Umpteen has already been said by academicians and management practitioners on leadership. Every time one reads an article on leadership, it definitely satiates some of the curiosity of the reader but never ever goes without generating same amount of rhetoric in his mind. Every framework based definition of leadership only captures its depth partially. Almost all the definitions of leadership has list of its exceptions- leaders or leadership style- which remain undefined or under defined.
So am I attempting to unfold the definition of leadership? Definitely not. I will also be doing the obvious i.e satiating some curiosity and leaving as many rhetoric in reader’s mind. The uniqueness of this article originates from my microscopic view formed after closely observing some of the people who were supposed to lead the sales functions of one or the other company. Under the strict definition of leadership some of them could be called leaders while others will qualify just as highly paid managers. I will be emphasizing more on ‘Sales Leadership’.

The temptation to write about Sales leadership came from three recently read articles in print and social media. Being a practicing sales professionals, I am trying to contextualize the crux of these three articles with Sales leadership.

One of the article published in leading daily of India during the placement season of B-school says that Sales and sales related jobs are not the preferred one at B- schools. The principle of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) governs the choice of many passing out graduates who lands up in sales jobs. It implies that many who are there in sales jobs do not ‘choose’ it but ‘lands up’ there. Hence virtually every incumbent of entry level sales job is on a constant look out for what Indian society calls ‘settled’ jobs. The quest for ‘settled’ jobs has its root in our societal fabric which overrates security of all kinds, social or economic- above everything.  Every entrant in B-school is expected to prove his tenacity in terms of CGPA by the society (which also comprise their friend circle within B- School). Every incremental CGPA earned during two year stint at B- school paves the way for ‘settled’ jobs. Chetan Bhagat has very beautifully defined ‘settled jobs’ in one of his article. He says it’s about making life as predictable, safe and stable as possible. Indian society, particularly middle income group parents loves zero –risk appetite life where monthly cash flow is assured and everything in life is as per plan. In slightly harsher terms ‘settled’ means work in office, produce kids, watch TV at home, repeat all this for few decades and die. The common perception among youth is that ‘Sales jobs’ are nowhere near to ‘settled jobs’ about which they have been preached since childhood. This dichotomy between what is acceptable in society and what a sales jobs has to offer has kept youths away from sales jobs. Many a corporate professionals enjoys the adventures performed by sales team of their company. Applaud for sales team as engine of revenue growth never dries within companies but everybody wants to do this by remaining away from this and not by being part of this. Its personal choice or societal compulsion, will remain a question. Most likely answer is responding to societal compulsion at early stage of career, it has become their personal choice as well.

What it means for Sales leadership?

For Sales leadership, it implies that he inherits a team which is not able to take pride in his professional achievement outside the office because of prevailing mindset in his society. Motivation is directly linked to achievement. But achievement of a sales professional has limited acceptance within his society so it may produce only partial motivation.

Knowing this will help Sales leadership understand that underperformance or mediocre performance of many of his team members may not always be linked with – knowledge, skill and attitude- framework. Many a times his team members are responding to societal need of ‘security’ while underperforming. Social pressure of a secure job where the importance of limited but assured cash flow supersedes relatively unlimited but not so assured cash flow, the run of the mill leadership reaction in terms of reward, recognition, and performance based incentive may have limited impact. These reactions are helping company more than their sales employees. Rewarding achievement just means rationalizing the cash outgo in favor of delivery of expected outcome. It does not help the large section of employees who are underperforming due to the disorientation caused by social pressure.

A sensible sales leadership will have to formulate reactions geared towards the requirement of social affiliation of his team. He cannot remain ignorant because social eco system is an important part of his overall life and so a favorable response addressing this need of sales team may help leadership in controlling the common problem of attrition, underperformance and lack of motivation.

How sales leadership can do this?

Performance linked reward is the most common strategy in place to deal with the perceived performance risk of large sales team. While small section of sales team maximizes his gain through performance linked rewards, a large section perceives ‘Performance linked rewards’ as ‘Underperformance linked penalty’. In other words, this is ‘Performance linked’ component of the salary because of which youths do not categorize ‘Sales jobs’ as ‘Settled job’.
Sales leaders produce justifications like Pareto’s law of 80:20, completion of learning curve as precondition to performance delivery or correlation between vintage of sales person and his optimum performance to define the performance pattern of their large team. These are plausible explanations and good sales leaders are keeping themselves in control with regards to these factors to produce constantly high performance.
But many a times these strategies of Sales leaders fall short of addressing a very core need of the large part of their team. Most of the sales persons use to be in a journey from ‘Unsettled’ (Say sales) jobs to ‘settled jobs’. They want to complete this journey because of the social compulsion.  And they want to complete this journey as soon as possible. Because their social rewards like their own recognition in the family, their family’s status in the society, and their value in matrimonial market is all linked to this to an extent that they cannot afford to ignore this.
While this may look threat to many, a socially conscious Sales leader can use this as lever and convert this inherent need of its team member into advantage

Define the work to make it look socially relevant

Sales professionals are in the job of either meeting with or talking to people (say prospect). Many a times these prospects comprise their social circle. In every meeting they face the challenge of presenting themselves as a holder of ‘settled’ job.
Every time sales professional meets a prospect he exposes himself to the risk of getting rated by his social circle. Favorable rating may enhance his social status but vice versa is also true. While making prospect list and sequencing them in order to meet as hot, warm and cold every sales professional faces a dilemma. Dilemma between meeting a hot prospect where his social rating may suffer or meeting a warm or cold prospect where the risk of unfavorable social rating is the least. Experience suggests that most of the sales professional chooses the later most of the times. This is one of the leading reason because of which many sales professional are either underperformers or non-performers despite having all ingredients of success within them.

