Help Your People See the Waterline

by Bette Price, CMC

   A sales leader strengthens the effectiveness of his sales team when he develops his people to be independent thinkers rather than impose hard-fast, inflexible control. By nature, salespeople tend to prefer flexibility and independence. Yet, the risk of allowing great latitude is that mistakes can occur. So, CEO Alvin Rohrs has developed a simple guideline for measuring his control and allowing for mistakes. As CEO of the nonprofit organization, Students In Free Enterprise, which recruits, motivates and energizes students worldwide to learn about leadership, Rohrs believes individual control is really the expression of personal freedom in the marketplace. He has learned that an integral part of leadership is balancing a leader's control with the necessity of encouraging individual control. With this balanced control, mistakes may happen, yet people will grow as a result of those mistakes and through that growth will maximize results.
   Here's Rhors simple guideline: learn where the waterline on the boat is.
   "If you give people the latitude to make mistakes that are above the waterline, they can mess up all they want and you can shoot all the holes you want in the boat," says Rohrs. "But if they make the kind of mistake that makes one good hole below the waterline, you're sunk. So, train your people to understand where the waterline is."
   Following are a few ways to keep mistakes above the waterline so your salespeople can grow and learn from them:

Face Reality

   Sales leaders make sure that their people face reality. They create an environment that encourages people to accept responsibility and admit mistakes. We all make mistakes. Admitting the mistake and talking about it openly helps to determine what went wrong, why it went wrong and what could have been differently. Through this process, learning is gained.

Refuse to have scapegoats

   All too often scapegoats are found so that everybody can point to the mistake being someone else's fault. Usually it isn't one individual's fault anyway, so pointing fingers only embarrasses the one individual and demoralizes everyone else. Every member of the team suffers because they know at some point the finger pointing could be at them. Talking about the mistake without finger pointing builds trust and learning.

Encourage your people to keep shooting

   David Novak, CEO of Yum Restaurants (Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, etc.) uses a basketball analogy to demonstrate why it is important to treat mistakes as learning points and give people a second chance. "If you're throwing a pass to somebody, you want to know that they can catch it," he says. "So if I throw a pass to you and you have scored before, I know you just made a mistake this time, so I'm going to throw it to you again. A shooter has to keep shooting. If you know the person can make the shot, a great coach doesn't say 'don't shoot anymore' after they miss two shots in a row. A great coach says, 'keep shooting‹next time it's going to fall'." A leader has to say, "keep shooting."

Admit your own

   Even leaders make mistakes. Even you aren't going to be right all the time. Recognize that and model how to deal with mistakes by admitting your own.

Establish expectations of failures

   Expectation of failure is a very valuable characteristic. Some strategies your salespeople will try may not pan out. If, however they work hard and give it their best, they will demonstrate their willingness to try something new. If, as the sales leader, you recognize that effort, it will encourage your sales people to risk again.
   When you, as the sales leader, have clearly defined the waterline, not only will your sales team grow from mistakes that hit above that waterline, but, you will have established an environment of trust that will encourage the innovative thinking that is sorely needed to maximize momentum and leave your competitors in a mundane rut.