During a recent stint at Logan Airport, a CEO I'd struck up a conversation with offered a book recommendation: Mark Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There. Once I'd had a chance to read it, one part in particular caught my eye.
Goldsmith had asked 50,000 successful professionals to rate themselves against their peers. Some 80 to 85 percent of them rated themselves in the top 20 percent of their peer group, and 70 percent of them ranked themselves in the top 10 percent. Claims the author: "This number is even higher among professionals with higher perceived social status, such as physicians, pilots, investment bankers, 90 percent of whom place themselves in the top 10 percent."
There's nothing wrong with that math. But there certainly is something wrong with how these people view themselves.
Although Goldsmith doesn't specifically include CEOs, general managers, managing partners, and other high-level business executives in his group, I'll strongly suggest they belong. And if you look at this survey with respect to senior executives of companies with dysfunctional sales organizations, it's a big, big problem.
I've been on enough save-the-deal sales calls with CEOs—and many VPs of sales—to understand the challenge. Their rep is losing or has already lost a deal, so the CEO parachutes in. He offers concessions (usually significantly steeper discounts than their reps or sales VPs are allowed), promises of personal attention, their direct phone number, their private e-mail address, and who knows what else. The customer relents and a deal is done.
Back at the office the CEO brags to the sales team, the board, and anyone else who will listen: "Now, that's how to sell. Why don't we have more people in this company who can do that?"
Granted, they have charisma, business savvy, and intelligence. But they also have three magic letters on their business card: C-E-O. And with that, they can offer up the resources of their entire company as barter for that elusive signature on the contract.
That's not selling; it's a one-act tragedy. And many executives who have enjoyed top billing in that play don't know the difference.
But things get worse from here. That CEO remembers back when they carried a bag. They don't really understand selling was much easier then. And they don't remember what it was like bouncing around from customer to customer counting on luck, some good interpersonal skills, a dose of motivation, some competitive DNA, much less competition, and buyers who were considerably less savvy.
What about that parachuting, discount-wielding CEO who had never been a quota-carrying salesperson? They have no idea what challenges must be overcome when you have "sales representative" on your business card, especially working for a smaller company. If they worked for IBM, 3M, GE, or SAP, as examples, whatever dealings they had with customers were artificially lubricated by their company's brand equity. They can't imagine why the reps for them can't sell, even as they themselves have no idea what professional selling is really about in this newest economy.
As a result, these executives—the self-proclaimed sales legends—don't believe sales effectiveness is a strategic capability that must be invested in. They won't fund methodology or sales process development projects. They won't get behind a company-level transformation of their selling approach. They don't think coaching programs are worth the time and money. What they do think is sales people are born—not made—just like them.
"You want to see how to really sell?" they say to the sales rep as they take the elevator up to the executive offices of a company where they are losing a deal. "Watch this."
Watch this, indeed.
Dave Stein is the author of How Winners Sell, and the CEO and founder of ES Research Group in West Tisbury, Mass.