from a sales leadership perspective.

Soloist to Conductor
This is among the most essential transitions for a leadership mindset. As Maxwell puts it, “You can be a successful person on your own, but not a successful leader.”

Sales pros often climb the ladder into leadership positions because they’re good at their jobs. In sales, strong results tend to be driven by individual resolve and personal skill. If you are persuasive, personable, and knowledgeable, you can likely close deals consistently, without the need to necessarily rely on anyone else.

As a leader, you must become proficient in helping others develop their own approaches, while viewing strategy on a macro level. This is very different. The soloist vs. conductor dichotomy is a fitting one, because the sales leader must work to orchestrate a harmonious symphony rather than simply playing her own notes.

From my view, these are some useful steps in making the shift to conductor:

  • Equip your team with collaborative sales enablement tools
  • Focus on opening lines of communication
  • Encourage ongoing engagement with marketing and other departments
  • Demonstrate how salespeople can capitalize on their collective networks with TeamLink
  • Set team-based goals and benchmarks rather than individual ones

Perks to Price
In sales, we’re often advised to lead with benefits. If you can help a prospect envision their improved future state (aided by your solution), you’ll get their attention.

But leading with benefits is much different from leading because of benefits. “Focusing on perks won’t take you anywhere because deep inner fulfillment never comes from perks,” according to Maxwell.

He implores us to concentrate on what we can give rather than what we can gain. Focus not on the way you can benefit from your sales leadership role, but rather how you can use it to benefit others.

When we are continually cognizant of the cost it takes to accomplish something, rather than thinking solely about the outcome, we tend to be more deliberate in our pursuit.

I once had a great boss who would lay out a personal ambition during each of our quarterly team meetings, outlining the progressive steps required for him to achieve it. He did this to hold himself accountable, and also to demonstrate the value of clearly and realistically mapping out a journey. His desired endpoint was never the focus in these exercises.

Directing to Connecting
Maxwell opens this chapter with a great quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.”

Learning how to get through to people, and facilitate positive behavioral change, is one of the toughest tasks for any leader, mainly because it’s not a one-size-fits-all undertaking. What resonates with one team member might completely miss with another. But in general, a shift in mindset from “directing” (telling people what to do) to “connecting” (understanding them and working with them) is almost always advisable.

A couple of years back, we published a collection of sales coaching tips from experts in the field, and many of the insights reflected this sentiment.

“We are constantly amazed by how much people will do when they are not told what to do by management. You can’t manage self-confidence into people,” according to Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric.

“What managers do not understand is that help to a rep is getting the resources they need, not telling them what to do,” said sales podcaster Brian Burns.

“We often find that people are very aware and often extremely critical of their own performance, and likely the one or two points they make are right on target if we give them a chance to analyze their own performance instead of telling them what do,” added Ray Makela of the Sales Readiness Group.

The consensus seems clear: connect with your reps, and give them the opportunity to grow with your support, rather than under your rigid direction.

Leading the Digital Selling Charge

Empathy is one of the most critical traits for sales professionals today. Just as reps are well served to see things through the eyes of their customers, sales leaders are well served to see through the eyes of the team members they manage.

By embracing a collaborative team-centric approach, focusing on process more than results, and acting as a partner more than a boss, you’ll be on track to gain buy-in and lead your organization in the right direction.

In Leadershift, Maxwell covers a number of other deviations, such as Goals to Growth, Maintaining to Creating, and Career to Calling. The book is well worth a read if you want to learn more about his philosophies.

And if you want to learn more about guiding modern sales teams toward success, subscribe to the LinkedIn Sales Blog and never miss out on the latest big deal in B2B sales.