Category Archives: Sales leadership

Leadership Lessons Learned from the University of Virginia Debacle

How many people from Virginia does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: three. One to change the bulb, and two to talk about how good the old one used to be.

As a proud resident of Virginia for over five decades, I find that self-deprecating humor well-earned. For proof, visit Old Town Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital, to see the city’s statue of a lone Confederate soldier standing smack dab in the middle of its busiest intersection. Not coincidentally, his back squarely faces north. And if you can’t recall the name of any southern Civil War personality except Robert E. Lee, take a trip down Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where you’ll see statues of Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Jefferson Davis, larger than life.

If you’re looking for fast-paced change, you’re slightly more likely to find it in Riyadh than in Richmond. Virginia is for lovers, not changers. Against this backdrop, the recent tumult at the University of Virginia over the recent firing—and rehiring—of its president, Teresa Sullivan, seems perfectly bizarre.

UVa’s leadership drama attracted widespread attention, and the topic made Twitter’s top trending ideas on June 26th, embedded on a list that included #KatyPerryPremiere, Farmville 2, and Adam Oates. If you haven’t kept up with the story, it began to unfold in late May of this year, but I’ll pick it up beginning June 10th, when the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors abruptly announced it had asked Dr. Sullivan to resign her post as UVa President, after serving less than two years.

Scant information was offered. The ostensible reason for Dr. Sullivan’s firing? President Sullivan (Terry, as she is popularly known) advocated for “incremental change” when Helen Dragas, Rector of the university’s Board of Visitors, and others felt urgency to shake up the status quo. Sixteen days later, on Tuesday, June 26th, the board reinstated Sullivan to her position by a unanimous vote. Now that’s a story!

I’ve shared the almost-beginning and the non-end, leaving out the fascinating middle. If you want to read the timeline and see the full cast of characters, click here.

“Exhibit A of this plainly dysfunctional system is, of course, Helen E. Dragas, who is UVa’s rector and, thus, the board’s chairman. She was utterly and properly humiliated Tuesday (June 26) with the reversal of her grossly mismanaged effort to oust the university’s president,” Robert McCartney wrote in The Washington Post on June 28.

“By all accounts, Dragas is a smart, effective businesswoman, known in particular for her tough-minded resolve, but she needlessly threw the university into turmoil when she failed to respect two rather fundamental rules of good business practice: know your market, and communicate effectively.”

As much as anything, this story proves once again that intelligent adults in powerful positions are capable of exercising incredibly poor judgment, and can make huge mistakes. Gaffes that might seem obvious to avoid for some were hidden traps to others. The biggest lessons learned:

1. Be open. The board’s action was shrouded in secrecy. When President Sullivan’s resignation was announced on June 10th, the reasons were vague. The abruptness of the Board’s action begged the question of whether Dr. Sullivan had a heretofore unknown defect, rendering her unable to lead—like falsifying her academic credentials, or running a clandestine child labor pool. But those reasons weren’t there, and there was little detail given, other than citing “philosophical differences” with the board. “We see no evidence that President Sullivan is unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments and lead us through necessary change,” Faculty Senate chair George Cohen said later.

2. Be honest. “It quickly became clear that Dragas and her allies had portrayed the board’s view (to terminate Sullivan) as unanimous when in fact some members were supportive of the president and no full board meeting was held to discuss (Sullivan’s) ouster,” according to an account published in The Washington Post.

3. Build consensus. Few people acting on behalf of many presents a very slippery slope. In another Washington Post article (UVa Board Reinstates Sullivan, June 27, 2012), “Sullivan’s removal was unusual in that board members appear to have acted alone—and against a president with unusually broad support among faculty, alumni, state leaders and students.”

4. Be timely. It took Rector Dragas over ten days to lift the veil on the “philosophical differences” that inspired the board’s draconian action. In an email dated June 22, Dragas began: “In my statement to the Board on Monday, I conveyed my heartfelt apologies for the pain, anger and confusion that has swept the Grounds (campus) over the last 10 days, and said that the UVa family deserved better from your Board,” adding, “The bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be.” In the same email, she provided a “partial list” of needed changes that included ten issues that should have been aired earlier.

5. Have a solid argument. “. . . Dragas never built a credible case. Sullivan sought to bring change from the ground up, through a process of building consensus and empowering individual academic units. Dragas and her allies thought Sullivan was moving too slowly in an economic climate that demanded swift action.” But specifics that could have better explained the board’s move never materialized.

