Chapter 1 – Changing Directions
As I parked my new company car in the undercover parking allocated to me by the company, I became acutely aware that today was different from yesterday – more so than normal – because today was not only the first day of the month, and the financial year, but also the first day in my new position as a sales manager.
“Sales Manager”, I heard myself saying aloud. Sounded good – no, great! In my excitement, I had hardly slept the previous night, going through my meticulously thought-out plan. Speaking of which, everything was going according to plan – well, actually, going ahead of plan. Here I was, only twenty-seven, a Business Science graduate, cum laude, but doing what I had always loved, selling – and always done (successfully, of course), since I first learned in Grade 3 that I could make extra pocket money if I sold the extra sandwich I had asked my mother to make, to the highest bidder. Little did she know…
And I had just completed my first formal job as the most successful sales representative my company had seen in its not so shabby history. After all, I had made its Master Class, an elitist international group of super performers, in just my first year. Of course, that was unheard of and some people in high places had wanted to prevent my entry into the club until later in my career but what could they do? I had more than fulfilled all the criteria – and then gone on to increase my sales figures in years 2, 3 and 4 by 23%, 25% and 34% (the recession notwithstanding) respectively, which more than justified the decision they couldn’t avoid making. Top of the class, by the proverbial mile. The story of my life…
“Gee, how I love it when a plan comes together…earlier than planned!” I heard myself think, remembering that I had set myself five years for this promotion. “So, does that mean I should move National Sales Manager forward a year too?” Oh, well, plenty of time to think of that.
Getting out of the car, I ran through my plans for the day. I had eight reps now reporting to me – and wanted to double this number by the end of the financial year. I still felt uneasiness as I pondered again over my decision to meet with the team first thing but pushed this aside blaming the sense of apprehension mixed with adrenalin with which I normally faced new things. What was I going to cover with them again? Okay, the order was important. First, my vision. Then, our respective roles in achieving that vision. Finally, my expectations of them. “Well, here goes,” I said as I entered the reception area, greeting everyone there in the process. Eight o’clock, on the dot!
The first thing that struck me as I walked through our area of the office was how quiet it was. There were two reasons for this: firstly, the team members were all huddled around the coffee machine at the far end of the room – and they seemed to have stopped talking when I walked in. With a naivety I was sure I didn’t posses, I couldn’t work out why. Secondly, only three of the team were present.
“Hi, Team,” I called out trying to achieve a multitude of things at once, including breaking the silence, hiding my being put off by more than half the team being late, and trying to will the presence of the others. “We still on for quarter past?”
“Well, I am not sure, Tony,” Liz, the most senior sales rep present responded. “George is stuck in traffic and Craig said he just had to drop off a product package at Dr Remington’s rooms.”
“What about Susan?” I found myself battling to hide my disappointment and frustration.
“No news from her so I assume she is on her way,” responded Linda.
“I guess that’s a pretty fine way to start,” I said trying, unsuccessfully, I feared, really hard to make it sound light-hearted. “Well, could someone please call everyone and find out what time the whole team is likely to be here so we can convene the meeting for then?”
“Sure, we will each make some calls,” Liz offered. “Tony, how long do you think the meeting will take? I also have an important meeting with a client set for 9.30.”
The best laid plans, I thought to myself, feeling them all come crumbling down. “Look, let’s just try to get everyone here as soon as possible. I don’t anticipate our meeting taking too long but if we are still busy and you need to go, so be it.”
I went to my office, sat down, breathed deeply – a number of times – before taking my laptop out and booting up. Thirty seven emails, all since midday the previous day! Soon I was deeply engaged in my responses, one in particular. After what seemed a few minutes, I glanced at the time at the bottom right hand corner of my screen. Eight fifty! What had happened to the stragglers? Why had Liz and the others not come back to me? Rushing out into the open plan office I noticed that only a clerk was there, getting on with her work.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Didn’t you get the message?” she replied. ”Liz emailed you about twenty minutes ago that they were ready and would wait for you in the Boardroom.”
Probably the bored room by now, I thought. Gee, had I taken that long on my emails. Why hadn’t I noticed her email come in? Anyway, better head off to the Boardroom and get going.
“Really sorry I kept you guys waiting but I didn’t notice your email come in, Liz. Perhaps that’s a good place to start,” I said with a little but loud voice in my head shouting no, no, stick to your agenda! Seemingly powerless to stop myself I nevertheless continued. “Can we make a rule that we don’t communicate with each other by email when we can just as easily communicate in person?” As they nodded, I had the distinct feeling that I had just created a millstone around my neck which would was sure to come back at me someday soon. At the same time, the voice in my head continued to remind me that I hadn’t started the way I had planned. You are going to be sorry. Just keep to the damn agenda. Strange things happen in this role, I concluded.
