You’re used to the loud ones. The sellers and others in your org who complain – about systems, sales goals, products – are the least of your worries as a manager. Because they are up in your grill about every little thing, you’ll have plenty of chances to engage: they won’t surprise you. Likewise, the seller who’s working hard but missing goals and suffering financially – you’ll step in and connect seeing her financial plight.

No, the ones who should keep you up at night are the ones who don’t keep you up at night. The quiet performers, the stalwarts. He’s the efficient performer who always seems to be quota-adjacent and doesn’t make much noise. He might be in a far-flung regional or home-office, or he might be right under your nose at headquarters.

And out of the blue, he’s just told you he’s leaving you.

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What to do now? Nothing. It’s too late, and countering the offer he’s gotten is bad strategy. But reflecting on the situation so it doesn’t happen again (and again!) is a very good idea. So here goes.

People join companies, but they quit managers. And not always because the manager was awful. Often its because the manager never fostered a culture that the employee could belong to. Even as she performed well, she continued to be a well-liked outsider. What was lacking was engagement.

Understand and manage engagement. Gallup has done years of research on employee engagement, and it’s not what you think. The majority of employees are actually not engaged with their companies or their teams – including the quiet performer who’s just handed you his laptop and company ID. Engaged employees talk about their team using the word we, and talk about their work at the company in future tense. Engagement is not something you hire; it’s something you – the manager – creates.

Back to college. That sales meeting or team training you considered only seems like a luxury. In terms of employee retention, it’s a bargain. Managers who regularly bring their teams together in learning and sharing environments enjoy better retention. The team gathering is when there becomes an us. But don’t use these occasions to just talk at your people and drown them in facts.

Give them a voice. Engaging managers don’t dispense facts; they manage with questions. “How should we approach this?” and “What do you think we should do?” forces your team members to think, share and engage.

Give them something to own. You foster engagement by surrendering control. Letting team members lead initiatives, develop category and technical specialties, run programs and teach others isn’t just about feel-good inclusiveness. It’s what binds your best people.

If your quiet performer was engaged, she wouldn’t have been open to the job she’s leaving you for. Sometimes the best hiring strategy is not needing to hire at all.

A customized, collaborative sales strategy workshop for your team is easier and more cost-effective than you might think. And it may be the key to not only performance, but retention of your best people. Visit www.upstreamgroup.com/workshops or reach out directly to learn more.


I normally write for sellers.  But I wanted this piece — originally published with 212NYC — to resonate with our entire community – buyers, sellers, clients, data providers, HR people….everybody.  So I’ve chosen to address the elephants that dwell in all of our rooms:  cynicism, burnout and disengagement.

We’re still very much part of a growth business and we’re all paying people pretty well, at least compared to the average American employers.  Hell, a lot of us even provide snacks and in-house recreation for our employees.  But whether you’re running an agency, a publisher sales team, an account management group or any other group of people in our business, you struggle to create a strong culture of possibility and hope.  As a result, otherwise-talented people burn out…they complain to one another… they disengage….and quite often they leave you too early.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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The first step out of this downward spiral is to acknowledge where your people come from and what they’ve come to expect.  The vast majority of our team members (millennials in particular but not exclusively) grew up in cultures of short-term success.  Take a class and in 9 weeks you get a B or an A.  Try out for a team and in fairly short order you know if you’re on the roster.  Apply to colleges and within four months you get your acceptance letters.  Given that we are hiring from among the graduates of fairly elite colleges, they’ve won a lot more often than they’ve lost.

Now put your people into our ambivalent, asymmetrical business world.  As managers and leaders, we are still running cultures of short-term success (“…win this RFP….win this agency review… break this technology client…”), but that success can be ephemeral, fleeting and often entirely beyond our control.  To those accustomed to consistent and well-scheduled victories, this can feel hellish.

The answer is stop concentrating on success.  Instead, focus your team on deserving success.  It sounds like a semantic change, but it’s far more than that.

Shifting your focus to deserving – the sale, the account, the client’s agreement, the budget increase – means you are now talking about (and rewarding) excellence.  Winning is entirely out of your control:  a team can do literally everything right and still have the ball bounce the wrong way.  Deserving success is completely controllable.  It’s about preparation, work ethic, genuine empathy for the customer, diligence and grit.  Deserving success means focusing on process and standards – on how (and how consistently) you play the game.

As Thomas Boswell wrote in “Heart of the Game,” success burns out the athlete.  The pursuit of excellence, on the other hand, nourishes and motivates.  A famous soccer coach was asked what kind of players he tried to recruit.  “You can keep the ones who want to be the best player on the team or the best in the league,” he explained.  “Give me the ones who want to be better than they were yesterday.”

And as John Adams wrote to a nervous Thomas Jefferson when the fate of the American Revolution was at best uncertain:  “We cannot assure success.  We can only deserve it.”

So deserve it.  It will center your people and your company on excellence and will make you a truly exceptional leader.

If you’re a qualified digital sales leader and want to disrupt your team’s thinking and open up new possibilities for them, join us at Seller Forum on Wednesday March 7th in New York.  Request your invitation or visit www.thesellerforum.com. 

The Half-Baked Pizza.

Half Baked PizzaLast week I said that sales was not performance art, and that we should instead focus on creating great shared sales experiences with our customers.  Stop focusing on your presentation and instead on how our meeting is going.  And as you engineer your next great shared sales experience, may I suggest what you’ll want to serve?

Skip the elegant meal laid out with care and garnish.  Instead, bring a half-baked pizza.

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In the name of service and professional appearance, marketing and sales people all over our industry spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing beautifully-detailed Keynote and PowerPoint presentations and binding together gorgeous handout booklets as “leave-behinds.”  The fonts are all consistent, the graphics crisp, and the ideas and executions and numbers are all exquisitely explained.  This sumptuous spread is laid on the customer’s table with great anticipation and optimism.  Then something curious happens:

Nothing.  The fully-finished, fully illustrated idea not only doesn’t sell; the customer doesn’t even get particularly engaged in the meeting. So what the hell happened here?  And how could it have gone better?

This seller has suffered the unintended consequence of over-presentation.  By crafting it all into a finished presentation, she’s sent the customer a subtle but unmistakable message:  Look what we built… it’s all done and we think it’s perfect…you can either buy it or not buy it, but it will never truly be yours.   Customers don’t want shrink wrapped packages: they want participation.  Don’t feed them a meal; take them to a cooking class.

For years I’ve used the metaphor of the half-baked pizza.  Show up with a pie that’s not fully cooked and a bag of ingredients.  Let the customer add a little pepperoni here, a few peppers there, maybe a little extra cheese.  When you let your customer into the creation process just a little, they feel a sense of ownership that can turn an ambivalent buyer into an intensively loyal advocate.

So stop beating up your marketing team because you don’t think you have enough slides.  Bring in a blueprint, some wire frames.  Show your customer a rough sketch of the house you’d like to build with them and let them move a couple of walls.  You just might be amazed at how much more house they’re willing to buy.