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Clarify Your Sales Objectives: Planning for Change
Considering that we had just met, Jed was a little too glad to see me. I wondered if this CEO expected me to provide a silver bullet to eliminate whatever problem was troubling him. He didn't keep me in suspense. As we sipped our obligatory cups of coffee, he explained that the firm's last two quarterly financials confirmed that business was okay, but not what shareholders, investors, and analysts had expected.
He stood up and began to pace. Maybe his key product's life cycle had reached its tipping point; maybe it was the way his company had been approaching the market; maybe it was the sales staff. He stopped and rolled his eyes. The sales staff was driving him nuts. A few superstars surrounded by mediocrity. There were too many maybes. He could feel his organization going on defense while his competition was on offense.
I offered a cautious question. "When we set up this meeting, you said you were about to launch a new initiative?"
"I'd heard you're the guy we needed to put together a pay package that gets our sales staff producing better results — results that would be based on our new initiative. Well, things have changed since I first called you."
Jed explained that he and his inner circle of seven had met for an off-site day of planning. When they gathered, he outlined the critical nature of the meeting. He told them the company's future hinged on their ability to plot a course out of the morass. In spite of some initial acting out around vested interests, the overall result was positive. At the end of a long day there were handshakes and backslaps as they left the meeting room. They had a plan, a strategy, for improving sales.
But as it turned out they had not just a strategy, but eight different strategies. Each person at the meeting left with a different take on decisions they had made, and each one had told their subordinates their own version of the agreed upon plan.
Jed said, "We were all at the same meeting, yet afterward, there was no consensus about what went on. We were poised to go in several different directions at once. Some of those directions were diametrically opposed to others. We were on multiple collision courses. So I told my managers that until we agree as to the next moves, there will be no next moves."
He looked out the window. "I just didn't anticipate the confusion. Not with this group." Jed turned back to me. "Steve said your approach to pay design takes all this potential chaos into account — that it's nothing you're not used to."
Our mutual acquaintance was right. There was a process we could follow to get everyone back on the same page and moving toward productive change. But first Jed would have to decide how he wanted to bring about change — through participative management or executive fiat. Based on the operating style of his company, his key players' readiness to work collaboratively on a common goal, and their histories of management interaction, what approach had the best chance of sticking, of producing meaningful change?
While it is always more inclusive and binding to gain acceptance of change through collaborative reasoning, it is not always an option. There are times when a leader must press forward. Fiat works if the CEO is trusted, is consistent and predictable in his application, and demands actions that promote and reinforce an agreed upon vision. Yet, even unilateral decisions need a context within which to judge their potential effectiveness. Jed decided to try planning through the meeting scenario one more time. But this time we were going to create a structure and method around the group process designed for success.
Putting Everyone on the Same Page
Before tackling the meeting itself, the participants' initial expectations have to be managed and a point of view has to be established among all the members. Depending on the capabilities of the management planning team (and we will address that issue a little later in this chapter) I have found the most productive approach to clarifying the group's objective is for the leader to put a clear and emphatic stake in the ground and surround it with a stimulating question or idea.
We have to increase sales revenues by 12 percent and unit sales by 7 percent by the end of the fiscal year just to meet target. As you all can see from our weeklies, we are not on track to meet those goals. Besides, meeting target isn't good enough for me. We need to exceed it. When we get together next Tuesday I want to reach agreement on how we are going to bring sales revenues up by 15 percent and unit sales up by 8 percent during the next three quarters. I want to do it without changing our pricing model. There's plenty still on the table to investigate: costs, our delivery and follow up, and our product line. Here's one thought to consider: What if we reduced our sales staff by 10 percent and dramatically increased the earnings opportunity for those who remain? As always, every option supported by analytics and sound reasoning will be thoroughly explored. Don't come empty handed. We are talking about our survival. Background and some perspective providing materials will be sent to each of you in the next two days. See you on Tuesday.
What are the messages?
* This is a critical agenda; survival is at stake (at least in the leader's eyes).
* An objective has been set beyond the known target.
* One tool has been taken off the table: pricing.
* Everything else is up for grabs provided that each proposed option is well thought out.
* Everyone is expected to contribute.
* A teaser is given that is designed to stir the pot: slashing sales staff.
The participants know the breadth of the agenda and their role. The teaser has added an element of uncertainty. Within the context of what each member knows about the leader and their teammates, individual decisions are going to be made regarding whether or how to approach the idea of sales staff reduction in the public forum of the meeting. If it is a team with a healthy and productive history the idea will not distract or confine them. It will stimulate creative thinking. It will initiate change. Minds are now focused on the upcoming meeting. Resources are being marshaled.