6. In some organizations, a swift kick in the pants motivates people, but the same action can backfire elsewhere. “The most likely explanation for the rector’s missteps is simply that she handled the matter unilaterally much as she would shove through a decision at her firm, Dragas Co’s. Somewhere along the way, she forgot that a university works differently from a condominium builder,” McCartney wrote.

7. Anticipate that others will object, possibly strenuously. The overwhelming anger directed toward the board rendered them deer in the headlights.

8. In a time of leadership crisis, the power of community and connections cannot be underestimated. A June 27th email from Carl Zeithaml, Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, who offered to become the university’s interim president, expresses this idea most eloquently. “The only reason that I survived some of the more challenging moments was the unwavering and unconditional support of my family, friends, and colleagues. It was both humbling and inspiring, and I deeply appreciate every message and action to support me.” Dr. Sullivan would probably agree.

Following the decision to reinstate Dr. Sullivan this Tuesday, Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell said “There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame . . . The statements made today by board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.” UVa Professor Allen Lynch took a similar–if more succinct–slant, “You have two different cultures represented here, academic and corporate, and there was a failure to communicate.”

Kiss, hug, and make up. But is that the end of the story? Will UVa and its community once again become one big, happy blue and orange family? That will require patience, maturity, and a keen understanding of the missteps that created this debacle, and the will to never repeat them. We can. In the last fifty years, Virginia has moved from 38th to 7th in per capita income among states—no minor feat. We might need three people to change a light bulb, and we’re getting better at knowing when to change. But we can always improve on how it’s done.

Can I Sell You a Side Order of Righteousness?

Some people are thrilled by taking extraordinary risks, but most of us prefer less risk.

Strangely, some executives have flipped that idea around by piling on more risk to ones they already have. Economic uncertainty, rabid competition, and now, “My prospective customers might not like my personal politics or social biases.” Bring ‘em on!

I can’t explain this phenomenon, other than perhaps public controversy brings the same invigorating jolt of adrenaline as bungee jumping or riding a motorcycle through quarter-mile long hoops of fire. Regardless, some business leaders have political, religious, or social cards to play, and they expect others to join them. Sure, everyone has a passionate opinion about something, but is it right or fair to embed such beliefs into a business plan? Don’t their investors, creditors, suppliers, employees and customers have financial skin in the game?

Move to the left, or move to the right. Anyone for joining the enigmatic center? Ben & Jerry’s ice cream proudly supported the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and formulated a new flavor, Apple-y Ever After, to market in the UK in support of gay marriage. Even the beloved Muppets have been accused of having a social axe to grind.

On the other side, Chick-fil-a’s CEO Dan Cathy made news last month for his statements against the same marriage rights that Ben & Jerry’s ardently supports. “. . . as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us,” he told The Baptist Press in an article, Guilty as Charged, Cathy says of Chick-fil-A’s stand on biblical & family values.

When Mr. Cathy finishes his dinner, it’s doubtful that he puts on a pair of Birkenstocks and heads to his local Ben & Jerry’s in Atlanta for an ice cream dessert. What happened to Peter Drucker’s succinct distillation that “the primary purpose of a business is to have a customer”? For certain consumers, the conflation of business and political or religious beliefs makes buying experiences decidedly cruddy. “I don’t know what to do about it. I mean, I guess I can go through the drive-through where no one will see me,” The Washington Post quoted one woman as saying. Can’t we just simply like chicken or ice cream, and leave it at that?

In my home state of Virginia, a start up bakery, Crumb and Get It, made news this month for refusing to host the Biden entourage during a campaign stop in Danville. The reason? Opposition to President Obama’s economic policies. But another local business, the River City Grill, gladly snapped up the opportunity to host the Veep along with the media. No misgivings. “If you want to throw some Libertarians in there, too, they can feel free to stop in as well,” the owner said. One man gathers what another man spills. Money is still green, no matter whether the person spending it is red or blue. Ask any hotelier in Tampa or Charlotte.

