Playing full out..

St Augustins Swimming Pool, Norwich

Back when I was first starting out – as a fresh faced, black suited, door knocking salesman working for an East end telecoms company – I could not exactly have been described as ‘outgoing’.

In fact, talking to people I didn’t know needed something akin to a ‘run-up’ and speaking to more than one person just brought back bad memories.

Cue traumatic flashback, speaking in Norwich Cathedral at 16 years old with knees knocking, and around a 1000 people feeling uncomfortable (both for me and themselves). All as a favour for a friend who was ill and couldn’t read his part in a Christmas charity event (I remember thinking at the time ‘why not, how bad could it be?’).

Norwich Cathedral, Pulpit eye view.

Shortly after the aforementioned palpitating public pulpit presentation I had also made the decision that I would try and master another fear in my life. That of jumping off the top board at the main public swimming pool.

My recollections have that top board as being a straight drop off into oblivion; jumping off it was absolutely off the menu. And yet, others were doing it – and they were just fine, even racing back up for another go.

Somehow I found myself up there and looking down – it was now or never. I vaguely remember preferring the risk to living with the fear of the thing. I jumped. I was very quickly just another kid running back up the ladder to have another exhilarating drop into the deep end.

Since then I have found the phrase ‘always in at the deep-end’ to be one I’ve used time and again when faced with a serious learning curve. It just so happens that total immersion is a highly effective way to learn. Flash forward to my first days and weeks as a door to door salesman and I was to get an awful lot of deep-end and not a lot of exhilaration.

If by exhilaration you mean getting told to F-OFF!! at the top of someone’s lungs then ok, I’ll give you that one. My response at the time was to look over my shoulder, then look back to the customer and say ‘I think they’ve gone’ and just continue walking into their office – and sell them some lines and calls. I couldn’t tell you why I looked over my shoulder when I did, other than that the force of the shout kind of made my body swerve.

Walking out of that meeting high on success, having sold a product I knew next to nothing about, to a hostile customer that didn’t know me from Adam, I was never going to fear another customer again.

In fact I was beginning to really get an idea of what my then (and now) hero, Anthony Robbins, was talking about in his blockbuster books. He had (and still has) an electric passion for the phrase “playing full out”.

The concept that a fearless approach to life might be a serious advantage was fully dawning on me – and ‘playing full out’ was just the kind of attitude adjustment I needed in order to get my head around the transformation my life needed back then. In that sales pitch I had experienced the kind of creativity available when you let go in the moment, give yourself to the task and open up to the possibilities – I had played full out.

Since then, and at three subsequent times in my life, I have left secure and nicely paid jobs to start, and then drive new businesses to increasing levels of success. Each time has been a lot like the view from the top board. Each first set of new customer pitches with a new brand a little bit like the moment in the pulpit at Norwich Cathedral (only with slightly more positive exhilaration!).

When it comes to your moment, when the fear of the leap is all that is stopping you from meeting your purpose and living your dream – I fully encourage you to ‘play full out’, embrace the exhilaration and jump. Most of all I encourage you to enjoy the experience as it’s all invaluable knowledge for the next time.

And there’s always a next time.

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Leadership, Identity and The Learning Cycle in Business

Of prime concern to me when thinking about how a business behaves is, who is leading that business?

This gives me an insight into how the business is being run and how effective it will be throughout the course of its activities.

The ‘who’ element is important not because I might know or have heard of the person who is leading that business. It is important because the way that person relates to their ‘self’, and therefore others, is going to determine how the roles that others can play are allowed to participate in making the business as successful as it can be.

For example, a number of entrepreneurial type businesses experience super fast growth in the first 2 to 3 years of the life of the business and then find that they reach a plateau. In many instances this is due to the limitations of the leadership to grow the business beyond a certain size. A major reason for this is because they simply cannot delegate, as in order to do so they feel the need to replicate themselves in others. Frustration experienced in trying to transfer knowledge and capabilities is largely a representation of the barrier they face due to gaps in their own conscious awareness of how they actually do what they do; they tend not to know how specifically they do what they do – they just do it and move on.

Identity and the Learning Cycle

When an employee makes a suggestion as to how something might be done differently the leadership in this kind of scenario feels that the view expressed is a direct criticism of their own abilities and potentially their whole success to date. Partly due to the leadership having fused their personal sense of identity with that of their company; making any critique of the business practice a very personal affair. Partly due to the fact that the leadership has been so continuously and independently successful based on how they have done things to date. Classically, entrepreneurs follow the typology of being strong on internal referencing but also signing off on decisions based on their own internal checking of the facts.

This leads to a very quick and effective learning cycle i.e. what we need to do is probably X, I think it will be effective based on my experience to date; the outcome is entirely on their shoulders and therefore any success is entirely theirs and any failure is quickly incorporated and adapted from in pursuit of personal goals. Contrastingly most people who fit the mould of a classic employee start out external reference and external check and develop over quite a significant period of time into being internal reference for the most part with ad hoc training input and internal check for the most part with regular meeting with ‘boss’ type figures to externally check for ‘key performance indicators’ (KPI’s).

For a classic entrepreneurial mindset a KPI is ‘did we get the deal, and will it make us any money and can we collect that money quickly enough to continue trading’. Where an entrepreneurial style leader of an SME type business draws fair comparison with a more corporate style executive of a larger/upper end of Medium enterprise or corporate business is that they both make ‘executive decisions’. In effect, they live their lives modelling outcomes and taking action.

