I love playing sport. Barring all other life commitments I’d love to play a sport every night of the week! Last year I moved from being a player on my hockey team into the role of captain/coach. I should note at this point that my team did NOT win our competition, in fact we did not even place all that well.. We did have a great season that was enjoyed by all with many small victories along the way.
In my working life I head up the Australia New Zealand arm of a network security company. Sales managers very often use sports metaphors to communicate ideas and plans with the sales team and I’m no exception but this year I found myself using sales management tools on my hockey team!
Team sports and sales have a lot in common, here’s five things worth thinking about:
1. Have a plan. Know when to stick to the plan and when to get a new plan.
Every team team you come against will have it’s own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some teams play strong offence, some great defence, some have just one great scorer and others rely on a strong goalie. In every game, the team that understands their own strengths and weaknesses and how that lines up against the competition, will have a real advantage. I see sales people every day that roll out the same pitch no matter who they are meeting and who the competition is. You might win occasionally like that, but not in the long run. The ones who consistently win are the team with a plan. Sometimes, when you are up against what seems like an unbeatable opponent, your plan is what gives you hope and keeps you in the game.The key in these situations is to stick with a plan that you KNOW has worked before. What happens when the other guy switches brings in that semi-pro goalie? or when that OTHER tech company enters the race? you change the plan!
When I am working on a proposal for a big customer without a written plan it somehow never feels real. I’m surprised if we are successful. When things go wrong I’m never really sure what happened. if I have a plan it grounds me and keeps me focussed. I can immediately see what’s missing and what I need to do next. in the event that i don’t win (you won’t ALWAYS win!) the plan is something I can look back on and refine and use again next time. it’s also something I can show to my boss who is certainly going to want to know what happened. I’ve never been abused for losing a deal I had a plan for, but I HAVE been in the poo many times for having no plan!
2. Know what success looks like. Visualise it.
You want to make a plan because you know that’s a key to winning right? But what should the plan look like? The key is to start with a good hard look at a WIN. WooHoo! You WON! Now really seriously ask yourself this question, “Why did we win?” in order to be able to repeat you success you need to know how it happened? Who was the competition? What were their strengths and weaknesses? How did we capitalize on the weaknesses and neutralize the strengths? Awesome. Now write this down, because this is the start of your plan.
This season we had some real ups and downs. At one stage, my team was on a three game losing streak. everyone was miserable and our usual pre-game locker room chatter was full of negativity. Before each game I always try to have a simple three point plan. Focus on this attack, neutralise that strength and exploit this weakness but this week I felt like we weren’t in the right frame of mind for this. Instead I asked for complete silence. I asked each person to imagine a time in the season when they had personally done something great, their favourite shooting technique, their go-to move that always got results. in other words, to VISUALISE success. it really sounds a little corny and honestly in a room full of tough assed hockey players, I wasn’t sure if they’d laugh me out of there.
3 minutes later we took to the ice and had one of the most convincing victories of the season. it’s not something that would have worked every week, but in that time and place it’s what we needed to win.
3. Negative feedback just doesn’t work
One of our strongest players this season was a guy called Michael. He plays in defence and when he is feeling it, he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve seen defending our zone. The trouble is, when he’s not feeling it really hurts us as a team. Michael likes to take chances occasionally and during one of our early games he saw a chance, stuck his head down and really went for it. The trouble was, it didn’t work. he dropped the puck, we had no defence and the opposition scored in the blink of eye. Hockey’s like that. it’s a fast game and can really punish you for a little mistake.
No-one felt it more than Michael did. You should have seen the look on his face when he skated to the bench. That didn’t stop the whole team unloading on him. We poured abuse all over this guy and not surprisingly, the rest of his night went from bad to worse.
It’s easy to criticise someone else and give in to the negative spiral that comes along with it. For Michael, it was one mistake that started a torrent of abuse that didn’t end even after the game was done. I did a lot of thinking about that game and how Michael reacted.
