Leadership is not a business title.
All too often, the most successful sales performer is promoted to the role of sales manager, and we assume that the individual, having never been trained even once on the skills of leadership, will somehow develop them by osmosis. You have probably worked for a boss that was so inept as a leader that your job became a miserable grind. On the other hand, you have probably worked for (or with) a person that inspired you because of his or her powerful leadership aura.
But what are the characteristics of great leaders? Owners, managers and salespeople alike pause and ponder this question, searching for the “right” answer. I have heard a variety of responses, but most are stock expressions. Rather than taking the time to succinctly consider the real answer to this question, we are left with an unclear definition of leadership performance and a subject that remains vaguely defined. Thus, the revealing aspect of the question lies not in the answer, but in the difficulty in stating it.
Before reading on, take a moment and ask yourself: What are the performance characteristics of great leaders?
The question asks you not to consider what personality traits or internal characteristics the leader possesses. Instead you are to determine the behavioral characteristics of leadership. Leadership is not something you are, but is something you do. Leadership therefore is a set of behaviors.
Drawing from multiple resources in psychology and business leadership, I have concluded that the following four characteristics represent the most powerful behavioral strategies of positive leadership performance: trust (attention and care for your subordinates), credibility (demonstration of ability), coaching (praise, feedback and career guidance), and vision (clarity of purpose stated and persistently reiterated). Strive to develop these behaviors in yourself and others around you. Everybody in your organization - from the CEO to the janitor - can become a leader.
Behavior No. 1: Proactively build trust. With all due respect to fans of “The Godfather,” business is not just business. Business is personal. People are human beings with emotions, problems, personalities and a deep psychological need to feel wanted and useful. Listen carefully to your employees and develop trust and loyalty, or else you may irreparably damage relationships. More importantly, don’t be quick to criticize.
Inappropriate criticism is the bane of sales management leadership. The biggest mistake for sales managers is to instantly criticize a salesperson for failure when a sale is lost. The fact is that some sales are not ever going to be made, and criticizing performance quickly destroys trust.
Develop trust by striving to teach at all times. Even when you see mistakes or deficient performance occur, use these moments as teaching opportunities. Pay attention to the personal challenges of your employees and your business associates. Adapt your leadership style to the unique personalities and career objectives of various employees. Strive to respect their opinions as adults and as positive contributors to the organization.
Behavior No. 2: Create credibility. Credibility results from trust and knowledge. If you have created trust, then you need only demonstrate your knowledge. It is not enough merely to show others how smart you are, but that you can use that knowledge to educate and help individuals grow in their careers.
Create credibility with salespeople, whether you have never been a salesperson or are a seasoned veteran, by spending time in the field with them and demonstrating your various sales skills. It is appropriate to take the lead role in sales calls when there is a skill that you must demonstrate or when your role as a figurehead requires involvement. However, during joint sales calls, strive to observe rather than dominate the conversation. Allow your salespeople to show you how they operate.
Once you prove to your employees that you have the ability to perform in the field and can sympathize with their challenges, you will then be prepared to elevate yourself to a coaching role. You don’t have to be a better salesperson than the individuals you manage. Many professional athletes rely on the counsel of coaches who cannot perform as well as the athletes they advise. You merely need to be credible in order to establish your role as a coach.
Behavior No. 3: Coach to improve the careers of your salespeople. Coaches monitor and improve performance and, more importantly, they help guide career growth. Many managers consider one of their greatest accomplishments to be the promotion of an employee to another company or department as a result of the manager’s coaching and support for the employee’s career aspirations. Great leaders recognize an important measure of leadership success is the growth of people and the ability to develop talented performers who earn promotions, recognition, and long-term career security.
Become a coach by changing your intention from immediate sales results to a focus on selling skills. Help your salespeople by providing them levels of career security far beyond those that they possessed when they began working for you. Worry less about the results and more about the skills that your salespeople need for career growth and the results will take care of themselves.
Behavior No. 4: Promote a winning vision. Those who read mainstream works of business and psychology have heard the word “vision” so frequently that it has become cliché. Yet many salespeople are still confused about their purpose simply because the vision of their manager remains unclear. For example, “sell more” is not a powerful vision.
Create priorities and boundaries that empower them to perform. For example, I worked with one manager who offered three simple rules for his sales staff in support of his vision. The vision was simple: “We sell only our standard products and services and honor special requests only when is makes profitable sense.” The criteria by which special requests could be honored were (1) Is the product available? (2) Can it be produced and delivered safely? (3) Is it a profitable decision for the long-term health of the company? For a short period of time, members of his sales staff were in disbelief that they could make decisions without the manager’s pre-approval. Eventually they learned that the vision and the criteria to support that vision were clear. The result was a staff of happier employees that had great confidence in their leader and, most important, created more profits for the bottom line.
A Great ExampleIf you’re looking for examples of great leadership performance that fit all four of these categories, consider our first president, George Washington. Washington was a man that exemplified all four of these leadership characteristics:
1. During the winter at Valley Forge, the care and uncommon concern he demonstrated for the welfare of his men is legendary. At other times, he granted his men leave so they could balance their military responsibilities with their need to support families at home.
2. He rode into battle with his men, demonstrating his willingness and credibility to do the very things he had asked them to do.
3. He ensured that his people had as much training as possible under stressful circumstances, thus ensuring that they had proper coaching to succeed.
4. Working with his top advisers, he created a successful strategy against overwhelming odds that enabled the United States to achieve victory in the war for independence.
If these leadership performance factors were good enough for George Washington during the trying Revolutionary period of our country, then they must certainly be good enough for us as managers and leaders today. Resolve to be a better Performance Leader and everyone in your organization will benefit.