“We’ve got the Papa John’s pizza guys weighing in on the health-care debate, while the burger slingers out West at In-N-Out can’t serve up a cheeseburger without a Bible verse,” Petula Dvorak wrote in a column, Now Featuring filet o’ fracas (The Washington Post, August 15, 2012), “Somehow, it is funny that a place where a single slice of The Meats pizza can run you 400 calories, 19 grams of fat and 1,100 milligrams of sodium decides to weigh in on the health-care debate. Sort of like the Medellin drug cartel taking a stand on border patrol.”

Too absurd. People notice things. Should Enterprise Risk Managers add hypocrisy risk to their portfolios? This is where we might be heading, though that risk pales in comparison to Customer Alienation Risk. Which is why Jon, a former sales colleague, once told me, “Andy, if my prospects have six toes and green skin, then heck! I’m going to ask to join their club!” Well said, and a healthy outlook if you’ve got a quarterly number to make.

An article in The Economist, Speak Low if You Speak God (August 4, 2012), displays a photo of protestors in front of a Chick-fil-a outlet. One holds a sign reading “Stop waffling, support equality.” Most corporate marketers would agree that their vision for raving crowds doesn’t include this image. The magazine shares four tips for avoiding Customer Alienation Risk:

1) “Don’t discuss religion in public. Few people will buy your margarine just because you are Zoroastrian. Plenty may shun it if you loudly espouse dogma they find disagreeable. This tip applies doubly to global firms, which must serve customers of every faith and none.

2) If you must discuss religion in public, keep it bland and woolly.

3) Remember that something which seems trivial to you may be weighty to others.

4) Ride out brouhahas over which you have no control.”

I’ll add my own:

5) Remember, a customer who wants to spend money for your product or service—and who has the money to spend—should always feel completely happy doing so, and should never be made to feel differently.

But Wait! There’s More! Ten Visionary Salespeople Who Continue to Inspire

If you could be any character from literature, who would you be?

I admire Dean Moriarty’s restless adventurism in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Rabbit Angstrom’s flawed but engaging personality in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, and Harry Potter’s endless curiosity.

If I could blend all three into one person, I’d do it. Then, I’d infuse killer sales skills, and surgically extract personal foibles, like taking no for an answer. An un-freaking-stoppable sales super hero, unencumbered by a cape. Head-to-toe spandex? Sure! Why not!

Fun to think about, but there’s no need to create sales alter egos, because the ones you’re about to meet are real. Maybe you’ve already met them. Super salespeople who embody fantastic traits, who doggedly pursued goals, overcoming doubters who said “no one will ever buy that!” Salespeople who got up after being knocked down again, and again, and again.

Who are these rare people? They are now-deceased sales champions who were recognized for the examples they offer and for the inspiration they provide. They are white, black, and Asian. Male and female. Some born into wealth, some into poverty. Some were nice, some happy. Others, well—neither. But all began with an idea they passionately believed in, and they persevered in selling it to others. We need more people like them.

Barry Becher, 71. Ginsu knife. “Isn’t that amazing! . . . Can it really cut through a nail and still go through a pineapple like this?” the famous commercial for the Ginsu asks.

Mr. Becher and his business partner Ed Valenti created demand for products people didn’t realize they needed. “We were mindful that the last thing anyone wanted was another set of knives. The challenge was to position the product so that it made every other knife you owned obsolete,” Mr. Valenti said in 2001. The product was among the first to be sold on TV using 800 numbers. Eventually, the partners sold over $500 million in knives and other kitchen utensils. I remember the day my mom bought her Ginsu, excitedly telling me that she saw it slice an aluminum can clean through—something she’s never used it for, as far as I know.

Eugene Ferkauf, 91. E. J. Korvette. Who said discount is a bad word? Harvard Business School professor Malcolm McNair described E. J. Ferkauf as “one of the six greatest merchants in US history.” Mr. Ferkauf began E. J. Korvette in 1948 in New York City by selling luggage, and then quickly expanded the chain to over 45 stores in the New York area alone. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur, innovator, and pioneer of the discounting concept,” according to Burt Flickenger, managing director of the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. The chain went out of business around 1980.

Dan Evins, 76. Gold in grits! Fans of Cracker Barrel Restaurants know that it doesn’t matter whether they’re eating in Bessemer Alabama, or in Missoula Montana, they will have the same dining experience. Hardly a novel idea, though, because by the time Cracker Barrel opened in 1969, McDonalds had already sold Americans on the value of food-sameness. But instead of copying McDonalds’ institutional get-‘em-in-get-‘em-out customer experience, Mr. Evins played to nostalgic heartstrings.

