Head Coach: the Missing Link in Your Coaching Initiative

About a week ago I read a report stating the average tenure of a VP of Sales has been decreasing about 1 ¼ month per year for the last 7 years and now sits at just 19 months. As I sit here writing this post just two days before the end of the quarter (it’s been good so far) and honestly just realized I accepted the role as VP of Sales for Axiom in March 2017 (do the math).  I can definitely relate to the challenge!

A VP of Sales is, of course, a lot like being the head coach of any performance profession in sports or the performing arts. They are tasked with delivering results fast and predictably while building a great culture and developing a strong core of leaders with salespeople who consistently outsell their competition. Just do it in 19 months or less which is certainly aggressive but not unrealistic since the old adage is true: it’s easier to replace the head coach than it is to replace all the players.

While you could rightly debate if that’s a fair adage, there are a lot of very prominent examples of head coaches who’ve made a career out of turning around under-performing teams. Regardless of if you’re a fan or not, it’s hard not to respect what great head coaches such as Nick Saban in college football, Pat Riley in the NBA, Bill Belichek in the NFL, and Sir Alex Ferguson from the EPL due to consistently, and quickly, out-perform their peers.

So what lessons can a VP of Sales take from these examples? I believe there are at least 4 commonalities that separate the high performing head coach from others.


1. They Put their System in place. Their system is defined in three ways:

Their Principles – this defines the fundamental, universal, and non-negotiable truths they expect from everyone in their sales organization. Adhering to these principles gets people recognized and rewarded. Not adhering to these principles results in immediate, and sometimes very public, negative consequences.

One very successful VP of Sales I know laid down the law in her 1st 90 days that they would not win business or build relationships by frivolous spending on entertainment or gifts. She believed if they couldn’t build relationships and create value with their customers on their own merit, wining and dining them to make up for it was pointless. Those who didn’t abide by this principle either changed or found another place to work.

Their Process – Great head coached have a crystal clear and measurable definition for “what good looks like”. They have quantifiable and verifiable expectations for how their team’s practice (learn), how their managers conduct pipeline & forecast reviews, how they should prepare for customer meetings, and how they should execute their sales process.

But great coaches don’t try to over-engineer or overly control the process otherwise it comes across as something their team will comply to do, but won’t commit to doing it. Hall of Fame Football Head Coach Bill Parcells would even have his team practice how he wanted them to line up for the national anthem as he knew it set the tone for playing together with efficiency and preventing the chaos that often comes from ad-hoc processes.


Their Playbook – high-forming head coaches know a critical driver to sales productivity and effectiveness is to get everyone doing their part to execute the sales plays. They ensure there is a common language for pipeline management, creating/pursuing/winning sales opportunities, and the tools (like CRM) are in place to reduce complexity not add an administrative burden.

2. They invest in developing their leaders.


For the great head coaches, there is absolutely nothing more important than developing their assistant coaches. In the sales profession, this means the head coach makes it their top priority to invest in equipping, coaching, and training their Regional Sales Directors and Front-Line Managers.

Sure, a lot of Sales VPs talk a good game about developing other leaders and many do a great job at it. However, show me the VP of Sales’ calendar and their budget for developing their leaders and It’ll tell you if they’re serious about it.

Further, the Head Coach knows they need to define “what good looks like” for their leaders, provide them the tools, training, and resources to do the job, and then get out of the way. The best head coaches certainly have their way of doing things, but they leave enough room for their assistants to grow their capabilities in their own way. Great head coaches often define their own success by the success of their disciples which makes a lot of sense.

If you can list a healthy number of the VP of Sales’ disciples who are now leading their own sales organizations, you can be sure they are serious about investing in the development of their leaders.

3. They build and vigorously protect the desired culture.

A successful head coach can’t spend too much time building and PROTECTING the culture. To quote Edward Schein, an MIT professor an expert on corporate culture, we define the concept of culture as:

“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.”

The most successful VP of Sales more often create a culture of high accountability, relentless optimism, real grit, and the belief that learning and performing are not mutually exclusive things. And the most powerful way to build this kind of culture in a sales organization happens through sales coaching.

The best Sales VPs don’t allow their leaders to treat coaching as an optional activity like most sales organizations. They make sales coaching a mandatory activity sales coaching a mandatory activity – even think about personally certifying that your sales coaches often requiring their sales leaders to get certified by them personally to ensure they’re coaching during pipeline, forecast, opportunity, and account reviews... They also measure and reward their leaders on the frequency and impact of their coaching while also imposing negative consequences for not coaching. seriously.

4. They prevent complacency and continuously "top-grade" their team


A successful head coach is convinced the best day their organization has had hasn’t happened yet. They set increasingly high standards for the skills, knowledge, and commitment they expect from their organization. They challenge their people to grow into these high standards so that they always have a team of “A” players and protect against complacency.

As an example, wildly successful college football coach Nick Saban ‘top grades’ his team each year because his greatest fear is complacency. He has a list of specific requirements for every position on his team at every level right down to their height, weight, speed, intelligence, character, etc. If they don’t meet that top grade or standard, he won’t recruit that player. Or in the case of his existing players, he won’t keep them on the team if they don’t meet these increasingly high standards.

This may sound a little harsh but he only wants players on his team who embrace the challenge of getting better every year. He clearly doesn’t want players that are satisfied with their past performance. Again, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to argue with his team’s success year after year.

What if the VP of Sales applies this same approach to top-grading? She’d be confident her organization is well positioned to for growth, they’d be outlearning their competition, and they’d be consistently delivering the expected results.


For more on the critical role of the Head Coach, check out this webinar: Make Your Sales Coaching Process Superior to All Others. Or email me at asmith@axiomsfd.com and let’s talk. With the quarter we’re having and our outlook for Q4, it looks like I should be should be here for my 20th month. 

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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Topics: Better Coaching

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