Sales growth starts at the top.
The executives we interviewed acknowledged that what they do--how they set the tone, show the vision and motivate--is essential in driving growth.
These are three stories of leaders doing just that:
1) Set A Vision:
The story of Will, global head of sales at a high-tech company, is a good illustration of a leader pushing his organization to rethink the way it serves customers.
When Will started thinking about how to serve customers differently, his company's direct sales force was second to none, and it set the industry standard in enterprise segments. But he was not satisfied with the status quo--he had a long-term view of how to serve customers better, particularly in emerging and fast-growing markets. Specifically, he believed the company's direct sales forces should work with channel partners to expand its footprint in the enterprise segment. The company had worked with channel partners to serve small and mid-size customers. But direct sales had always had sole responsibility for enterprise sales and was understandably proud and protective.
No leader wants to upset a successful, powerful sales organization, but Will saw that growth was more important than preserving the status quo. He decided to grant channel partners a license to hunt freely for enterprise customers in fast-growing markets and asked sales leaders in four countries to pilot a program to let partners sell enterprise solutions on their own, with targeted support from the company's direct sales force. The sales leaders' reaction was predictable. They said it was too risky and that would lead to these accounts being lost. They argued that some partners didn't even have the right capabilities to win these deals and the company's competitors would have a field day. They also worried that this approach would hurt the company's margins.
If their pessimism had proved accurate we wouldn't be telling you this story.
After one year, this new model produced amazing results. In those countries that adopted Will's new approach, growth soared to 25 percent year-on-year. And far from damaging margins, they actually rose by a few points.
By challenging the status quo and received sales wisdom, Will sent a clear message to his sales leaders: they, too, should always question their ways of doing business with customers and partners--to see what lucrative new opportunities might exist.
2) Galvanize your team:
Consider the case of Neil, the CEO of a national telecommunications operator in an emerging market. One day, he astonished his leadership team by announcing a bold "3x3x3" growth aspiration: three years to expand beyond his home country, three years to expand beyond his region, and three years to become a leading global brand.
By articulating his goals so simply, he painted an inspiring picture of the journey ahead that everyone could understand, and also broke the long-term goal into medium-term steps that were easy to understand--individually exciting, and easily measurable.
Seven years later, when the company's operations had reached over 20 countries across multiple continents, Neil wanted all employees, and the outside world, to have the same understanding of what this company stood for. He challenged his team to develop a compelling, innovative, and emotionally engaging way to articulate the company's aspiration. His team came up with the idea of using the notion of a "new birth" as the analogy for the company's new life. The team wrote a short memo in the style of a child telling the world what she wanted to become when she grew up, what moved her, and what her "promise" to the world was.
This was captured in a movie in which a 7-year-old girl read the letter out aloud from an empty stage under a single spotlight. The video was broadcast simultaneously to the top 400 managers at a major launch event, and e-mailed to all employees.
Many seasoned executives reportedly left the meeting with tears in their eyes, after a standing ovation. Neil's story is a good example of how a compelling vision and strong emotional leadership can galvanize a team towards very ambitious growth goals. Once he has his growth story, Neil seized every opportunity to talk about it with employees, reinforcing what the story was about, drawing out its relevance to different parts of the business, and prompting sales reps to find their own personal meanings.
3) Demand results, results, results:
Laura is the North America head of sales for a consumer packaged goods company.
She inherited a strong brand and good customer relationships when she took over her job. But her first instinct was that there was still room to grow. From day one, she started working with her team, aligning on a collective aspiration for growth.
Her sales team quickly got to know her as somebody who places a very high bar on performance. They also recognized that she had the energy and passion to help them achieve that performance. While she was competitive and focused on customers (and spent a lot of time out of her office meeting them), she was not a relationship leader.
But, because she was aware of her own blind spots, she favored leaders on her team who were relationship developers.
In her drive for the best sales results possible, Laura focused on two simple ideas with her team. First, she made sure roles and responsibilities for growth were completely clear, down and across her organization. She insisted on one point of accountability to make clear who was accountable for important activities. Two, she was rigorous at moving talent around in her organization to reward high performers and position them to drive growth.
Laura had been in the trenches and used stories from her own experience as a frontline sales rep to inspire her team. She asked direct questions to get to know accounts inside-out and participated in forecast calls, asking probing questions to and followed up with resources and investments to pursue opportunities. No detail was too small. In another context, Laura might have been perceived as an overly controlling micro-manager. But her team responded positively because she had credibility and they saw that she matched her high demands for performance with her own passion and drive and was willing to collaborate to help her team win.
The most senior sales leaders set the tone for everyone else in the organization, therefore their role has the greatest impact in influencing the behaviors and attitudes of sales managers and employees alike. Great sales leaders know that everyone in their organization takes their cue from them as to what really matters. So, like Will, they are clear when they want change, they know how to excite and inspire their organization like Neil, and they roll up their sleeves like Laura and get involved to help their teams deliver results.
Adapted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Sales Growth: Five Proven Strategies from the World's Sales Leaders  by Thomas Baumgartner, Homayoun Hatami, and Jon Vander Ark. Copyright (c) 2012 by McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved.
[Image: Flickr user Mike Epp ]