What made Mr. Evins a super salesman were his insights about future American culture. First, he recognized that the evolving interstate highway system not only would change how people travel, but how they would eat. Second, he understood that in a transient society, a home-style meal would have powerful sales appeal. As Mr. Evins explained in a 1992 Forbes magazine article, Nostalgia Sells, “We aimed for authenticity, but without the outhouses.”

Don Cornelius, 75. Soul Train. “You can bet your money it’s going to be a stone gas, honey!” In 1969, just one year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Mr. Cornelius invented Soul Train, beginning with a series of staged dance shows in Chicago. “It was extremely influential,” said Ron Simon, curator for radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “It opened up a window on African-American culture, not only its music, but fashion and dance, in homes all across America.” Visionary? Before MTV was even an idea, Soul Train hosted Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, Al Green, Ike and Tina Turner, Elton John, David Bowie, and Earth Wind & Fire.

But Mr. Cornelius’s greater achievement “might have been as a behind-the-scenes producer and businessman who helped persuade mainstream companies to spend advertising dollars on largely black audiences,” The Washington Post reported in a tribute. In 2006, Mr. Cornelius told Vibe magazine “what I take credit for is that there were no black television commercials to speak of before Soul Train. There were few black faces in those ads before Soul Train. And what I am most proud of is that we made television history.” Mr. Cornelius retired as Soul Train host in 1993, and the show lasted another 13 years. “The audience was changing, and I wasn’t,” he said.

Robert A. Citron, 79. Spacehab. “The power of Bob’s ideas, technical designs and business concepts made space business, including businesses involving humans in space, more real,” said James A. M. Muncy, a space policy consultant. According to The Washington Post, “one of Mr. Citron’s most important contributions was demonstrating that the private sector could build space hardware far more cheaply than the government. He built two Spacehab modules for $150 million, substantially less than NASA’s estimate of $1.2 billion. During his varied career, Mr. Citron founded an adventure travel agency, built satellite tracking stations, produced National Geographic documentaries, and monitored natural phenomena such as insect invasions and falling meteorites.”

Minoru Mori, 77. Mori Building Company. Envisioning Tokyo as a vertical garden city, Mori’s company became a major player in the Tokyo real estate market. Born into wealth, Mr. Mori said acquiring wealth didn’t motivate him, but rather a desire to change Tokyo, which he believed “suffered from a lack of urban planning,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “He was unique in Japan as a risk-taker. Since he controlled his company, he was able to do things that others could not do through the force of his ideas,” said Seth Sulkin, president of Tokyo-based real estate developer Pacifica Capital KK. In 2003, he developed the Roppongi Hills Complex, which became the Japanese headquarters for many international financial firms. The company also developed the 1,627 foot high (492 meters) Shanghai World Financial Center, completed in 2008, and currently the city’s tallest building.

John Hoyt, 80. Humane Society of the United States. When Mr. Hoyt took over the Humane Society in 1970, it had a staff of ten people serving 10,000 members. During his tenure as president through 1994, it grew to the largest animal protection organization in the US, with over five million members. When other animal rights organizations became more confrontational, “Mr. Hoyt staked out a centrist position . . . The group accepted that animals could be used for food and testing while seeking to minimize suffering,” according to The Washington Post.

That position required strong selling skills. Mr. Hoyt successfully campaigned to limit long-accepted practices, including hunting cougars with dogs in Washington State, animal abuse at rodeos, the use of rabbits to train greyhounds, and the slaughter of baby seals for their furs. Mr. Hoyt pioneered the use of direct mail tactics, and expanded outreach programs to support the organization’s broadened scope.

Vidal Sassoon, 84. “It’s Vidal Sassoon! It’s very in,” Mia Farrow exclaimed in the film Rosemary’s Baby. “He was the creator of sensual hair,” said John Barrett, founder of the John Barrett Salon at Bergdorf Goodman. “This was somebody who changed our industry entirely, not just from the point of view of cutting hair but actually turning it into a business. He was one of the first who had a product line bought out by a major corporation.” Grace Coddington, the creative director of American Vogue, put it this way, “He changed the way everyone looked at hair.”

Mr. Sassoon opened a chain of salons and beauty academies, and using his famous pitch, “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good!” he sold a full line of shampoos and conditioners. Sales reached more than $100 million annually before he sold the company in 1983.