Experience has taught me that in designing change, be it in sales, operations, or pay, the cavalier use of third party expertise can muddy the waters with tons of minutia wrapped in thick layers of jargon. In my days as a line manager, occasionally charged with hiring outside resources, I initially thought this self-created murkiness was a predictable predilection of the novice consultant or in-house technocrat. Not so. As the bigger firms trooped their gangs of thieves into my office, it was the practice leader, the senior player, who perpetuated the crime. My impatience was always tempered by the realization that most experts can't help themselves. They see nuances and permutations that the lay observer can't, won't, or doesn't need to comprehend. Rather than assess whether communicating all this detail is really relevant, they forge ahead with their brilliant monologues. And with each numbing sentence they lose more and more of their audience. It seems to be a form of self-justification. This felony is compounded when you consider the number of product, sales, marketing, financial, IT, and management experts sitting around any planning table.
When we eliminate the extraneous and distracting, and focus on salient ideas that are relatively easy to communicate and that promote meaningful change, we are left with what I call Rubber Chickens. Why the term, Rubber Chickens? Consider the following:
The presentation drones on. The pain generated from the serrated edges of the bottle cap you are pressing into your palm is all that is keeping you from passing out and pitching forward in your seat. You are not alone. The meeting room is filled with souls drifting in and out of consciousness. If you left now and someone in the corridor offered you a treasure chest of riches to repeat any part of what you supposedly just heard, you would be at a loss. A week from now reference to this presentation will draw a quizzical stare. A month from now it won't even be a memory.
It doesn't register at first. The speaker has stopped talking. You look up to see the man at the podium rigid and twitching. With great effort he reaches into his suit pocket and extracts a rubber chicken. Suddenly he relaxes, smiles, and places the chicken on the table beside him. The audience looks at each other quizzically. The speaker continues talking, but this time with a more attentive audience. Five minutes pass then another fit and another rubber chicken. The audience is paying even closer attention. Why the chickens? What triggers each event? Six chickens later the now totally focused audience leaves the auditorium taking with them an experience they won't soon forget.
Significant points of universal application should be as easy to remember as the incident with the rubber chicken. Rubber Chickens are universal rules or truths. Every organization adapts them to fit its culture and goals. To learn from them, every organization must keep them in mind long after they first appear.
The initial Rubber Chicken I offered Jed was this:
* * *
Whenever you have a meeting, structure it to counter participants' tendencies to hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Structure the meeting to make sure they hear what is actually being said and see the reasoning behind it.
If he went about it correctly, Jed could engage the creative talents of his direct reports while minimizing misunderstanding and counter-productive activity. To do this, he needed to create a responsible meeting structure that demanded enough group discipline to produce actual consensus and not just an illusion of consensus.
Jed had to reconsider his preference for all-day meetings. They can produce the illusion that intensity correlates with results, that denying access to the restrooms produces wondrous revelations. Most "all dayers" are like glazed donuts. They look good. They smell good. And after you've eaten them, the lump in your stomach tells you it was a mistake. You swear them off, but four months later, you are eyeing them again, convinced that this time, the experience will be worthwhile. Breaking the process up into digestible pieces that build on each other tends to produce a better product.
This isn't to say that an all-day meeting can't produce results. It's just a much more challenging approach. Setting aside the lack of content absorption time and the compressed space for decision-making, consider the distracting pressures a high level session like this can have on the meeting members. The dynamics of group participation and leadership in a marathon meeting can make or break a reputation, possibly a career. Participants are pushed and prodded in many directions. There is no time or place to reflect, to take a measured position, to understand others' positions. You're out there displaying each spontaneous thought for critical comment. You're out there constantly shifting, choosing to play the diplomat, the politician, the reconciler. You have to avoid inadvertent pretense, zealousness, and self-aggrandizement. You can't appear to be scavenging for approval. You're boxed in to choosing sides, and choosing again. You lobby and support. As the pace picks up you have to move deftly among various roles without losing your balance. All the while, you watch the most powerful people in the room, gauging and anticipating their positions. Who has time for substantive content? It's all about rapidly timed performance.