That’s why every Sales leader has the task of formulating ‘Socially relevant’ definition of task they are assigning to their team.

Single line problem definition is “How sales leaders can enable his team to take pride in himself while making sales calls”. Among many things that it will require, the job definition of sales professionals has to move away from defining itself merely as a cash transaction in lieu of some goods or service. During the sales call in his social circle, sales professional has to invest a considerable amount of time in impressing his circle about himself. In order to achieve this, they try to produce a ‘big picture’ about their association with the brands and products. Rightly expressing the ‘big picture’ helps them seek confidence of their social circle. With the help of big picture they attempt to change the common societal perception that their fortune is not tied with two to three daily cash transaction but they are a part of a large mission which is absorbing enough to take his care in long and medium term. Ultimately all these talks are geared towards convincing his social circle about himself as a holder of ‘settled’ or credible job. Once sales professional is able to win the first part of the battle i.e. impressing his social circle about himself, second part linked to ensuring cash transaction often becomes so easy for him.
Recognizing this by sales leaders will lead to adopting changes in training and skilling of their sales team. Training of the sales team should emphasize considerably on helping the team understand ‘why company exist’, why that particular product is needed by the society as a whole. And all this not to add dimension to sales pitch but with an aim to help sales professional redefine his ‘self’ or persona.

Choose the right reward

Sales jobs are full of opportunities to earn reward. Sales leaders often assume that monetary reward is the biggest motivator. But their assumption is right only to the extent that it drives only few to a very high level of performance. There is a large portion which remains unaffected by monetary reward.
In order to drive performance from all section of sales personnel reward should aim at facilitating their journey from ‘perceived unsettled job’ to ‘settled’ job.  And secondly reward should help in creating the impression of upward economic mobility which often is perceived as signal of stability and security by their social circle. Such perception of social circle helps in enhancing his social reputation for which sales persons and their family crave.
Rewards like reimbursement of tuition fee of professional courses, promotion after the completion of professional courses, provision of short term leave for preparing and completing professional courses are very much in demand within sales professionals who wanted to use sales jobs as platform to further their quest for ‘settled’ jobs. Being partner in their quest will definitely enhance their loyalty which will enhance their performance.
Rewards in kinds help sales personnel further his social reputation. Sales leaders should recognize the need of ‘social affiliation’ of sales personnel and should orchestrate distribution of rewards in mid of the social circle or by leading opinion leader of the locality. The sense of fulfillment achieved by sales personnel through this will remove all his psychological barrier to approach his social circle as prospect. The fear of getting rated negatively by the social circle goes away as his social circle started perceiving him as holder of rewarding and ‘settled’ job. The change in perception of the social circle ensures continuity of the sales personnel in the job resulting into long lasting performance delivery.

Career growth

Career growth looks like a common need for all kind of professional. It’s not unlike for a sales professional. Every professional views it as a reward in terms monetary gains and enhancement in accountability. But sales professionals view it very differently and much deeply. Anybody with experience of interviewing sales professional must have encountered the questions like ‘how much time will it take for me to get a team or to become a team leader’. While this question may look like coming out normally from an aspiring professional, in reality its origin lies in his mental perception about sales coming under category of ‘unsettled’ job. While asking this question, in their mind they want to calculate the minimum time required to complete the journey from ‘unsettled’ to relatively ‘settled’ profile. Career growth for a sales personnel is a tool to de risk himself from the onslaught of ‘unsettled jobs’.
Sales leaders should focus on creating an organization structure which can ensure vertical or horizontal career growth. Career growth and corresponding accountability will require a robust training and skill building function. Sales leaders should give due considerations to ‘Training need analysis’ ensuring fast track career growth through on the job skill building.

Sales leaders should care about the need of social affiliation of their team. Generally sales speeches are full of phrases helping sales team aspire for better performances in lieu of performance linked monetary rewards. But sales speech from a sensitive sales leaders should try to create a right balance between monetary reward and social affiliation need of his sales team.
Not only in speeches but also in action sales leaders should display his desire to create an ecosystem which assists his sales team in responding to his social need. Career progression, training and skill building and reward and recognition should be institutionalized in a way that it helps sales team member to meet his social needs as well.
In current scenario when sales leaders are dependent on upcoming economic and social class for their frontline sales team, they will ignore social affiliation need only at their peril.  The needs of this social and economic class are different and are governed by social eco system. Only a socially conscious sales leaders who will recognize this and will provide ample space to address these needs in his sales strategy will succeed.