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 or reach out directly to learn more.

The Front of the Jersey.

Welcome to the world of the free agent.

While the talent pool from which we draw is rich and talented, it is also ephemeral.  Even though she’s genuinely serious and committed about your opportunity, the new seller or account manager you’re interviewing today already has a foot out the door.  It’s not that she’s shallow or underhanded; she’s just always thought differently about her career than you have about yours. She expects short term assignments with many, many teams over the arc of her career.

And who can blame her?  The speed at which companies and strategies are launched today is eclipsed only by the pace at which they are abandoned.  Your rep is not thinking about ten years with your company because she can’t imagine your company thinking of ten years of anything.  Which leaves you, her manager, with the coach’s dilemma.

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A well-worn slogan in sports is “getting them to play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the one on the back.”  But can this even be done in a world where everybody keeps their resume polished and their LinkedIn profile up to date?  It can, but it takes dedication to a strategy.

Call Out the Elephant in the Room.  “We both know that you won’t necessarily always work here…” can be the phrase that really opens up your dialogue with your employees and shows that you’re treating them as adults, not assets.  It puts their time with you in the context of their careers and their lives.  And that’s a great place to be.

How Does Today’s Action Create Long Term Value?  Want your team members to get better at something?  Frame the discussion around their long term value in the marketplace.  Every rep has a stock price and that stock price is either going up or down.

Commit to Them.  Tell them that you want this to be the best place they’ll ever work, and that you’d like to be remembered as the boss who made them better at their craft.  Then do what you say.

Put the Relationships in Long Term Context.  Put their relationships with others on your team in the context of their “career network.”  Will there be a network of people out there who speak well of them in the future, or a network that’s felt slighted, overlooked or abused?  In the context of career growth, this matters.  And they’ll get it.

Foster a Culture of Presence.   Great managers are like parents. We don’t always like or do what they say, but we feel their absence.  Be present for your team, individually and collectively, and focus on what’s happening right now.  Be the boss who celebrates the outstanding proposal and the great example of customer service.  This makes the name on the front of the jersey mean something today, and makes those wearing it – even if for a little while – play all that much harder for it.

Why They Stay… Why They Go.

Why They Stay Why They GoThe good news: statistically only 13% of your digital sales workforce is actively looking for another job.  The bad news? Over 50% of your people are open to something new.  And the reasons they’d give for taking that offer or staying put may not really reflect the reality of the decision.

These are just a couple of the top-line findings of “Why They Stay, Why They Go: The Upstream/SellerCrowd Mobility Study.”  Clay Gran of SellerCrowd and I presented some of the data and conclusions at this week’s Seller Forum in New York, and they challenge some of the conventional wisdom around employee retention.  We’ll release the data formally soon, but this post will give you a sneak peek.

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When we asked front-line sellers which three factors would most likely affect their decision to stay with or leave a company, the most cited reasons were “compensation and goals” “culture/work environment” and “product quality,” in that order.  OK, that seems predictable enough.  But when we asked those actively looking for new jobs (13%) about their current companies, they rated them “poor” on upward mobility (43%) and management quality (41%).  And there was daylight between these and the next set of concerns.

So what were those who called themselves ‘secure and happy’ (32%) most happy about at their current companies?  Across most categories of sellers, “product quality” shot to the top of the list, along with management quality and transparency/honesty.

What does it mean?  The short answer is that people stay because they perceive that your product (and by extension, your company and processes) works.  But if they’re looking, they’re dissatisfied with how they (or the company at large) are being managed and don’t see themselves getting to a level where they can make a difference.  They stay with products and quit managers.

There were a lot more interesting data points and directions, but one jumps out:  The Danger Zone.  You might anticipate that during a seller’s first year on the job, there’s a honeymoon period.  Indeed there is:  46% of sellers describe themselves as secure and happy during year one, and only 9% are having buyer’s remorse and are actively looking. What you might not suspect is just how radically things change in year two:  happiness/security drops off by half (23%) while active job seeking more than doubles (20%).  So at the exact time when you’d be counting on a seller to hit their true productivity window – for your investment to start paying dividends — you are in the most danger of losing them.   Maybe you’re paying too much attention to onboarding and not enough to keeping your best people from going overboard during the choppy seas of year two.