Sylvia Woods, 86. “Queen of Soul Food.” When Ms. Woods opened her eponymous restaurant in New York City’s Harlem at Lenox Avenue near 127th street on Aug. 1, 1962, it had six booths, 15 stools, and served fried chicken, greens, pork chops, pig’s tails, lima beans, and rice. “Over time, Sylvia’s expanded to seat more than 250; it is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and a nationally distributed line of prepared foods,” according to The New York Times.

Considering that as a child in the Jim Crow South she was not allowed inside most restaurants, her success was remarkable. It wasn’t until she moved to New York that she had her first dining experience outside her home. “I came from no lights to the bright lights,” Ms. Woods told The Chicago Tribune. In 1994, when asked about the reasons for her success, she said “I keep pressing on, I can’t give up. I’ve been struggling too long to stop now.”

Robert Cohen, 86. Changed the way travelers spend time waiting. When Mr. Cohen began his retail chain, Hudson News, in 1987, “his stores were a break from the claustrophobic newsstands of the past, boasting hundreds of magazines instead of just a few dozen, with tall racks and bright lighting that invited customers to browse . . . (Hudson News Stores) were a hit with travelers looking to kill time between flights.” according to The Washington Post. “It was all based on the not-so-scientific fact that people really like to read stuff when they go on a plane,” his son, James Cohen, said. The chain now has over 600 stores.

Nostalgia, abandoning odious racial biases, the business possibilities for space travel, universal humane treatment of animals. There’s nothing formulaic about how to tackle these abstract sales challenges. But what strikes me most is how easy it would have been for the protagonists to quit, to lay off their idea when they hit the inevitable craters in the road.

I sense that what made these individuals so successful had more to do with their passion, tenacity, and steadfast belief in their ideas, and less to do with formal sales training and their ability to recite features, capabilities, and benefits—the stuff we indoctrinate sales pros with today.

When it comes to mentoring salespeople should we focus on teaching them how to sell? Or modeling how to be successful? When demonstrating the selling behaviors we want others to emulate, are we moving in the right direction? I don’t think so.

These stories suggest that there’s a palpable something else to selling. Maybe it’s communicating from the heart and within our comfort zones. Maybe it’s internalizing the visions that we want to persuade others to have. Maybe it’s possessing the latitude to create something we imagine to be valuable to others, along with having the freedom to innovate unique pathways to sell it. These exceptional salespeople had the right stuff. We need to break out of our boxes to learn exactly what it is.

Do Sales Professionals Need a College Education?

A few years ago, I asked marketing and sales executives a related question on LinkedIn: “Do you require a college degree as a minimum credential for new sales hires?” I worried that many people would find the question rhetorical. Many did—but not in the way I imagined.

“I place zero value on a college degree,” one person commented.

Others agreed:

“There are many successful business men never graduated from a college.” [sic]

“Many of the world’s most brilliant people don’t have degrees, and many would argue they are a disadvantage.”

“I actually think it takes more character for a young adult to not go to college.”

“I know great sales reps in my industry without collage degree and I know some not so good sales reps with MBA from renowned business school.” [sic]

“Do you want people who can sell, or those who can spell?”

I was surprised, because according to SellingPower, “selling has become more complex by the day.” So how does that assertion comport to the common theme in these messages – that for sales professionals, a college education matters little, if at all, for performing the work? While these ideas aren’t diametrically opposed, the arrows surely aren’t pointing in the same direction.

Outside of the sales profession, opinions about the value of higher education are trending differently. “In the past five years, there’s been a 175% jump in the number of online job ads looking for dental lab technicians with a bachelor’s degree,” according to a news story that aired on NPR (Employers Increasingly Look for Bachelor’s Degrees, December 4th, 2012). I contacted the company that provided that statistic, Boston-based BurningGlass, but the company did not have data about the sales profession. Still, this is an odd phenomenon. For lab techs, why does a college degree have increasing importance, but it appears not to be valuable for professional salespeople?

You might be thinking we could go for the next forty years debating exactly what value a college education does provide. I agree. One reason why Natalie Warne, founder of UnCollege, said “experience has proved a far better teacher in my life than any book, classroom, or educator.” And we all know a student or two who partied their way through school and learned nothing.

