The end of the first quarter is a critical time for sales leaders to evaluate the effectiveness of their coaching and accountability strategy. How hard are you pushing your team? Are your reps really invested in the sales turnaround? If not, there might be a good reason.

It’s funny how we actually encounter some of the very best business lessons in our day-to-day personal lives. We don’t always equate them to our work lives until someone points them out. I’d like to share a simple personal story that has real relevance to how you can help your sales team stay motivated, accountable and effective.

For me, growing up in Boston was synonymous with playing hockey. I remember lots of boring drills, screaming coaches and time spent standing around on the ice learning position play. Some of my most vivid memories are those of my father at my practices and games. When I left the ice, he’d try to help by reviewing my performance in detail, focusing on passes I should have made and shots I should have taken.

There were also the endless drills at public skating rinks. While all the other kids were having fun, my father tried to help me hone my skills by guiding me though cross-over drills – facing the boards, crossing one foot over the other, lap after lap. Eventually, I stopped looking forward to him coming to practices and games because there was no time for fun. I began to perform better when he wasn’t there.

I know he meant well and that he wanted the best for me. However, I eventually realized that what was driving his negative coaching were his visions and needs that weren’t really about me. As so often happens, he was trying to fulfill his dreams and goals through the accomplishments of his child.

Your Sales Team Has to Want Success as Much as You Do

You can’t want something more for someone than they want it for themselves. As a sales leader, you can’t expect your sales reps to be more successful than they want to be, or are ready to be.

You can’t create performance accountability and ownership by “talking and telling.” When you give a directive or make a suggestion, the individual no longer owns the action or results. You own it. Your role as a sales leader is to ask questions that will help the rep generate statements of ownership.

Let’s frame this in the context of the one-one-one review. As a sales leader, one of the most important processes you can initiate with your team members is a consistent system of performance checks and balances. Wilson Learning recently published an article which estimated that specific and consistent reviews (one-on-ones) can equate to a 26% increase in sales productivity.
If you’re a driven sales leader, you have an innate desire for your salespeople to perform at a high level. But, you run into trouble when your drive for success outpaces their drive and capabilities. This can create an unintended disconnect and unfortunate consequences. The content of your conversations will start to focus on gaps and what’s not happening, and will leave little room to acknowledge what is going well. In my own example, my dad’s continuous negative coaching took away the joy and confidence from my game. I was so worried about what I was doing wrong that I could no longer focus on my strengths.

Does Your Pursuit of Success Cloud Your Ability to Build on the Positive?

When your desire for your sales reps’ success outpaces their own, it’s easy to default to “talking and telling.” It takes less time and investment. The downside is it delivers short-term returns. Most sales leaders spend entire one-on-one reviews telling their sales reps when and how they need to improve performance. The intent is to help the reps make the right decisions and avoid mistakes so they don’t lose business. Eventually, three things happen:

  1. The reps who struggle (the ones without the right behaviors and skills) will stop thinking for themselves and develop reactive performance efforts. Telling them what to do and solving problems for them actually backfires by affixing the responsibility and accountability squarely back on your shoulders.
  2. Talented reps (the ones with the right level of drive and skill) will view your coaching as meddlesome and frustrating, and will feel less and less empowered to do their jobs. Many will move on.
  3. Over time, your “talking and telling” will create a place for reps to hide. They’ll avoid taking actions they label difficult or risky. They’ll relinquish personal responsibility because now they’re doing tasks for you, as opposed to achieving goals for themselves. You can recognize salespeople who no longer feel ownership when you hear things like:
    • “I have to prepare a plan for my boss and present it next week.”
    • “My boss wants me to go back and ask the prospect X, Y, Z.”
    • “They want me to sell 50% more this year.”

Sales Reps Need to Be Accountable to Themselves

Many of my years in sales leadership were spent learning these lessons the hard way. As a sales leader, you have to make the accountability and actions about the sales rep, not about yourself. I’m not suggesting you abdicate all responsibility, ignore the numbers, or accept poor performance. But you must keep your drive in check. Asking and listening allows reps to develop their own answers and courses of action. Let the rep solve the problem first and then give counsel or direction – otherwise, you will always own the problem.

My six-year-old son just finished his first year of Mites hockey. His desire to skate and have fun far outpaced my desire for him to be a star. It’s cool when your son wants you at his games and pulls you out the door to practice. It’s also cool when your sales reps look forward to your coaching and guidance.