To learn more about the study, contact me or Clay Gran at SellerCrowd.

The Great Ones.

The Great Ones.On Sunday night I had the honor of speaking on opening night of the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Scottsdale about the future of digital media sales. After addressing ‘the big lie’ that hangs over our business – that the growth of programmatic buying would somehow drastically reduce or eliminate the need for sales executives – I talked about how the nature of selling would indeed change, and what kind of sellers would be called for in the complex and rewarding days ahead.

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Transactional buying and selling – trading standard ad units for dollars – is the rust belt of the media landscape, and those jobs ain’t coming back. In fact, those jobs really aren’t about selling at all. The real sellers – the great ones – are already working on a much different level, we have the working template for the Greatest Generation of Digital Sellers:

  1. They are marketing-oriented, not advertising driven. They look at the picture through a much wider aperture.
  2. They organize their work around multi-product, integrated solutions – not around response to late stage, single product RFPs.
  3. They operate “left of budget” and create urgency by working backward from the unsolved marketing problem.
  4. They are patient and thorough in navigating complexity.
  5. They are enterprise sellers, not point solution vendors.

Spend ten minutes watching the embedded video of my talk and share your own thoughts. If you’re an individual contributor, how do you measure up the five qualities above? If you lead a team, how many of your current sellers fit this rubric? More importantly, what are you doing to support and retain them?

The Greatest Generation of Digital Sellers is not a foregone conclusion. It’s something we have to imagine and commit to.   To paraphrase William Gibson, bits of that future are already here; they’re just unevenly distributed.

We’ve just added Mitch Weinstein from IPG Mediabrands as part of an important discussion of viewability at Seller Forum on March 12th. We’ll be discussing video, talent, policies, financial outlook and more. If you lead a team that sells media, you need to be there.  Request your invitation today.

The Voice in the Seller’s Head.

The Voices in Your Seller's HeadEarlier this week at The Seller Forum in New York, I shared some themes I’d gathered from the 200-plus individual sales rep phone calls I take each year in preparation for Upstream sales workshops.  I’ll end up talking with 4-5 sales reps and line managers prior to each training program, and often these calls move quickly from the nuts and bolts of the sale into the hopes and fears of the seller.  If you’re looking at midyear reviews with your sellers, or if you’re considering how best to motivate and engage them for the balance of 2014 and beyond, here are four of the topics we discussed:

Your sellers aren’t just missing a full understanding of the agency business; they don’t even know they need one.  Very consistent issue.  An entire generation of digital sellers have only seen the transactional, planning end of digital agencies.  The web of other agencies, or even other disciplines and power centers in the shops they call on, are largely invisible to them.

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Amid all the technical minutiae and process details, selling has gotten lost.  This theme may seem surprising, but it’s been hiding in plain sight for most of us.  Digital sales is so “sophisticated” that many reps come to believe that the job is about relaying complex information between management and customer.  Persuasion, closing, challenging and changing the outcome are a second language they haven’t studied yet.

Your comp plan isn’t motivating anybody.  Most compensation plans are at once too simplistic and too complex.  Other than generally feeling like they want to make more money (who doesn’t?) reps have a hard time really connecting behaviors – things they can control — with the mechanics of the comp plan.  So your company too often ends up giving windfall jackpots to sellers who end up with a situationally great account, while your best fundamental performers are being taught they should probably think about leaving you after a great year, before they’re penalized for it in next year’s plan.

If you’re not talking to them, the voices in their heads take over.  Given the pace we all manage, many digital sales leaders and managers only connect with their sellers in group environments and/or to discuss specific deals and numbers.  What’s been lost – or perhaps never even took root in our business – is the subjective, open conversation.  They may not be inclined to tell you how they’re feeling about their jobs or the path of their careers, but that just might be because you never ask.  And when you’re not talking to them about the state of the company or the future of the space, they imagine all kinds of dark, scary things.

There are, of course, no universal truths, and there are many sales groups and reps for whom none of these themes may apply.  But the very best sales leaders and managers are those whose empathy for their team members is seasoned with just a little paranoia.  If you think you know how they see the world, you owe it to yourself to think again.