Recent skepticism about higher education has spawned new books, including Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful, by Michael Ellsberg. Mr. Ellsberg is among a growing group of “academic dissenters who have made it fashionable to question the value of a college degree,” according to The New York Times (The Old College Try? No Way, December 2, 2012). Among them, James Altucher, a hedge fund manager who regrets making the investment to graduate from Cornell. “I think kids with a five-year head start on equally ambitious peers [who went to college] will be ahead in both education and income,” he said. “They could go to a library, read a book a day, take courses online. There are thousands of ways.” And venture fund investor Peter Thiel offers college-aged students $100,000 to fund their business ideas–on the condition they drop out of college first. Of course.

Plenty of grist for the who-needs-college? mill. The numbers point to a similar conclusion. An NPR story (Study Reveals Skills Gap Between Education and Jobs, December 5, 2012) reports that a new study from McKinsey & Company “finds a profound disconnect between educators, employers, and would-be employees. The study of nine countries (the US, UK, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey) finds that nearly three quarters (72 percent) of educators believe their graduates are ready for the job market. Only 42 percent of employers and only 45 percent of young people think so. Meanwhile, fewer than half of employers say they can find the skilled employees they need, and 75 percent report this is a drag on their business.”

But framing this debate around whether salespeople need college degrees misses holding a better one: do sales professionals bring the the right combination of knowledge and skills to an environment that is increasingly complex–technologically, economically, politically, socially, and culturally? As a profession, we lionize stereotypical sales traits, and pass them off as competencies—the “right stuff” to bring to the job: street smarts, resilience, tenacity, aggressiveness, outgoing personality, money-motivation. All great to have! But all of which create incredible friction when a salesperson is chronically incompetent in other ways.

As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote in a recent editorial (How About a Bar Exam for Teachers, The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2012), “We must do away with the common rite of passage whereby new teachers are thrown into [situations], expected to figure things out, and left to see if they sink or swim . . . And when they struggle, the response is too often the threat of termination, not an offer of assistance.”

Substitute the word salespeople for teachers in the first sentence, and her idea hits home. Been there, done that. And the fly-by product training my company provided didn’t help. But my college coursework did—somewhat. And that’s where I differ with the sentiment that denigrates higher education, and questions its value for salespeople.

So I propose a more challenging debate around these questions: 1) what are enterprises asking sales professionals to do, 2) what knowledge and skills must they bring to the job on the first day of work, and 3) what are the best ways to develop professional sales talent, and how does a formal education contribute to that effort?

I’ll submit that it’s simplistic to label a bachelor’s or MBA degree as panaceas for what plagues sales preparedness, but I have no doubt that what these programs teach–critical thinking, persuasive communication, analytical thought, and sustained intellectual curiosity–are essential skills for all sales professionals. Companies don’t have the time or patience to mentor these skills, and sales training companies don’t know how to teach them.

Like other professions, we must engage in self-examination to figure out how to improve ourselves, and the sales profession as a whole. That includes thinking about academic preparation and professional credentials. In the coming weeks and months, we will see an explosion of new professional development offerings and models. We can’t afford to be dismissive of any of them. From traditional university programs for business education that have been expanded to meet the growing needs of liberal arts undergraduates, to focused programs, such as DePaul’s Sales Leadership Center, which provides an undergraduate degree in professional selling. “Colleges are now ramping up dozens of sales-oriented business classes, many of which are producing exceptional graduates who become [productive at selling] 50 percent faster than the average candidate, and are 35 percent less likely to leave their employer,” Geoffrey James wrote in an article, The Future of Selling (Inc., November 13, 2012).

And if you don’t know about MOOC’s, Massive Open Online Courses, you will soon. College course offerings from Coursera and Ed-X will make content from leading universities accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime—most at no cost. Sales professionals can take classes in corporate strategy and quantitative analysis for decision makers. Traditional sales training providers will have to compete with these programs by offering a wider breadth of knowledge, and more varied channels for delivering it. So look for more online delivery, and hybrid programs that include strategic business knowledge as well as tactical content.

Old-world approaches, like apprenticeships, are being dusted off and re-examined. The model has strong potential for the sales profession. Robert Lehrman of the Urban Institute points out that compared to university academic programs, apprenticeships develop deeper skills, and make it possible to apply classroom learning directly into the job, rather than waiting until after graduation to remember what was relevant. He says that a key value apprenticeships provide is “learning how to learn.” A missing sales competency we bemoan when we say “salespeople just don’t know how to listen.”