“Well, we don’t have much time so let’s get on with the agenda. I thought we would talk, firstly, about how I see the team operating, kind of what I have in mind as our vision,” I said, confusing the order, and myself a little in the process. So much for preparing an agenda. “I think we have a really good team here – all of you are pretty capable and competent. I see this as a time of growth. The economy seems to be coming out of the recession – not that I allowed that to get in my way in the past. As you know, this being the first day of the financial year, we have been set a team target that is 20% up on last year. I think we are capable of 30 and want to suggest that we make that our internal target. Okay?” The agenda, Tony. “For the foreseeable future, I am going to keep my customer list and continue to sell to them. I am confident that my figures will go up by at least 30%.” Once a sales person, always a sales person. Why prepare an agenda if you are just going to wing it anyway?
“Will you have the time, now that you are sales manager too?” This time it was George, the most experienced rep there. George was in his late fifties and, I feared, had one and half eyes on his retirement.
“Yeah, thanks for raising that, George. Selling is in my blood – and I know that the company probably expects me to shed some of the sales load but I think they will understand when they see the numbers come in. Also, whilst I see us as a team, I believe you are, as I said, all capable salespeople. The last thing I want to do is to micromanage anyone. You are all captains of your own position, so to speak, so I want to…to..to like empower you. I would like to give you the freedom to express yourselves out there. Sure, I am here if you need me but for the rest I will be keeping an eye on all of our numbers – so, I suggest that is where you focus too. Okay!” Congratulations, that’s also sure to come back at you! You’re throwing strategic boomerangs into every sentence.
“But,” George started, and then stopped.
“No, it’s okay. It’s fine,” he said, in retrospect, with a distinct lack of actual persuasiveness.
“Okay, I would like to have these meetings every second Friday so we can keep up with each other. So, please put that in your diaries now so that we don’t have any repeats of this morning,” I announced. “We’re under ‘general’. Anyone got anything they want to talk about?”
When I think about it now, it wasn’t so much the silence that should have attracted my attention but the look on their faces. To this day, I can still see their faces clearly – in fact, more clearly than I ever saw it then: for them, Armageddon had arrived!
Fortunately for them, and me, the saviour of the world walked into my office just ten minutes later.
“Good morning, Tony, how are things going on your first day in the saddle?”
“Morning, Paulo. Fine, thank you,” I replied, not really understanding why it hadn’t sounded as convincing as I had intended.
“’Fine, thank you’”, Paulo mimicked. “You don’t sound so sure. What’s up?”
Paulo was the National Sales Manager, my new boss, a wonderful person I just seemed to have got on with from the moment we had met on my first day in the office when he had almost burst into my area in an almost identical manner. The company had a policy as part of its induction programme in terms of which a senior manager was allocated to a new staff member for the first three months to ensure that they settled and learnt how things were done in the company. During that time I had built a huge amount of admiration for Paulo and had found him easy to talk to, even if he seemed to be reigning me in all the time – a process he had euphemistically and jokingly referred to as ‘channelling your discretionary energy’! After the first three months he had stayed in touch on a more infrequent basis but I guess, of everyone at BCM Healthcare Suppliers, he was probably the person who knew me the best – and, as it worked out, whom I came to trust the most.
“Actually, Paulo, I am not sure why that came out like that. Things are really fine. I am in a great place at the moment. I had my first meeting with my team this morning and it went well, I thought, even if it didn’t go quite as I planned.”
“Tell me more about your meeting.”
So I told him – probably in more detail than I had intended.
“Okay, I am hearing that there might be a couple of points about the meeting that you are not sure about. Are you able to put your finger on these?”
“Perhaps there are two things. Firstly, I have always got on really well with the team but there was a different vibe in the room today. I thought things would be more or less the same between us. Then, secondly, the mood seemed to change during the meeting.”
“Would you like to explore these a little?” I nodded. “What do you think they were expecting this morning?”
“I am not sure what you mean.”
“Well, your expectations seem to have been that the relationships you have with them would carry on in much the same way. If you were them, what would your expectations have been? Remember, if you are going to get into their shoes to answer this question, you have to take your own off first, so to speak – you need to look at it through their eyes, rather than your own.”
“Gee, that’s not easy. I guess they know me quite well. They’ve all been in the game longer than I have. I suppose they were as apprehensive as I was this morning – waiting to see what I was going to do.”
“And what did they see when they looked at you before and in the meeting?”
“Umm, I am not sure. Perhaps they saw this cocky – actually, make that full-blown arrogant – youngster trying to take control of things and tell them how things were going to be done in future.”
“And, if you were them, how would you have felt?”
