I was recently presented with an interesting challenge. In a more or less routine process of regular performance evaluation I found myself in strong disagreement with one of my peers about a success of a project. We were looking at the same data, heard the same feedback from the same participants, and still, we came to completely different conclusions. I was responsible for the project and believed it was a success, the other person had only high-level picture and felt it was a failure.
It made me think. Obviously, something was wrong. After considering it carefully, I came to a conclusion that even though the project actually was successful, I still failed as a leader. I underestimated the importance of selling. I even didn’t realize that this peer of mine was someone I needed to sell the idea to.
Leadership is about selling. Daniel Pink, in his book To Sell Is Human, claims that “people are now spending about 40 percent of their time at work engaged in non-sales selling—persuading, influencing, and convincing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase. Across a range of professions, we are devoting roughly twenty-four minutes of every hour to moving others.” That is a staggering amount of time and effort. And when you are in any management or leadership position you are definitely at the top end of the range. It is your job to persuade, to influence, to convince, to lead, to sell.
Let me first remove any negative connotation about the term “selling” as it related to leadership. You should always be selling stuff to others in effort to help them out, not to help yourself. Selling means asking others to part with some of their resources. It can be money, but not only. In leadership, it is mostly time, effort and attention. Daniel Pink is using a great example of a teacher. He requires the resources of his students. In their case it would be those mentioned above, time, effort, and attention and in return, he is selling them the idea that at the end of the lesson they will be better off because of the things they learn. The same applies to leadership. Selling in that context is not only required, but it is a highly positive endeavor benefiting the leader, the team, and the organization.
Selling a vision
One of the key responsibilities of any leader is to sell a vision. If you want your team to follow, you need to have two things. You need to have a team and you need to tell them where to go and why:
1. To rally the forces – very often you need to marshal significant forces to tackle a project. It might be people reporting to you, but often you need to sell the idea also to others outside the organization so they jump in and help you deliver the project.
2. To show direction – once you have the team to need to sell them the vision of the perfect outcome. Your team needs to have the same understanding as you have on where you are heading and what a successful outcome looks like.
This one applies not only to leadership but also across the board to pretty much every single conversation you have with other people. If you want to be successful, credible and have an impact, you need to be able to sell opinions:
3. To build credibility – you need to be able to sell two things to build credibility. You need to sell your “technical” expertise, to show that you are an expert on a given topic, or that you at least know what you are talking about, and you need to sell your character. People need to see you as a trustworthy person. When they believe you can be trusted as a person and you know what you are doing, you will be credible.
4. To influence decisions – decisions are done by people who have the power to make those decisions. You can either complain about their bad decisions and feel like a victim, or you can accept the reality and proactively influence the decision before it is made. By selling your opinion to those who have the power to decide gives you the next best thing to making the decision yourself. You can influence the decision to get the outcome you want and to feel positive that your voice was heard. You may even feel like it wasn’t your boss who made the decision but that it was “us” who made the decision.
As opposed to previous point, sometimes you actually have the power to make decisions. However, even in this case you need to keep selling. Only because you make a decision to build a house, it doesn’t mean that a house will be built. You need to sell the decision to others to make it happen:
5. To get buy-in – this is somewhat similar to the first point about selling a vision. The distinction, at least in my mind, is the one of scope and audience. Sometimes you don’t need help of a particular individual so you don’t need to sell the vision but you just need to make sure they don’t stand in your way. Getting their buy-in is enough to make sure they don’t throw roadblocks in your way. You don’t need your neighborhoods to build your house, but you want to make sure they can live with the noise and mess the activity will cause so they don’t create legal obstacles.
6. To sell results – plans are nice, but execution is what matters. You need to be able to get things done and to sell the idea to others that the work indeed is done and everything is great. Too often, we focus so much on the details and the small things that go wrong that we forget to sell and celebrate our successes.
Finally, you need to be able to sell your services even within your own company. You need to do it for two good reasons, to sell an image of someone who can lead and get things done, and to sell the idea that people should want to work with or for you:
7. To build image – it first glance it sounds like something that shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. We don’t live in a perfect world where it is obvious to everyone that you are a great leader. Unless you build an image of someone who can lead and get things done, no one will follow you. And what is as well important in case you want to advance your career, if you don’t sell your accomplishments and your ability to achieve even more, you may never get the opportunity to achieve anything.
8. To build relationships – chances are that whatever you do you need cooperation of others. By selling your services to them, you can get their cooperation in return. The best way to build good, long-lasting relationship is to care about others and to give without expecting anything in return. By selling your time, effort, attention, and care of others, you are buying a potential to receive the same in the future when you most need it. The human need to reciprocate is one of the most powerful ways to gain influence.
As you can see, selling is an important part of leadership. In case you are already in a position of power and you feel you don’t need to sell, let me remind you the example from the first paragraph of this article. The reason I failed as a leader was that I thought I don’t need to sell because the data will speak for itself. I felt secure and powerful and that perspective cost me. With little bit more humility and by reducing (at least in my mind) my power I could push myself into a selling mode and show to my peers why the project was a success and why she should buy the idea and adopt the same position. Alfred Fuller allegedly said, “Never argue. To win an argument is to lose a sale.” Luckily, I realized that, and instead of arguing or blaming others, I went back to my job as a leader. I started to sell.
What is your opinion about leadership and selling? Can you remember any examples from your life where you failed to sell and as a consequence you failed as a leader?
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