There is merit in using the collective brain to produce ideas and solutions. And a setting devoid of day-to-day distractions that helps focus on the issues of the moment is fine. But in my experience, successful planning and problem-solving sessions require more than an off-site location and half-day meetings. They require:
4. Mutual commitment and individual responsibility.
I once worked for a rapidly growing corporation notorious for its poor meeting habits. Managers and professionals ran from one session to another, often not sure with what agenda they would be dealing. It was a sign of influence and status to be invited to a multitude of meetings each day. Forget that almost nothing was accomplished through these meetings.
At the time, I had responsibility for a variety of human resource departments. In this role, I once attended a cross-organizational meeting with the supposed agenda of creating mutual support and cooperation for a major technical integration plan that would affect various corporate interests. A few minutes into this technical presentation a new colleague, responsible for employee relations, slipped quietly into the room and sat next to me. As the meeting progressed, he nodded when the rest of us nodded, frowned when I frowned, and all the while studiously scribbled notes on his legal pad. Halfway through the session my colleague turned to me and whispered, "Why am I supposed to be here?"
"I didn't know you were supposed to be here," I whispered back.
His eyes widened. He clicked his pen and quickly left the room. An administrative assistant had mistakenly put his name on a list. That list merged with other lists, and soon he was running between buildings attending all the wrong meetings. These meetings were so poorly structured that distinguishing relevant participation from irrelevant attendance was not easy. Had someone calculated the cost in terms of wasted productivity, the humor surrounding this frenetic dance would have quickly faded.
Good meeting leaders make sure everyone who attends has a written description of issues to be explored and objectives to be accomplished. The issues are framed clearly and not subject to a variety of interpretations. At the start of the meeting, the leader probes as necessary to ensure that everyone understands the agenda and their role.
The meeting leader is also responsible for supplying participants with all the initial information needed for discussion. The operative word is initial. During the meeting, new information or informational needs will surface. A death trap for a meeting leader is trying to anticipate all eventualities and providing too much information.
But how much is too much? I have worked with engineering and accounting firms that thrive on data. Their typical information expectations, both in depth of detail and span of content, would paralyze those in retail sales. If you don't know the tolerance of your organization's capacity for ingesting preparatory material, you are not paying attention to its culture. Look at the information (such as reports and articles) routinely routed through a work setting. Who initiates the distribution? Whose comments are in the margins? Check the pace of the distribution. Are people actually reading the materials or just passing them along? Where are the bottle necks? Is the information acted upon and by whom? Examine how non-routine information is introduced into environment. How formal is the preamble? Is it just a note on top, or a meeting introducing the subject? What do readers say in casual conversation about what they are being asked to review and the nature in which it is disseminated?
Successful leaders learn from history. Keeping in mind participants, time frames, and leadership styles, what preparatory information processes have been effective in meetings with problem-solving agendas? Consider where data landslides or the paucity of information has lead to disaster. Failure can often teach more than success.
When in doubt as to how much is too much, err on the side of restraint. Distribution of information should always indicate what participants must read, what they should read, and what peripheral data will add to their ability to participate more fully in the agenda. It is the responsibility of the leader to clarify and connect every piece of preparatory material to the meeting's deliverables.
There is power in good preparatory information. Take care that it conveys the message you want participants to receive and discuss. Will the information have the effect you want it to? Will it stimulate a further objective exploration of options, reinforce an existing direction, or counter current trends?
Facilitators are not group leaders. They don't call the meeting. They don't form the group's goals. They don't provide opinions or make any recommendations with regard to the content assessed or the decisions made.
Facilitators are freeing agents, owing their allegiance to the goals of the meeting. They exist only to allow the group to function effectively in pursuit of those goals. They keep the process moving forward. Their interest is in establishing and maintaining a quality process. They must ensure that the outcomes of the meeting align with the agenda and its stated deliverables. They make sure the group stays on target.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All Star Sales Teams"
Copyright © 2008 Dan Kleinman.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - Clarify Your Sales Objectives: Planning for Change,
Chapter 2 - Align Goals, Values, and Rewards: Tailoring a Compensation Plan,
Chapter 3 - Put Market Data Into Perspective: Getting What You Need,
Chapter 4 - Provide Realistic Sales Rewards: Controlling Expectations,
Chapter 5 - Motivate Sales Managers: Capitalizing on Their Strengths,
Chapter 6 - Involve Your Sales Staff: Keeping Them Engaged,
Chapter 7 - Cultivate an Inter-Functional Community: Putting the Company First,
Chapter 8 - Strive for Simplicity: Streamlining Your Design Strategy,
Appendix: - Rubber Chickens,
About the Author,