Three Sales Leadership Principles to Guide Your Team

Sales guru Paul Reilly emphasizes three priorities for B2B team leaders, and how tough times present opportunities.

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"I really believe that when 2020 gets here we're gonna look back and this is gonna have been the best decade in Clemson football history. That's what I believe."

— Dabo Swinney, Clemson University head football coach (Source: Jon Gordon's Positive U Podcast) 

Clemson head coach, Dabo Swinney, was commenting on his vision for Clemson football. The content of this quote is not overly inspiring, but the timing is. He didn't say this after Clemson won its first National title in 2016 or their second National title in 2018. This comment was during the 2010 season — his WORST year as Clemson's head coach. Despite the media and all the negativity circling Swinney, he committed to his vision and achieved it.

Imagine you were a player on Swinney's 2010 team. What would those comments mean to you? How inspired would you feel?

Similar to Swinney, you experience tough seasons. Whether it's a recession, tough competitor or a tough team, you experience tough times. The tough moments you face as a leader are defining moments for you and your team.

Leaders set the tone in any organization — positively or negatively. The same way sellers lead customers through tough times, you lead your team through tough times. Tough times are a great leadership and coaching opportunity. Tough times represent an opportunity for teams to come together. Tough times open your salespeople to coaching and feedback.

There are three basic principles to guide you through tough times. Regardless of the industry, or the depth of your tough times, these principles will keep you on track or get you back on track.

Principle #1: Put Others First

Where is your focus? Are you focused on yourself or the team? Sales leaders, like sellers, can easily succumb to the pressure and focus on themselves.

The best sales leaders focus on serving others. They humbly view their role as a servant and view serving as a privilege. In working with great sales leaders, I've experienced this service-minded leadership firsthand. One client in the construction industry continuously demonstrated service-minded leadership. This company's values are deeply rooted in service—to the team, customers, and community. The sales leaders demonstrated this on several occasions with some small gestures.

Throughout tough times, you experience challenges. These challenges tempt you to focus on yourself versus others. Step outside your comfort zone; let yourself be vulnerable. The further you get from your comfort zone, the closer you get to your next breakthrough.

Principle #2: You Get What You Expect

"This is our most difficult service to sell. Customers have trouble understanding this service because it's brand new to the industry. There is nothing out there like it." That's what my sales manager told us at a regional sales meeting. We were tasked with selling a new service. And as you likely guessed, we struggled. A month after this meeting, a new salesperson was promoted to join our team. He had no problem selling the new service. He sold more than the rest of the team combined. At our monthly review, the same sales manager asked the new seller, "It's hard to sell this new service. Everyone is struggling. How are you doing it?" The new seller responded, "I didn't know it was supposed to be difficult." The sales manager set the expectation that it was difficult, and for those that attended the meeting, it was. Expectations are a funny thing; you get what you expect.

During tough times, leaders tend to expect less. This is a dangerous proposition considering you get what you expect. Expect their best and that is what you get. Set a higher expectation to elevate your team further. People rise or fall to the expectation given. Never burden your sales team or yourself with low expectations.

Principle #3: You Set the Tone

I started my first business the summer of 2002, a franchise painting company. The business concept was simple. As a college student, I learned how to run a business and make a little money. It was an incredible experience. I learned several valuable business lessons, but one leadership lesson stands out the most.

Before the busy summer season, we attended franchisee training. Our trainer taught us how to manage our employees and paint. He repeatedly said throughout the training, "You set the tone!" While rapidly shimmying up the ladder, he'd say, "You set the tone!" While cleaning the equipment, he'd say, "You set the tone!" While painting a hard-to-reach spot, he'd say, "Remember, you set the tone!"

Eventually, our trainer explained what he meant by setting the tone, "Your employees meticulously watch everything you do and how you do it. If you confidently climb the ladder, they will be confident. If you courageously paint a hard-to-reach spot, they will be courageous. If you sloppily clean the brushes, your painters will be sloppy. You set the tone!"

As sales leaders, you set the tone. Your salespeople study your every move observing your pace and attitude. You are always on display. During tough times, your team faces setbacks and failures. As the sales leader, you also face setbacks and failures. If you're not happy with your team's response to failure, then look in the mirror. How are you responding to failures and setbacks? If your sellers witness the slightest glimpse of self-pity in your reaction, that is bona fide permission for them to react the same way.

Your team's performance directly relates to your belief. You are the beacon of hope for your team. Your hope and belief must be deeper than the doubt your team experiences. Hope may not be a strategy, but it is a philosophy. Believing in your team encourages them to believe in themselves. If you act in a certain way, your team will follow suit.

Paul ReillyPaul ReillyThese leadership principles are just as relevant in good times, but tough times test your commitment to these principles. Your actions and attitude indelibly leave a mark on your team's memory. Your salespeople will remember the tough times. What will they remember about you through those tough times?


Paul Reilly is a speaker, sales trainer, co-author of Value-Added Selling, fourth edition (McGraw-Hill, 2018), and host of The Q and A Sales Podcast. For additional information on Paul’s keynote presentations and seminars, call 636-778-0175 or email Paul@ReillySalesTraining.com. Visit www.TomReillyTraining.com and signup for their free newsletter.

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