Building and Sustaining High Performing Sales Teams

Portrait of a High Performing Team
Almost everyone who works with others wants either to be a member of a high performing team, or to lead a high performing team.  In fact, I bet 9 out of every 10 managers I’ve ever spoken with have claimed their teams were high performing.  Yet, when asked about the performance of individual team members, these same managers invariably cite a litany of “typical” shortcomings.

While I hesitate to question the self proclaimed assessment of another manager’s team without seeing them in action for myself, I have to wonder how they came to their conclusion.  How can a high performing team be comprised of individuals with performance issues?  Can the diversity of performance strengths and capabilities within a team actually make the overall team stronger, despite certain individual weaknesses?  And how is it that these managers don’t ask themselves these same questions?

To be sure, individuals with performance problems are not high performers.  That is not to say that an employee must be perfect; indeed, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  There is a distinction, however, between weaknesses and performance problems.  Strengths and weaknesses between team members are like pieces of a puzzle.  All the pieces must fit together to complete the picture.    In the strongest teams, members should complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, assembling a team in which there is diversity of strengths should be a priority.

There’s no single recipe for building a high performing team.  The variables are simply too great.  On the other hand, there are clearly common attributes that successful teams manifest, and at the same time behavioral patterns that destroy a team’s effectiveness and their capacity for achievement.

So, what does a high performing team look like?  It’s really quite simple.  While individual strengths may vary, high performing teams exhibit many (hopefully most) of the same qualities of highly effective, influential team leaders.  At the highest level…

  • They complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • They exhibit integrity and self discipline, both individually and collectively.
  • They have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.
  • They are responsible and accountable – to their leader and each other.
  • They are enthusiastic and self-motivated.
  • They are individually and collectively aligned with the company’s vision.

Of course there are many other skills and traits that high performing teams must possess and demonstrate – effective communication, mutual trust, respect, etc., and of course they must work harmoniously together to achieve the task at hand.  Skills, however, can be taught, habits formed, and behaviors modified, while character and cultural fit are individual factors that are deeply ingrained.

High Performing Teams Begin with High Performing Individuals
Diversity, complementing strengths and skills, and achievement oriented members are all considerations when building or adding to an existing high performing team.  From a practical standpoint, assembling a high performance team begins with a thoughtful and well developed hiring process.  Recruiting often focuses on matching experience to a job specification. This is important where technical qualifications are concerned, but it will not necessarily identify people with high performance traits.  High performers are almost always high performers – wherever they work.

Who are your high performers?  According to a McKinsey & Company report on “The War for Talent,” top performing employees make a 50% to 100% greater contribution to organizations than do their less capable peers.[1] So ask yourself this, if you had to start from scratch, would you re-hire all the employees you currently have? If not, why?  If you could select from just 10% of your existing work force, who would you choose and why?

In my experience, the highest performing sales professionals demonstrate the following characteristics…

  • Achievement Oriented – Money shouldn’t be the goal, only a way of keeping score
  • Perpetually Optimistic – Doesn’t concede defeat, doesn’t accept no as an answer
  • Selling is a Lifestyle – A way of life, not just a job – they never stop selling
  • Understand Customer Motivation – People buy on emotion and excitement, not logic and reason
  • Walk in the Customers’ Shoes – Sensitive to customer’s needs vs. their own (understands difference between ability to buy and desire to buy – validates the customer’s desire)
  • Leverages the Strengths of Others – Those around them

Strategic Hiring Decisions
Research on hiring decisions reveals that people tend to hire applicants with whom they share the strongest personal connection, i.e. those with similar outlooks, mannerisms, personalities, and ideas.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter calls this phenomenon “homosocial reproduction.”[2] While this may be just fine in some cases, the implication is obvious in others.  As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton indelicately puts it, “…assholes will breed like rabbits.”[3]

That’s an extreme (albeit accurate) example, but practically speaking, everyone including the most effective managers has areas of weakness.  While we certainly don’t want to compound weaknesses, the inverse is also true.  To use the puzzle metaphor again, whitewashing over weaknesses by cloning strengths is like trying to put together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and shape.  The strongest teams are comprised of diverse personalities with complementary skills, and they use this to their advantage.  Reduce the risk of poorly influenced hiring decisions by having several managers interview a candidate and collectively participate in the decision process.

A Framework for Success
There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  A comprehensive plan helps hiring managers at each decision point by giving focus and structure to the process. With the following four-step plan, not only will you have the highest probability of making good hiring decisions, you’ll also establish a framework of success for ongoing team development.

1. Recruiting and Hiring for Excellence
Leading a high performance sales team naturally begins with the people that you hire.  You simply cannot afford to settle for the best “available” applicant, you have to find the right person for the job and team.  In building a high performing team, whether staff or management, qualification criteria should be closely examined before you ever run an employment ad or interview an applicant.  Managers tend to focus heavily on education, job experience, and presence.  These are all important, but also look closely at temperament, interpersonal skills, and character.  Hire for fit within the team.  You can always train for skill (you will probably have to anyway), but trying to train for cultural fit is an uphill battle.

2. Cultivating Success

Regardless of individual successes, a sales team is only as strong as its weakest performer.  A successful high performing team depends on each member pulling his or her weight, contributing to and complementing the team, leveraging its strengths and adding value through individual performance.  Cultivating team success involves addressing deficiencies, identifying and overcoming obstacles, and gradually redefining the very meaning of success in an existing sales environment.  This may involve rooting out underperformers, holding them to a higher level of accountability, and removing them if they are unable to meet established standards.

