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the ready salesman but reluctant leader

Adam was a combination of affability and tenseness when he met me at reception and escorted me to his office. His was a high pressure, high reward job, having been recently appointed as the national sales manager for a large global manufacturing business.

Immediately it was apparent that he had what it took to succeed in such a position, but he wasn’t exactly at ease. We chatted for a short while and then he got very rapidly to the point: With the new job there was the extra responsibility of leading a large team of sales people. The targets were ambitious and he knew he had to get the team working properly if he was going to succeed. He candidly admitted he was finding this difficult. It was bad enough making his own figures: this was a market where the pressure on the margin is high and every thing is in the hands of his customers. He was responsible as the relation ship manager for the major customers that represented 80% of his sales. But with managing a team as well, he knew he would have to get on top of things or it would all fall apart. This job was getting hard for Adam. His working relationships with his co-workers were frustrating and with his direct reports were very distant. He had tried talking with them, but the atmosphere was remote. They had a history of being difficult. What they did say,whenever he raised an issue, was that other people in the team are making their job impossible to do.

Adam sighed. He said that he really wished they could just get on with their jobs and stop complaining. Adam knew the team had to develop better working relationships, and knew that it his reluctant responsibility to do this. He had tried the “management by walking around” thing, but it was like they were judging him rather than warming to him. In meetings he felt that everyone was constantly watching his performance, assessing his leadership abilities, and every day waiting to see if he would ‘make or break’ his reputation as the new manager. Spinning out words of worry and anxiety, he then said that he didn’t know how to fix the behavior of his employees. Adam said to handle the situation he had been tough and been giving all his employees a talking -to about just getting on with their work. You could see the tenseness in his body and hear it in his voice. “It feels like hell!” he said.

I was quiet for a minute or two, and so was he. Then, for second I thought we should perhaps talk through some strategies for handling the difficult conversations. How to manage the conversation, prepare an agenda to meet with them and perhaps such tactics as proactive listening and constructive feedback. But instead, another question popped into my head: “Adam, to get to your level you must have been successful in sales, tell me a bit about your most successful customer relations.”

After a pause to think you could almost see Adam’s mind move from negative thoughts about the difficult situation to thinking about all the positive experiences. Surprised by the question but energized by the new thoughts he said “ Well, there are many, what do you specifically mean?” I continued by asking this time how he dealt with his difficult customers, what he did to calm them down and how he got to a resolution? “That’s easy,” he said. “I stay calm, I don’t take it personally and just listen. It’s always interesting what people have to say. I wait until they finish, and then we can get onto the issue on hand. Its very straightforward” There was another pause, and then he started to laugh. And then both of us said together, what was so blindingly obvious, “And why would that be any different for my colleagues and team?” Something had changed right then and there. You could feel it, kind of spooky.

Adam would never tell his customers “straight” that they should just “stop complaining”. He knew that this would never get any results. Adam had this amazing ability to create great relationships, even in difficult situations, but for some reason he had thought he had to act differently with his direct reports and colleagues. It didn’t matter why he had thought this, because he could see now what needed to be done, and that was all that mattered.

Best of all there was nothing for Adam to do differently, no need for tactics or agendas.

He knew now how he could fix all the relationships with his staff and co-workers and it was so simple. He had known how to do it all along.