Fostering a learning while performing culture

Most sales organizations function in the same basic way. Sales quotas are set, results are evaluated at the end of a predesignated period, and coaching occurs primarily at the remedial level only after failure has already occurred. Even if we assume that most salespeople are meeting their quotas under this system, there’s still a plurality who aren’t.
So with this problem in mind, and after extensively studying the behaviors and habits of the world's most successful organizations, we discovered five key commonalities between them:
  • They possess a common philosophy, process, and system.
  • Coaching is superior, expected, and non-optional.
  • They get & grow the right people for their process & system.
  • Everything is measured all the time.
  • There is a learning while performing culture.

In this post we'll be focusing on the fifth element of organizational success, and discussing ways in which sales leaders can foster a culture of learning while performing.
In thinking about this point, I was reminded of back when I was a young sales rep for Xerox at the very beginning of my sales career. At the time, my workload consisted of roughly eight sales calls per day, although not all entirely productive. Typically, after one of those calls, a conversation with my manager consisted of “how was it?” “great” “Ok, where are you going next?”. While I certainly learned a great deal on that job, I can confidently say that very little of the knowledge I gained came from those debriefing calls. Which strikes me today as an enormous waste of opportunity.
Before we continue any further it’s probably important to define what we mean in this context when we use the word "culture". According to Edgar H. Schein, a foremost expert on corporate culture at MIT Sloan, culture is:
A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group has learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.
It is critical for us to approach this from a cultural perspective because culture shapes behavior. Which is to say that any idea - even if that idea is a clear improvement over the status quo - is doomed to failure if it clashes with the prevailing culture of the organization.
With that in mind, we'll define seven common characteristics of organizations that have successfully fostered the correct kind of culture in order to enable their members to both learn and perform.
1. There are aggressive targets for both sales performance AND personal development.
With the ever-shifting sales environment which we all exist in today, organizations that choose not to adapt are choosing failure. Without a firm commitment to the continuing development of their salespeople, sales leaders forfeit a competitive advantage to other organizations which are implementing aggressive, measurable, targets for personal development.
2. Leaders spend less time on score keeping and accountability and more time on helping each other win AND grow
This point is really quite simple, in that the correct way to think about it is that for every minute spent completing tasks related to score keeping, a sales leader loses a minute they could have been using to coach and improve their sales force.
Now, that's not to say that forecasting doesn't have its place within a successful sales organization, because it certainly does. However, most successful sales organizations have discovered that the central focus of a sales leader should be on the behaviors and development of their people, and not on peripheral tasks.
3. Leaders and sellers are intentional, not casual, about learning from every sales call.
It's simply not enough for a sales leader to ask their subordinates for a casual appraisal of their performance on sales calls. Sales calls, being the primary point of interaction between the sales force and prospective and existing customers, offer an indispensable opportunity for coaching.
In practice, this means that sales leaders implement detailed debriefings of sales calls as a normal, non-optional, part of their sales process. By doing so, it will be much easier for the involved parties to analyze the root causes behind their successes and failures.
4. There are tangible, visible, and personal rewards for achieving performance AND personal development targets.
Within the organizations we studied that have successfully implemented a learning while performing culture, we recognized two important components of their rewards systems: 1) they are very specific about why the rewards were meted out in the first place; and 2) they are extremely clear about how that action achieved the greater desired result.
By installing genuine, visible, rewards which tangibly connect cause and effect, a sales leader can demonstrate that developmental targets are as important as performance targets.
5. there also are negative consequences for missing both performance AND personal developmental targets
On the flip side of the previous point, sales leaders have to demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment to developmental goals in the same way that they would performance goals.
Research again shows that without accountability, a casual relationship with development and learning eventually takes hold, and the desired result is seldom achieved.
6. Transparency isn’t punished. Its ok to not be ok.
In order to foster a culture of learning while performing, sales leaders have to emphasize that it’s okay for their subordinates to not know everything, so long as they’re committed to filling in the gaps in their knowledge.
Simply put, an effective sales leader makes clear to their salespeople that they are after progress, rather than perfection.
7. People act like the best day they’ve ever had hasn’t happened yet
Organizations which operate successfully with a learning while performing culture understand that there is tangible benefit in the way that they do things and that by continuing to do them, they are only setting themselves up for even greater success in the future.
With this mindset ingrained in the culture of a sales organization, it is much easier for leaders to motivate their subordinates to learn by pointing to the tangible benefits, and ultimately the necessity, of doing so.

By deliberately instituting a culture which exhibits all of the elements described above, sales leaders can capture teachable opportunities before failure, and ensure that their sales force is not only set up for short-term success, but continuous growth over time as well.
To find out more about the topics discussed above, please access our webcast below
Learning While Performing Webcast
Andy Smith, SVP Sales & Marketing

For 24 years, Andy Smith has been helping some of the world’s leading sales organizations, including Honeywell, MasterCard, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, and others increase their effectiveness through improved sales process execution, better sales coaching, consultative sales skill development, and higher CRM adoption. Andy holds a degree from Baylor University and prior to joining AXIOM he served in senior sales leadership roles for Sales Performance International, AchieveGlobal, and Acclivus Corporation. He started his career in sales with Xerox before joining ExxonMobil where he discovered his passion for the sales performance improvement profession. Andy lives in Denton, Texas. Ask Andy about his very average golf game, radio broadcasting of high school sports, or his three adorable grand babies.

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