3. Maintaining Performance Standards
Aggressive and inclusive performance development is a key component to managing and leading high performing teams.  An integral part of the performance management process, regular coaching, feedback, and performance assessment measured against peer comparison benchmarks provide exceptionally flexible and meaningful tools for quantifying and qualifying employee performance.  In situations where progressive discipline is warranted, a consistent approach using readily available performance criteria ensures a fair and actionable case for warnings and dismissal.

4. Nurturing a High Performance Culture
I previously discussed in detail creating and nurturing a Culture of Alignment.  Developing a high performing sales culture requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science.  You have to realize, however, that any such move to alter the culture of your store and team must be carefully planned and executed.  It will not happen overnight.  In fact, it might take a few years.  But the investment is well worth the effort.


[1] Fishman, Charles. The War for Talent. Fast Company, 2007

[2] Kanter, Rosabeth. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977

[3] Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus, 2007

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Delusional Effectiveness Disorder: Confusing Activity with Achievement

De-lu-sion-al  Ef-fec-tive-ness  Dis-or-der

Pronunciation: \di-‘lüzh-nəl\ \ĭ-fěk’tĭv-nes\ \dĭs-ôr’dər\

–noun

  1. a functional disorder characterized by systematized delusions of accomplishment and the projection of personal achievement, which are ascribed to the span and intensity of activity demonstrated, and manifested in the notable absence of meaningful results.
  2. delusions of grandeur
  3. slang: rectal-cranial inversion

Mission AccomplishedWe’ve all seen them.  Companies and organizations around the country are full of them.  You know who I’m talking about – you have a few in your organization right now.  I’m referring to those people who make the most noise, ask the most questions, make the most suggestions, send the most email – unrepentant self-promoters who frantically wave their banner to demonstrate to the world how busy and important they are and how tirelessly they work.  They make a big fuss and put on a great show, but actually accomplish very little.  In short, these are folks who confuse activity with achievement.

I refer to this common malady as Delusional Effectiveness Disorder.  While its origins are unknown, the presence of this condition has been noted among several business, military, and political leaders throughout history, including recent presidents.  The manifestation is essentially the same in all those infected.  Somewhere along the way in their careers, folks with DED have fallen under the illusion that recognition and advancement is the reward of working hard.  Indeed, working hard is important, but is only a meaningless shell if the effort fails to yield fruit.  (For the sake of argument I’m using “hard work” and “working hard” interchangeably and in the same context.)  To be sure, hard work is to be admired, but not simply for its own sake.  By contrast, smart work resulting in meaningful accomplishment is far more impressive. Success is the product of accomplishment, not merely the result of working hard.

Hard vs. Smart – Consider the response of the bar soap manufacturer when it discovered approximately one in every thousand of its boxes left the plant empty, resulting in numerous customer complaints.  Their team sprang to action, their best engineers were assembled, the equipment manufacturer was consulted, an extensive quality control study compiled, and a detailed plan to re-design their assembly line proposed – all at a substantial cost in time, labor, and materials.  Thankfully, a low level staffer quietly suggested that they simply set up a large fan at the end of the production line.  The empty boxes, he reasoned, were substantially lighter than those containing the bars of soap, and would therefore easily blow off the conveyor.

Or… When NASA began to launch astronauts into space, they discovered that their pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. To solve this problem, they spent one decade and $12 million.  They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on practically any surface including crystal and in temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.

And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

PelosiNow to be fair, many who are burdened with Delusional Effectiveness Disorder are fevered with the most benevolent of intentions.  In such benign cases, this unfortunate affliction is indicated by a distinct absence of malice often complicated by limited mental acuity, where genuine enthusiasm, however misguided, reflects a sincere attempt to boldly demonstrate that something (i.e., anything) is being done. The problem is that typically the “something” involves a flurry of activity that, while perhaps appearing impressive on the surface, contributes little in the way of substantive results.  It’s activity for the sake of activity with a focus on action rather than the accomplishment.  This reminds me of the adage we jokingly followed in business school when preparing case presentations: “If you can’t make it good, at least make it pretty.”  Form over substance.

Sadly, however, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is more often manifested in those primarily interested in self promotion rather than misguided enthusiasm.  These individuals are convinced that advancement will be rewarded to those demonstrating a maelstrom of activity (they’ll call it initiative).  They are masters of deception, flawlessly executing their political song and dance.  Their objective is the glorification of process – their process – rather than a measure of true accomplishment.  But what is value of initiative in the absence of achievement?  Ironically, if these people worked half as hard at actually accomplishing something as they do demonstrating how busy they are, how hard they work, and how important they are to the organization, they might truly achieve great success.  And in what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, managers in many organizations fall under the spell of this thinly veiled farce, enabling and encouraging DED induced behavior by celebrating “initiative” rather than meaningful achievement or contribution.  While the desire to recognize such initiative is presumably well intended, the effect of poisoning the morale of those with greater substance is nevertheless profound.

What are we to do?  Entire books have been dedicated to managing strategically in a highly politicized environment.  Capable, effective leaders with a well defined vision of success find no distraction by subordinates infected with DED.  They recognize that substance presents itself in many forms, sometimes very subtle, and they reward achievement.  They coach through behaviors that are unproductive to the individual, team, and organization, and re-focus efforts to the attainment of broader objectives.

Fortunately, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is not usually contagious.  In fact, those infected are typically held in leprotic contempt and shunned by peers.  While superiors often swoon with a temporary sense of euphoria, the effect wears off as time and transparency take their toll.