I’ll never forget the first day of my introductory sales management class in college. Once all of the students had streamed into the room and found a seat, the professor stood up with a warm (and what appeared to be hopeful) smile and asked, “Who wants to be a salesperson?”
I, along with most others in the class, sat on my hands. “Not a chance,” I thought. “I’m only taking this course because it’s required. I want a real job.”
It wasn’t too long into my career that I realized how naïve that reaction was.
We’re all salespeople. All of us. Ditch diggers sell the strength of their backs. Brain surgeons sell their skill with a scalpel. Consultants sell confidence. Politicians sell hope, pundits sell their critique of politicians, and pollsters sell predictions of the outcome (some better than others).
Our compensation may come in the form of an hourly wage, a monthly commission, a yearly salary, or long-term stock options, but everybody is selling something. (As an aside, not-for-profit organizations misunderstand this at their peril.)
Effective salespeople connect desires with fulfillment, problems with solutions, needs with supply and questions with answers. Whether it’s an attentive waiter, an adept real estate agent, an empathetic funeral director or an entrepreneurial Uber driver, they all understand that it’s by meeting customer needs that their own needs will be met. Sales is an art, and those who do it well get paid accordingly.
Unfortunately, the discipline of sales has gotten a bad rap because too many practitioners reverse the equation, focusing on what they can get rather than what they can give. The same principles apply to leadership, which can be thought of as a form of sales. Leaders, in fact, have a particularly difficult sales challenge.
For one, what leaders sell is often intangible. If someone offers you a slice of pizza loaded with exotic toppings, you can take a bite and determine if it’s any good. If all they can do is describe the pizza to you, however, you might turn down something you would have loved. Selling tangible objects like pizza, pencils and printers may not be easy, but at least tangible things have tangible benefits. When people can’t “taste and see,” getting them to “believe and act” can be difficult.
Further, what leaders sell can be anything but obvious. When the path forward is clear, no one needs to be shown where to go, but when the future lies around a corner, in the dark or around a corner in the dark, getting people down the road requires foresight, imagination and great communication. It’s not easy to help people grasp the potential of a new product, a new process or a new priority.
A vision is only as clear as a leader can make it.
Beyond that, leaders have to sell the unsafe. New ideas are, by definition, different. That which is different is dangerous, and what’s dangerous is daunting. It’s the old story of the two canoes: I might want to get out of my ratty old boat and into your sleek new one, but I’m not sure I’m willing to risk the trip. Your job, as a leader, is to help me overcome my fear.
How does one sell something that’s intangible, imaginative and intimidating? There are entire books written on the topic, but let me offer one foundational insight on which we would all do well to dwell: the currency of the craft is trust.
Consider the waiter who, through keen radar and careful pacing, creates a dining occasion for which someone is happy to pay the equivalent of a month’s rent on a cheap apartment. Or the real estate agent who uses empathetic understanding and uncanny instincts to create a customized experience for each client. Or the funeral director who patiently controls the pace of the planning process so that someone who just lost a loved one will feel not only served but ministered to.
Each has mastered the art of earning trust in their respective domain.
In the realm of leadership there’s no one-size-fits-all style or manner; effective leaders may be charismatic and eloquent or frumpy and clumsy. But the one thing they all must possess is the trust of their team, which can only be built over time. By prioritizing the needs of those they serve over their own needs, they build a foundation of faith that can be tapped by their team when a necessary next step can’t be seen, touched or tasted.
Although my snap judgment all those years ago in college was unfair, it was rooted in a legitimate fear: I didn’t want to be that guy. I now understand that I am and always will be a salesperson; my only choice is to determine how effective I’ll be. I no longer worry about whether I’m selling, but what I’m selling. And how. And ultimately, why. The more I recognize the currency of the craft and do what I do for the sake of others, the better things turn out for me. Funny how that works.
I have a hunch that my professor set my classmates and me up with his provocative question, knowing that one day we’d all come to a right understanding. It doesn’t matter if your job is in the administrative office or on the factory floor, in the field or in finance. We’re all salespeople.
I wish I had understood that sooner.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”