The areas where they start to drift apart are to the degree to which outcomes are modelled out and the timescales involved in taking action. Respectively speaking they can be seen as being on a continuum from ‘Assess, Deploy and Review to the slightly longer cycle of ‘Model, Assess, Meet and Discuss and then Outsource for twice the money without achieving the outcome to the desired level’. Now that analysis is clearly ‘tongue in cheek’ but anyone who has worked in both environments will be nodding their head to the ironies involved and then promptly shaking it as multiple memories of frustration arise. Both models at their extreme are immensely limiting to a businesses growth and development.

The learning cycle in the ‘classic entrepreneur’ mode is largely internal and unconscious whilst the learning cycle of the ‘executive’ is largely externalised and ‘hyper conscious’, somewhat leading to heavily risk assessed models that lead to highly protective strategies; both in terms of ‘arse covering’ for the decision makers and in terms of deploying the strategies through external agencies. Where one style is all ‘grass roots-personal responsibility and limited blue-sky inclusiveness’ the other is largely ‘deferred responsibility and endless meetings discussing blue-sky possibilities’.

The Challenge

The challenge therefore is to bring an awareness of this spectrum of behaviour and learning styles that are available to business leaders and to help them to identify which of these traps their organisation and they themselves are falling into. There is no silver bullet, but there is unlimited potential waiting to be tapped, with a clear passage from start up to corporate available to anyone with enough energy and behavioural flexibility. Openness to a continuous learning cycle, whereby actions are executed and modelled – with responsibility and knowledge shared throughout the business is a key factor. As the leadership and the compliment of business stakeholders (i.e. everyone) identify with the purpose of the business they will begin to achieve their own purpose within it i.e. realising and actualising their own potential.

Leading with leaders

Each person would therefore become an example of a healthy learning cycle and in doing so will develop a healthy and flexible sense of self: identity. It could therefore be argued that in becoming such an example, each person doing so is enacting leadership in their own way and at their own level within the business; and in their ongoing development through life, with its many cascading factors into the family home, and society in general.

Taking the sting out of Sales..

It is clear to most people that if you want to have a successful business then a healthy flow of Sales is as vital as your heart beat.

And, just as the number one killer of human beings on this planet is heart disease the same is true for businesses when it comes to failing to deliver Sales.

You have to be extremely unfortunate to kill your business due to poor administration when you have the sales engine working well. Likewise you can pretty much write your own exit cheque if your business can grow with or without you. The key to all of this lies in how you gear your businesses attitude towards Sales.

So why is it so many people treat picking up the phone to speak to potential customers like the phone might bite them?

Well for one thing most people treat this activity as if they are about to pick up the phone and speak to an Alien. Even if you are about to speak to a total stranger (and I fully recommend you actually do this at least 5 times a day) they will still just be another human being.

You will always have loads in common with almost any human being that you speak to as long as your initial focus is to have a friendly conversation. In fact, let’s cut straight to the good stuff and just call every customer (new and existing) with the same frame of mind as you do when you call up a good friend for a good chat. You will be surprised how this will change your relationship to selling.

Why is there a perception that getting people to buy from you is so hard?

Most non-sales people think that Selling is about knowing your product and having a killer price point. Now both of these aspects are extremely helpful – but they don’t necessarily make you good at Sales. If you need either of these to sell then you haven’t got a clue about your customer. So get to know your customer.

Listen.

In doing so you will learn about all of their needs, and this will give you the golden opportunity to sell them something. Initially it really doesn’t matter what you sell them: a loss leader, a trial contract, a free piece of consultancy – sell them an idea for free if the opportunity presents itself.. just as long as you add value to them you will have created a customer. And, once you have sold them one thing, you can go back and sell them everything.

And as for the elephant in the room.. why do non-sales people fail to value the role of Sales within the wider ecology of the business?

From my perspective Sales is a key aspect of leadership within any company.

In fact I would go so far as to say that if Sales isn’t leading your business then go and have your data (and therefore your sanity) checked.

Sales is the coal face – it excavates all of the juicy information a business needs to thrive on a daily basis. Any company that fails to actively take the feedback of this rich source of information will pay heavily for it in the long run.

And for those who feel that selling doesn’t come naturally to them – I would ask you to consider that what we see as selling is simply a human variant of a pattern seen right across nature.

A great example from nature that can give us an insight into how vitally important selling is can be seen in bees.

Bees are treated as an object of phobia by vast numbers of people. Yet the process of pollination bees facilitate is so important to the wider eco-system that the loss of bees could cause a fundamental breakdown of how our biosphere self regulates and perpetuates itself.

Selling, in my view is therefore Mankind’s methodology for cross-pollinating and perpetuating ongoing connectedness. For example, if you trace the trade routes back in time you will see the initial beginnings of today’s global trading systems (the Silk routes etc). This vast array of interconnectivity is a pattern we see time and again when life is thriving (i.e. the world wide web).

But I thought we were done with Sales people.. I mean look at Amazon, surely this is the future of business?

Even in the online-digital age we have not seen a decrease in the number of Sales heads across businesses world-wide (according to Daniel Pink in ‘To Sell is Human’ (2013), who also has a strong argument that everyone is in Sales).

Sales people travel millions of miles every day across our planet just to sit face to face with other human beings in order to exchange information, build connections, strengthened by contracts, driving the ongoing pulse of exchanges between people across value systems and cultures.

If you are not in sales but, in reading this, have come even a half step closer to being more comfortable with your ‘inner sales person’ I would consider my message delivered. Happy selling!