Next game I started a new tradition. Here’s what I think: I think that when someone screws up (and we all do), mostly they already know it. if you’re like me, you are YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC. As you skate to the bench (or come in from a tragic sales call) you already know how bad you screwed up. You really don’t need everyone reminding you of it. So from that game on, when some-one messed up bad, we stood up and gave them a huge cheer, a big glove-to-glove fist bump and a pat on the back and yelled, “Don’t worry about man, you’ll SMASH them next time!”
The difference? it didn’t stop us making mistakes but it did stop the negative spiral. it stopped one crappy play from turning into an entirely crappy game.
Sales is EXACTLY the same. One quarter we were having a tough time of it. one of my most senior sales guys cut 30% from his forecast just a few days before quarter end. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. How would i tell my boss? How could I not look like a fool? Would I get fired? I took all of that anxiety and without waiting a second to calm down, I got on the phone and just unloaded on this guy. Fire and Brimstone and wrath of god type stuff. Guess what happened? We missed by EVEN more that the forecast. By going all negative i undermined his confidence, freaked him out and made him run scared to all his clients. All those potential sales sensed the fear and got cold feet of their own.
I learned that most people know when they’ve screwed up. They don’t need a heavy-handed reminder. You have to deal with it, but it’s
almost ALWAYS better to do that with positive reinforcement not negativity. Even a performance management plan can be made into a positive experience. As a manager or coach, I think you’ve got to always have your people’s back and always be rooting for them to win. they won’t always win, but they stand a much better chance with someone cheering them on!
4. Team spirit
One of the things I love about hockey is the player’s point system. You score a goal, you get a point. You HELP score a goal you also get a point. What’s the difference between the two points? NOTHING. An assist is just as valuable an action as scoring a goal!
I’ve played a lot of different team sports over the years and worked for a lot of different companies. There’s usually a super star wherever you go. That one person who everyone looks at and can tell they are in a class of their own. The thing is, it’s not always that team with the super star that wins.
Jack Welch was famously successful at big business management. Discussing types of people and who to keep and who to let go Welch put people into 4 categories. There are:
- High Achievers who fit with the company direction
- High Achievers who DON’T fit with the company direction
- Poor Achievers who fit with the company
- Poor Achievers who DON’T fit with the company direction.
When asked who was highest priority for attention Welch’s ideas are surprising to many. He says, your first order of attention is to cut #2 FAST. The problem with these guys are that they seem to be doing very well. They are high achievers but the problem is that they are not a good fit for the team. Because they are successful, people will follow them, and as a bad fit they will all end up going in the wrong direction! The rest need nothing urgent. #1 is doing well, give them more support, #3 need some help and training and #4 might need to go but at least no-one is going to follow their lead.
5. Keep at it
One of the hardest things a team can do is pick themselves up,dust themselves off and try again without losing heart. To me, persistence is the most valuable asset any sportsperson or sales person can have. You’ve just got to keep plugging away.
I’ve seen great players simply worn down by a guy who just won’t give up, who just keeps skating and skating until he’s ready to drop. Similarly I’ve seen sales people with the same ethic. Losing is tough. Rejection is hard. But for those that can just keep going there’s almost always a second chance. Our business relies heavily on software maintenance renewals. After the first year of usage, we contact our customers to make sure all is well and invite them to renew their subscription with us. There are always a few who don’t renew. Some tell us very bluntly that they’ve gone with a competitors offering. it’s never an easy thing to hear.
This year. we started re-connecting with our old customers who hadn’t renewed. In most cases, up to a year had gone by since we last spoke and they had been given a chance to see what their new offering was like. GUESS WHAT?? A very high percentage of those customers are coming back! it’s the old grass in greener, didn’t know how good I had it mentality. Some people just see the rest before they know how good they had it. I find it hard not to take rejection personally but I try to always be persistent. It doesn’t always have a happy ending but every once in a while is enough to keep me going.
You got any others I might have missed?