But raising low educational barriers comes at a cost. The sales profession is one of the more democratized. Unlike law or medicine, it’s possible for a salesperson with a high school education to earn as much, or more, than one with an advanced degree. A sales representative who graduated from a two-year community college program can be a more valuable team member than an ivy grad. As a profession, that’s something to be proud of. Is anyone willing to give that up? We need to consider the trade-offs before we raise the costs for gaining the credentials—however they might be defined.

Do sales professionals need a college education? Like all deep and philosophical questions, the correct answer is “it depends.” Dave Stein and others have discussed what they think salespeople need to know. That’s part of the picture, but the career-path piece is naggingly missing. Many CXO’s were promoted into their positions after experience in finance, accounting, engineering, operations, even marketing—but not sales. American industry could benefit from more Ginni Rometty’s at the helm. Maybe not enough sales professionals have the right strategy qualifications and cross-functional knowledge.

Those, and a college degree.

Eleven Reasons Sales Rock Stars Aren’t Clamoring to Join Your Company

If someone offered my friendly two-year-old dog a box of crayons and asked her to draw a self-portrait, she would render a menacing image. A fearsome animal with sharp fangs, long claws, and wild untamed eyes.

Though lovable to humans, my dog fancies herself a high-order predator, having sent cats and squirrels skittering high into trees, rabbits and chipmunks diving into safe protective burrows, and deer running for their lives. The question is, if she ever caught something, would she know what to do next?

Companies face a similar conundrum. Managers devote slavish attention to discovering traits that portend rock star sales performance. But bringing the big game on board isn’t so simple.

Traits of successful salespeople—I found 143,000 results just now online, and plucked three representative articles from the cornucopia of content: Desirable Skills You Want in Your New Hires, Thirteen Traits of an Outstanding Salesperson, Five Attributes of Top Sales Producers. In this economy, talented sales pros should be lined up at your door, ready to knock down some awesome revenue targets. But where are they? Maybe they saw these red flags, and bolted toward the next big opportunity.

1. High sales force churn. Sure, churn happens, but if your number exceeds 20%, that’s not a positive story. Excessive churn points to poor hiring decisions, unfulfilled expectations, and poor morale.

2. CEO’s or Sales VP’s with a reputation for frequent shouting tirades. Toddler tantrums are never pleasant, but when they’re from adults, the habit quickly gets old.

3. A commission plan that’s unwritten, not formulated, or “being worked on.” When it comes to compensation, top performers are blunt: “show me the opportunity to make a high income—in black and white.”

4. Forecasts that aren’t grounded in fact. If you’re projecting OTE (On-Target Earnings) of $300,000, but don’t already have salespeople earning that amount, the number is theoretical.

5. Inflated promises. “We have no competitors.” Top producers know better.

6. A CEO with a record as a serial company destroyer. As Gerry Cullen describes in his excellent book, The Coldest Call—Why Some Good Products Don’t Sell, “each company these CEO’s worked for died an untimely death. Not quick, merciful deaths, but Enron-style deaths, where hundreds or thousands of workers were left exhausted, unemployed or angry.”

7. A top sales or marketing officer who is not well respected within the organization, or a culture that disdains sales. “Do you need resources from Engineering to close that deal? Call me in a year.”

8. Inconsistent versions about what the company produces or does. Begs the question, “does this company really know what business they are in?”

9. A sustained history of unresolved customer complaints. Few things make it harder to sell than ongoing customer woes. And they’re emblematic of other problems, including a lack of customer centricity.

10. Lack of transparency. A company should not attempt to hide any issue that is too big to be concealed, like litigation against former employees, customers, and channel partners.

11. No history of developing careers. Many people mistakenly assume money alone motivates top sales performers. Money is toward the top, but it’s not the only item on the list. As Mike Myatt wrote in an article, Why You’re Not a Leader, “true leadership is about helping people reach places they didn’t know they could go.”

While there are plenty of salespeople, top producers are a rare breed, to be treated differently. They not only look for winning opportunities, they seek organizations with similarly successful, talented, and motivated people. If your best candidates are running for cover even before the first interview, it might not be about the money. Check the buzz about your company to learn if there’s something else that’s scaring them away.

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