“A little intimidated, and indignant, I guess. ‘Yesterday he was the same as us and now he thinks he is better than us.’ Something like that…”
“Okay. So, there would be some resistance. Let’s hold that thought for a moment and go to your second concern. If you think back, when did the mood change in the room?”
“It seemed to be when George spoke.” Paulo nodded to me to elaborate. “He seemed to be opposed to me retaining my clients. What he doesn’t understand is that I have spent four years building up some really great relationships with my clients. What he also doesn’t understand is that selling is in my blood.” By now I was building up a head of steam.
“I can see you feel strongly about this. What role did you play in the change of mood in the room?”
“I suppose I was pretty dogmatic about my view.”
“What impact do you think that would have had on you if you were a team member?”
“I guess I would have shut up too.”
“That’s interesting. So, what do you think the team needs from you now that you are their sales manager?”
“Gee, you ask some tough questions. I suppose they hope that I will keep bringing in big numbers, and leave them to their own devices – not get in their way; except of course if they ask for help.”
“Is that how you see your new role too?”
“I guess so.” Then, almost as an after-thought, because one thing I do well is catch on fast, “I think I see what you are getting at. You want to know what I would expect of the sales manager if I were them.”
It was almost a question – and Paulo duly obliged. “Yes, perhaps it would help if you thought of it at two levels: what did you expect of Harry when he was your sales manager? And what do you think we expect of you in your new role?”
“The first one is easy – you were right: because I knew I was bringing more than the numbers required of me, I wanted to be left alone to get on with it, except when I needed some help. The second one is more difficult – help me out here.”
“Okay, let me put it this way. Why would we give you promotion and great perks at considerable expense to the company if you were just going to do more of the same – bring in the numbers with perhaps the odd bit of help for your colleagues chucked in?”
“But I thought I got the promotion because I was the best rep.”
“Yes, but do you think you would have got the new role if that was all we saw?”
“Whew, I guess I am a people’s person and get on with the team members. I’ve also got a big mouth and am not scared to voice my opinion. Umm…”
“What kind of opinions do you hold about the team?”
“I guess the big one is that it should be a team but that currently we are a group of individuals. If we acted more like a team, then I am convinced that the numbers would get bigger.”
“So your role in achieving this now that you are sales manager would be what?”
“Ensuring that we start becoming a team. If I am the team’s leader, then I need to facilitate this – facilitate that we work together towards a common goal. Things like that. I guess I need to help the team and its individual members find ways to make the numbers. Gee, the management side is starting to sound like a full time job. I see what George might have been getting at – I will need to do less sales, not more.”
“Oh no! You actually mean ‘none’, don’t you? Gee, what about all the great relationships I have built over a long period of time? Do I just give those up now?”
“Would you be giving those relationships up? Or would the nature of your relationship with them just change?”
“But if I distributed my clients to the reps, then I wouldn’t see my clients.”
“You are right in the sense that you wouldn’t necessarily see them in the same capacity as you have been seeing them up to now. But your relationship with these clients of the company are critical – so one of the challenges you have is to work out how you can retain a different level of relationship with them and other clients currently being serviced by the reps. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess it does in principle but I am going to have to give a little thought to the detail. I am sensing that my relationship with these clients now moves from a sales emphasis to kind of a marketing role. So, I might see them at functions we arrange, for example. In addition, I might see them too when I do joint visits with the reps – gee, I hadn’t thought of that. In fact, there appears to be quite a lot I haven’t thought of. I thought I would add that before you did!!”
“Not at all. On the contrary, I am really pleased to see that the pieces are starting to fall into place for you. The most important thing for many sales people to get when they move into management is that their role changes completely – they are not going to be doing more of the same. If it helps you, your role is still one of business development – but this time it is facilitating (and I would like to emphasise the word ‘facilitating’) the development of business by the reps. Whilst you were the rep with the best results, we believed that you were the person who could most successfully make this transition, effectively the transition from managing yourself to managing others. But, hey, I need to go to another meeting now. Have you found today useful?”
“Wow, my learning curve just went up a thousand percent. Is there any way we could do this again. I think it would really help me.”
“Sure. I am really glad you found it useful. I suggest that we do this on a weekly basis and see how it goes. Is that okay with you?” I found myself nodding unwittingly and he went on. “What I think would also be useful for you would be for you to email me the answers to the following three questions: First, what are you going to stop doing in your new capacity? Second, what are you going to start doing? And lastly, what are you going to continue doing? How’s that?”
“Great!” I said, thinking that this sounded easy enough. With that he got up, greeted me and was gone.
Armageddon had been averted. Well, not yet. I needed to do that email and then implement its contents. I turned to my laptop and found I had to think somewhat deeper than I had anticipated in order to answer the questions. After what seemed quite a while I typed the email to Paulo: