The first time Pete Kazanjy sat on a sales team, he was running it. A longtime product marketing manager, Pete cofounded TalentBin in 2011. With no background in sales, he found himself quickly building a team of sales development reps and account executives to support the company’s rapid growth and eventual acquisition by Monster in 2014.
What could have been merely overwhelming became an opportunity to build a better sales team from the ground up. Without the bad habits sales leaders inevitably accrue, Kazanjy tackled the task like a founder: scaling what worked, learning from what didn’t, and leveraging all the modern tools available to him.
Now, he’s written the book on sales for entrepreneurs—literally. Founding Sales: Sales for Founders (and Others) in First-Time Sales Roles, his guide to everything from onboarding to closing deals, is currently being released in installments.
In this interview, Kazanjy discusses the crucial interplay between individual sellers and sales teams, with tactical tips for managing both. He walks through the metrics every sales organization needs to keep a close eye on, and shares his advice for navigating successes, setbacks, and common performance problems. And he explains the importance of the “morale bank,” and how to balance yours.
What’s the secret to hiring for high performance? What are the most important characteristics you look for?
The first thing I look for is proven success in a prior role. When it comes to account executives, for example, I want to see past sales attainment. In the case of entry-level staff, like sales development reps, this gets a little harder because they’re typically coming out of school or out of a non-sales background. So in that case, I rely more heavily on assessments like written screens and voice mail screens. And I do more behavioral testing during the hiring process too.
For any role, I have candidates do a written screen in order to see their level of attention to detail and writing acumen. That also helps me get insight into their thinking capacity. Then I ask candidates to walk through some of the tasks they would be performing: In the case of account executives, I like to have them do a pitch with me. With sales development reps, I ask them to execute sample voice mails and things like that.
When it comes to effective onboarding, I think the most important thing is that you have a clear and consistent structure. Have things calendared out. Make sure that you are intentional and understand what needs to be communicated. What are the tasks that folks are going to be doing, day in, day out? What are the skills that they need to have that are specific to your organization (which you authenticated during hiring)? Understand that laundry list of items, and then have an agenda whereby you step through them with classes and teaching environments that ensure that new hires are consuming the information.
So the key steps are to A) have that laundry list, B) have a structured curriculum that you’re taking hires through, and C) authenticate that they are actually consuming the materials, and that it’s actually sticking.
In sales, you typically hire in classes, so ideally you’re delivering this information in a cohort scenario; maybe you have three or four sales development reps, or three or four account executives, doing it all together. But even if you’re training one person instead of four, nothing changes. You still want to make sure that you’re running through your curriculum to completion.
Culture is really just another line item that needs to be included in your training. Organizations often run into trouble, though, because they don’t treat it that way.
Be intentional about it and treat it like any other skill. Understand what the hallmarks of your culture are, and make sure that they are proactively articulated. Just as you would train someone on the value proposition of your product, you want to train them on what your organization values and specifically what your organization doesn’t value—be very explicit about that. You probably articulated what your organizational culture is in the hiring process, so rearticulating it during onboarding in a very forthright, intentional fashion is a great way to set yourself and your hire up for success.
So much of sales management revolves around keeping individual reps, and by extension teams, on target. How do you manage meetings with your reports to make them as productive as possible?
When it comes to one-on-ones, the most important thing is to make sure they happen.
Second, make sure that they happen on a consistent basis. One of the things that managers do a bad job of is making time for one-on-ones. In my sales organization, I schedule half-hour one-on-ones on an every-two-week cadence. Meeting more frequently than that is problematic because you end up repeating things over and over again. A two-week cadence leaves time for new issues to come up and allows you, as a manager, to amass a bucket of things that you need to talk about.
So those are the key things: make sure that they happen, and make sure that they’re properly cadenced. I enforce that by creating a calendar invite on the Google Calendar that repeats every two weeks. If I need to move it around, I can move it around. But you shouldn’t cancel these meetings—and your staff shouldn’t cancel them either.
I cover three things: what do you need from me, what do I need from you, and what do you need to know.
Start with “What do you need from me?” What’s on your mind? What’s blocking you? What do you think is keeping you from getting to the level of success that you are excited about?
“What I need from you?” is the opportunity to, on an ongoing basis, compare where the individual is to where I need them to be. So if it’s an account executive, and there’s an improvement area indicated in the various performance KPIs that we’re tracking, this would be the opportunity for me to communicate that. Like, “Okay, your hold rate on demos is not where it needs to be.” Or “You have a big backlog of untouched opportunities. We need to clear those out.” Alternatively, if performance is great, it’s “I need you to keep doing what you’re doing.” Or “Here’s a new thing that I’m going to put in front of you, a new opportunity for improvement that I think would be good for you. I want your buy-in.”
The last one, “What do you need to know?” is my opportunity to communicate broader company information. This can be about any number of things: a new product that’s coming out or new competitive information or somebody being hired or fired. Oftentimes, these will be recommunications of things that were discussed in team meetings. But the one-on-one is an opportunity for us to talk a little bit more in-depth, outside of a group environment. The team member can ask detailed questions, or I can be more candid than I can in a group communication.
My advice here is similar to my advice about one-on-ones. First of all, it’s important to have a cadence. Typically I like to hold an all-sales-team meeting once a week to review team performance characteristics and make sure that we’re where we need to be. This also creates an opportunity to get input from the team, if folks have feedback that they want to surface in a group environment. Obviously one-on-ones can be better for eliciting feedback, but discussion can happen here too.
Team meetings are also a valuable opportunity to communicate new product information or customer success information, or whatever other cross-functional information needs to be delivered synchronously. This is often things that were already emailed out but need to be reviewed again in a group environment, so that everyone knows that everyone got the information—and that there’s no excuse for not knowing it.
Metrics are an important element of meetings in a sales organization, but they can’t be the only thing. Meetings still need to include the qualitative components, the back-and-forth, the communication opportunities. But anytime you’re doing management, you’re going to want to have a harness of key performance indicators that reveal whether your team is performing the way you need it to be performing.
You also need to review those KPIs on an ongoing basis. For starters, make that part of your one-on-ones. Discuss any shortfalls or, alternatively, any out-performance. Review the metrics that you care about most: In the case of account executives, that would be what is their pipeline, how many meetings are they having, what’s their win rate, what are the most recent deals that they’ve closed that won, what are the most recent deals they’ve closed that lost. Having that information available—so that it can be reviewed ahead of time, or right there in your meetings—is important.
In team meetings, highlight the key performance indicators that the team should care about, and the goals that you’ve lined out.
Team meetings should include a communal review of individual performance as well. That transparency is very important. You don’t want to look at individual performance only in one-on-ones.
You also want to have leaderboards, and to say, “Is everyone toeing the line?” Without that group accountability, people who are out-performing (who may know that others are not toeing the line) are going to be unhappy. And that’s going to create an environment where people think they can slack off. Or, if that’s not in their nature, and they want to continue to push hard, it’s going to drag on them that others aren’t being held to the same level of performance.
Speaking from the standpoint of a sales organization, goals need to be attainable, measurable, and concrete.
First, they need to be attainable—both so you are set up for success and so they can’t be impeached after the fact. You can’t just arbitrarily say, “Okay, cool! I want you to close a million dollars of business this quarter.” There has to be a clear path to the goal, and it has to be within the individual’s control. By attainable, I don’t mean that goals should be easy. You should stretch the individual and push their creativity and push their level of effort. But you don’t want them to say, “Okay, that wasn’t a valid goal after all, so I’m not going to pursue it vigorously.” Instead, set goals that are justified because these ten other people have attained one that looks the same, using a set of tools and a set of techniques that have been taught to the whole team.
Goals should also be measurable so that you can, on an ongoing basis, confirm that the individual is advancing against them. If there are problems, you should be able to discuss that in your ongoing one-on-ones and performance meetings.
Finally, goals should be concrete. Even when they aren’t necessarily quantitative in nature, you should still be tracking them. So if there’s a qualitative improvement area—like this quarter, we want to work on your objection handling—then there should still be measures around that. You’d want to say, “And here’s how we’re going to do it: we’re going to have four coaching sessions, or we’re going listen to this many calls,” or what have you, such that you can then make that more metrical in nature.
Setting team goals is essentially the same as setting individual goals. It’s just a roll-up, if you will. If your team is five account executives, the team goal should be five times what you would expect out of each of the account executives. So again, if the individual account executive’s or the individual sales development rep’s goals are measurable and justifiably attainable, then, by extension, the team goal should be as well.
And as with individual goals, even your qualitative objectives should be concrete and measurable. You might say, “As a team, we want to get better at sharing our best practices.” Okay. How are you going to measure that that’s happening? Maybe you want to add a section to your sales team meeting where you share best practices, and record which folks are doing that. But again, these goals are roll-ups of the individuals’ goals.
You also want to set and measure goals in such a way that they can be consumed in a group environment. You want the team to know that they are advancing against them. Or, if there are individual soft spots on the team, folks can know, “Okay, well, I, as an individual, am going to shoulder more of this burden, because I know that this individual is maybe struggling.” But folks also know that that individual is being held to account.
The most important thing is to make sure that goals are very clear and indisputable, and that they’ve been consumed and understood. You want to confirm that folks have bought into their goals. It’s kind of like “speak now or forever hold your peace.” Obviously, you’re going to continue to check in on them, but you want to have agreement to begin with, so it’s less likely that folks are going to try to impeach their goals partway through a quarter.
During your initial goal setting, you might get pushback—and that’s a good thing.
If there’s some rationale for why a goal isn’t justifiable, why it isn’t attainable, I want to hear that argument. It might indicate that there’s something wrong with how we’re thinking about performance—that’s extraordinarily important.
If we think that, across our ten reps, $500,000 in bookings per quarter might be attainable, but then somebody points out a flaw in that logic, and maybe $400,000 is actually attainable, well, now you’re talking a delta of $100,000 times ten reps. That’s a million-dollar shortfall. If we were depending on that to make our quarter or were planning on hiring a bunch of extra engineers that we’d pay for with that revenue, well, better to know that that’s a potential issue ahead of time.
In sales, most goals are metrical in nature, so they pretty much reside in Salesforce. For sales development reps, that’s how many meetings they’re creating and how much pipeline they’re generating. For account executives, it’s how many bookings they’re attaining. And that’s all done out of Salesforce.
There are key outcome metrics, the “where the rubber meets the road” sort of KPIs: meetings created, pipeline generated, bookings attained. But don’t neglect the input metrics—these really come down to activity metrics—that lead to those outcomes.
In the case of SDRs, it’s calling activity, emailing activity. It’s qualitative metrics like connect rates, response rates, conversion rates of connected conversations to meetings scheduled. And then it’s quality ratios like close rates on opportunities that they create. With account executives, it’s other activity metrics, like number of net-new meetings and number of meetings on a per-opportunity basis.
That depends. In sales, in general, a lot of metrics can be hard if tracking is insufficient. We happen to have well-run sales operations and a well-managed CRM, so we don’t have a problem with most of these metrics. Instead, what ends up becoming problematic for us is the qualitative metrics, like, for example, what is the quality of the conversations that are happening? What is the quality of the email communication that is happening? Those eventually show up in lagging indicators like win rates. But from a leading-indicator standpoint, you would want to have better access to that information. You end up trying to instrument that in real time, by getting CC’d on emails, listening in on calls, and things like that.
The best way to spot coaching opportunities is to look at the data. If you have a good KPI harness, you’ll start seeing leading indicators of issues. If somebody’s close rates are lower, for example, you can say, “Okay, it’s weird that this person has close rates that are different than the rest of the team. What’s going on there? Now I’m going to dig into it and try to figure out what’s going on.”
Then, once you do that, get into the actual work in question, whether that’s looking at emails, listening to calls, inspecting what an individual is working on. If level of activity is the issue, determine what that person’s time is being spent on instead. It’s kind of like being a detective, once you’ve been tipped off that something smells funny. And of course, you can actually just ask the person as well, but you don’t want to rely on that.
How about delegation—how to you look for opportunities to delegate, and what’s the secret to doing it effectively?
The first secret to effective delegation is that you should do it. Managers have to constantly look for opportunities for leverage, first and foremost. And that’s actually one of the biggest problems that new managers have—they’re used to being individual contributors. They know that they can chop the wood themselves, and sometimes, it feels easier to just jump in and take over. The problem with that is that it’s not high-leverage. That manager may be able to do the task 50 percent better than the individual they’re jumping in in front of, but if they have ten reports, the team could still generate many times more throughput.
The second secret is to design delegated projects with clear parameters: good back-check opportunities and good KPIs to indicate to you if the delegated program or action is being done in the way that it needs to be done. Clearly articulate what’s being delegated, what outcomes you want to see, and the specific timelines associated with that. Make sure that the person you’re delegating to understands that, and that they acknowledge it.
Then use the back-checks you put in place to authenticate that the work is actually taking place. You’ve agreed that certain KPIs or actions are going to come out of this delegated task or project. A week later or two weeks later, did that actually happen? Come back together, and authenticate that the thing that was agreed to has been done. Did it happen? Did it not happen? If it didn’t happen, why didn’t it happen? Do you need to adjust?
I like to start out with a shorter leash, where maybe you have the person to whom you’ve delegated checking back in and feeding milestone information back to you. Then you have those check-in meetings to authenticate that the delegation is successful. If it has been successful and you’re happy with it, well maybe now the authentication timeframe can be doubled. So instead of checking in every week, maybe now you check in every two weeks. And the next time, if it’s still going okay, maybe you check in every four weeks. But if you check in and one of those KPIs or one of those milestones looks iffy, or something’s problematic, well maybe now you shorten the leash again. What you’re doing is making sure that the delegated project is being done effectively, and you’re getting more and more leverage as you go, without being an absentee manager.
Whenever I coach new managers, I tell them that any time you’re doing labor that could be done by someone other than you, you should question why it hasn’t been systematized and delegated.
If it’s actually individual contributor work, why has it not been assigned elsewhere? Can you bundle it up and hand it to somebody else? Not just because it’s higher leverage and it lets you spend your time on managerial performance, like coaching your staff. But because, oftentimes, that thing that you’re doing, which is lower leverage for you, may be an opportunity for professional development for someone on your team. The very thing that’s actually kind of a pain in your ass might be viewed as a feather in the cap for somebody else. It’s a win-win.
It sounds like delegation is an element of your professional development strategy. How else do you formalize professional development for your staff?
Professional development is very important, particularly because you are, ideally, hiring high performers. On the one hand, high performers are great, because they perform highly. On the other hand, they’re kind of problematic, insofar as they always want something new. They want to advance, and they want to get better. So if you don’t do a good job with professional development and putting new milestones in front of them and helping them build their skill profile, they’re going to stagnate. Then you might end up with a scenario where someone who was performing well develops morale issues, and you lose out on that high performer. It’s a “use it or lose it” scenario.
In many ways, this goes back to the importance of goals. Yes, you have your numerical goals for every individual, but you should have project-based goals too. Like, “Okay, what do you want to do this quarter?” “Oh, I want to get better at X,” or “I want to progress as an SDR toward being an AE, so I want to spend more time doing demos,” or what have you. Making sure that those goals are agreed upon, and that they’re being metricized, is very important.
I try to get people to do the jobs that they want to be promoted into while they’re still in their current jobs. I would never hire an SDR that I didn’t think would eventually become a great AE, for example. So from a professional development standpoint, I want them learning the AE skill profile as they go. When we get to the point that they are doing those skills—demoing or objection handling or what have you—in a way that indicates that they could move on up, then I certainly don’t want to block that. Any time you have an SDR that you can turn into an AE, that’s fantastic. You should do that, because now they’re going to go from creating pipeline to actually creating revenue. And you should be able to back-fill that SDR with another SDR, a new grad hire, pretty quickly.
Sharing feedback is clearly at the heart of your management strategy. How do you deliver the most effective positive feedback?
When you have positive situations to celebrate, it’s a chance to reinforce good behavior. So, first and foremost, do it. And do it a lot.
When you see something that’s good, give out attaboys. But don’t just give them to the individual—give out attaboys in front of everyone.
Surface to everyone else that this is how this should be done, and that this is great.
In that case, you’re winning in three ways: One, you’re reinforcing to the individual that that’s good. Two, you’re making them feel celebrated, and you’re giving them an ego boost by showing it to the rest of the team. And three, you’re indicating to the team that this is how it ought to be done. Essentially what you’re doing is using positive feedback as a coaching opportunity for everyone else. Like, “Hey, everyone. Do it this way and you may also be praised.” There’s all sorts of great self-reinforcing feedback loops that come from that.
Finally, you want to give feedback quickly. If you see someone doing something that’s awesome, validate that right away. Whether that’s sending an email to a team list or taking the opportunity to rearticulate that in a team environment—or both—any way you can memorialize positive behavior is good.
Negative feedback is interesting. It’s obviously very important. And you want to have an environment where negative feedback, or constructive criticism, is more present than not. But most human beings have a tendency to shy away from that. So as a manager, you need to take yourself to an extreme level. If you’re uncomfortable with it, you need to take yourself out of the comfort zone, so that you can give people constructive feedback and popularize that with the rest of the team. Otherwise, people are just naturally not going to do it, because it’s not comfortable.
There’s a great concept by my friend Kim Malone Scott. She’s writing a book called Radical Candor, and she published an article on First Round Review by the same name, which talks about a manager’s responsibility to be candid and honest with negative feedback or constructive criticism. So first, you have to do it.
I disagree with a lot of folks that positive feedback should be given in public and negative feedback should only be given in private. I actually think that there is a lot of value in providing constructive criticism and negative feedback in a public setting.
It’s very important for other folks to know that negative feedback for undesirable behavior or bad performance is happening. If that is only doled out in a private environment, they won’t.
So let’s say you have a high performer who is upset that so-and-so is slacking off, and it doesn’t look like he’s ever being held to account for that. If you don’t do that in a public environment, so that that high performer knows that that person is being censured, then that’s going to erode her morale. Of course, you have to balance constructive criticism of an individual in a public environment with the potential impact on his or her confidence. But if you do it in the right fashion—“The reason we’re doing is to help you, and to help other people learn from your mistakes. It’s not because you’re a bad person.”—then you can achieve both goals.
How do you handle feedback where the answer is measurable (“Fewer bugs in the code please”) versus less measurable (“You come off as aggressive, Pete”)
Quantitative feedback should be easier, because the numbers are sitting right there.
That’s another benefit of having a good metric harness in place—it makes giving constructive feedback much easier, because it’s not a matter of opinion. Cleaving to the metrics is crucial to correcting performance problems that are quantitative in nature.
When it comes to the second type of feedback, it’s important to help the individual understand from whence it’s coming. Give evidence that supports your input so it’s clear you’re not just making it up. Maybe it’s been communicated to you by a variety of people, for example, or you have seen it yourself. If possible, tie it back to a quantitative indicator. So it might be, “The level of care that you are taking in the emails that you’re sending to customers needs improvement. I’ve looked in Salesforce and I saw these three examples right here, where you had major typographical errors (or you didn’t respond to this email, or what have you). And the reason that matters is that it hurts your win rates.”
So essentially, it’s “A) We agreed that this is your goal, whether it’s setting appointments or closing business or what have you, and B) here’s how this behavior right here is going to make it harder for you to attain that goal. That’s the reason I’m giving you this feedback. It’s not because I think you’re a bad person. It’s because I want you to attain this goal that we previously agreed was a good one. Does that make sense?”
The negotiation book Getting to Yes addresses the concept of separating the person from the problem. In this case, you want to be hard on the problem but easy on the person. So you’re saying, “The reason we want to attack this problem is because this is the implication associated with it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you intrinsically as a human being.” And that actually makes it a lot easier for folks to consume that feedback.
What if the negative feedback is personality oriented, though? Say, prima donna behavior from someone on the team?
My response to that is that I don’t deal with prima donnas. Organizations are team enterprises. As an early-stage founder, it’s tempting to tolerate that, because you don’t want to lose that individual’s performance. But you can’t staff an organization of all prima donnas, and prima donnas have negative impacts on other folks. You essentially have to make the decision, “Are we going to be a non-leveraged small-scale shop that tolerates prima donnas, or does the system win out over the individuals?” If you want to build a big business, it has to be a system.
If that attitude, or any undesirable attitude, is manifesting and having a negative impact on other people, you need to address it head-on. The same is true, for example, for high performers who don’t exhibit a lot of drive. In an early-stage sales organization, you don’t have time for that. You need everyone to be kicking ass and taking names. Also, it can be bad optics for other folks. The question is, why aren’t they driven? And that goes down to what their personal goals are. If you have a development plan in front of them, if there are goals they’ve told you that they’re bought into, but for whatever reason they’re still not driven, then I don’t know if you can necessarily change that.
Prima donna or slacker behavior is essentially a performance problem that needs to be managed. If you address the undesirable attitude head-on and it doesn’t resolve in short order, you need to get rid of that person.
You need to be really honest about it. Once again, this goes back to having a metrics harness that indicates when there’s indisputably something left to desire. If you have that metrics harness, and if the individual’s goals are justifiable and attainable, then you can and should be candid about problems when they arise. That’s why it’s so important to have regular one-on-ones: you have a forcing venue for those discussions. So you say, “Great, we’re going to work on your calling volume” or “We’re going to work on your level of prospecting within your accounts,” and you agree to that. Then two weeks later, if the metric hasn’t changed, address why. Try to debug that, and agree to a plan of action.
If it’s still problematic another two weeks later, at that point there’s something wrong with either the organization, the goal, or the individual and their level of effort or training. You need to figure out which and create a plan of action to resolve it. If the problem is with the individual, create a performance plan, with specific KPIs. If the individual doesn’t advance against that plan, then you’re not doing them any favors by letting them stay around. It’s a bad fit for them, and it’s also going to erode the morale of your high performers. So, at that point, you really need to let them go.
How much time you should give a performance plan varies from role to role, and it also varies based on the problem in question. So for instance, if the problem is just a pure effort thing—an SDR who is consistently falling short of his activity metrics—well, that’s very easy to instrument and very easy to correct. “Okay, we need you to make more phone calls” or “You need to send more emails.” That’s just a question of effort, so the timeframe would be short. If it’s a qualitative, skill-based thing—“We need your response rates to be better” or “The emails that you’re sending aren’t good”—then the timeframe should be a little bit longer. But ultimately, if the individual is not progressing, you need to understand when to fish or cut bait.
When it comes to SDRs, ideally you should sniff this stuff out during hiring. But if you’re not seeing activity improvement within four weeks, they should be gone. If you’re not seeing a track toward skill-profile improvement in a similar amount of time—six, maybe eight, weeks—then maybe they just don’t have it in them. With account executives, that cadence might be a little bit longer.
When creating a performance plan, the important thing is to have a good handle on what KPIs you want to see improved. Then ensure that you allow enough time for the implementation of the agreed-upon solution path. If at that point the precursors of improvement are not showing up, well then the individual needs to go.
The question to you, as a manager, is how did this person become a morale problem? Because if they were a high performer, they probably still have the kernels of high performance within them. So what happened? Did something happen at home, or outside of your organization, that you missed? Then have a candid conversation about it. Or is it that they don’t feel challenged? If so, then that was a failure or professional development and you need to look at that. Really, you just need to debug what’s going on with them, and then figure out what the solution is.
When high performers begin to flag, it’s usually an indication that you screwed up as a manager. You need to come up with, essentially, a performance plan for yourself to help the high performer get back on the horse.
Ambition and high motivation are great things to harness. In this case, it’s just a question of making sure that the individual has the right level of professional development and skills coaching to improve.
There are two steps here: First, if they aren’t as good as they think they are, and as a result they have an attitude, it’s important to clearly articulate where their skill profile is lacking. Back that up with evidence, so they understand that there are things that they need to work on. Second, determine how you are going to help them get to the point that they are great. This will look similar to your onboarding plan, but instead it’s an ongoing professional development plan, where you’re spending a cadenced amount of time helping the individual fix the issues that you’ve identified. You can also consider assigning them a buddy, someone who’s skilled where this person is deficient, to support their professional development.
I think high performers crave recognition, so you need to make sure that they’re being recognized. Not just individually, but in a team environment. This is why touting an individual’s high performance in a public setting is really important. Make sure that you’re continually doing that, and getting those attaboys in.
You also have to make sure that high performers have good professional development in front of them. As a manager, make that your responsibility. In the case of high performers, it’s all the more important, because they’re going to start bumping up against that ceiling more quickly than others. So it’s higher risk. Eventually you will lose people who don’t have good professional development plans, but you will lose your high performers more quickly. And that’s unfortunate, because you want to retain them most of all.
It sounds like you’re very mindful of the impact team members can have on each other—both good and bad. What advice can you give to sales leaders to ensure that that influence tips toward the positive?
For starters, we train on communication to try to get ahead of bad interactions born of misunderstanding. Even so, as a manager you have to constantly look for miscommunications. Maybe you get CC’d into an email or forwarded an email after the fact, where you read the thread and see that clearly there’s some sort of broken communication going on. You want to jump on that and resolve it. If it’s after the fact, resolve it such that it doesn’t happen again; if it’s real time, jump in and break up that confusion. The same goes for spoken communication—don’t stand by and watch miscommunication happen.
Beyond that, I am a big fan of sharing both successes and failures directly and publicly. Make sure that wins are memorialized. If it’s a team win, plan a group lunch or, one of my favorite things to do, bring in cookies for everyone. In sales organizations, you have individual performance-based compensation, of course. But then there are all sorts of other fun things that can be done for the group that have a really big impact. If the team collectively attains their appointment-setting goals above a certain amount, taking them out to a celebratory event is only a few hundred extra dollars. It’s nothing compared to the variable compensation that’s been paid for everyone. But it can set a really valuable tone, and it creates camaraderie.
You want to broadcast individual wins as much as possible too. Recognize them to the group as well as the individual. As with team wins, you can memorialize individual wins with a celebration of some kind. If someone really went above and beyond, get them an Open Table gift card and send them out to dinner to recognize that fact.
From a human psychology standpoint, unexpected upsides have a really meaningful impact on folks. They remember them. So you don’t want this bonus recognition to become de rigueur or background noise. But at the same time, if you want to have an environment where constructive criticism is freely given in order to help folks course correct, you have to be aware of the morale bank.
Negative communications are like debits from the morale bank. One way to pump up that account is to celebrate things. You’re essentially adding to the account so that later on, you can draw it down when you need to correct folks.
When it does come time to correct folks, what’s the best way to do that—to draw on the “morale bank” without depleting it completely?
As with so many of these things, the most important thing is to address problems head-on, and quickly. If it’s a team setback, be sure to have a candid post-mortem. First, make sure to address that this was actually a setback, that this is a problem. Don’t let your team put its collective head in the sand. But then have an open and candid conversation about where that came from and determine what you’re going to do to solve it going forward. Mistakes are fine, as long as you learn from them and don’t repeat them.
If you’re correcting an individual setback, again, you need to have an honest conversation about why it happened, and you need to figure out what the problem was that created the situation. Was it something within the individual’s control? Do you both agree that it was something within their control? Do you have an agreed-upon hypothesis as to how you can solve the issue? It’s kind of like a performance plan, but in this case, it’s a rebound plan that is structured like a performance plan. Where did this setback come from, and how are we going to make it not happen again? Because if a setback happens, and the individual feels like they’re operating without a net or they don’t have a partner in debugging the issue, they may feel lost. You’re setting that individual up to be a morale problem.
Discipline is really important. Often it can be handled with a performance plan. If an individual is having performance issues, and you’ve had that conversation—you’ve crystallized to them that there are issues with their performance as signified by these metrics right here, by this evidence right here—then that’s sufficient discipline. You’ve had that conversation. Now you just need to track against it for remediation.
What if the problem isn’t performance-related, but an actual transgression of company norms? Misbehavior of some kind?
If you find out about that kind of thing, it’s very important to discipline on it. I don’t think that having a zero-tolerance rule is usually a good thing; maybe it depends on what the contravention was. But you’d be surprised how frequently other folks know that something was going on. So if you find out about a transgression and don’t do something about it—and don’t syndicate to others that you knew about it and took corrective action—then the team is going to be unhappy. Either they are going to feel let down, and it’s going to erode their morale, or alternatively, it’s going to invite them to potentially engage in that contravening behavior. And you certainly don’t want that.
This goes back to the issue of public negative feedback. If you have to discipline somebody, make it very clear why you’re doing that and what the contravention was. You need to get their buy-in and confirm that they agree with that. Or alternatively, if they don’t agree with it, figure out what the communication shortfall is there. Why are you operating from different frames of reference? Then I think it’s actually very important to help other folks understand that this discipline has taken place, such that they are neither tempted by similar behavior nor demoralized by the fact that somebody was doing it.
Now, if it’s particularly egregious, maybe you don’t do that in a public environment, like in a team meeting. But you might have that conversation in everyone’s one-on-one. The most important thing is simply to make it clear that you’ve identified the undesirable behavior and taken steps to correct it.
Informally, I track morale by walking around the sales floor, observing what’s going on, having coffee with people, things like that. I also explicitly ask, in one-on-ones, “What do you need from me? What’s going on? What’s problematic? What’s blocking you?” Be very proactive about soliciting that feedback. A lot of times, folks don’t want to complain, so you really have to push to extract those insights.
Tracking morale at the team level is really just a roll-up of the individual.
You’ve raised a lot of important points about keeping lines of communication open. In general, how do you ensure you’re communicating well with your staff?
I try to demonstrate the communication strategies that I ask my team to use. For example, I aim to be very clear in my communication, whether it’s spoken or written, and always require acknowledgement. So I end conversations or emails with, “Does that make sense? Can you confirm to me that you understand?” That way I know that there’s not an open loop, where the person I’m talking to potentially doesn’t get it. I want them to communicate that to me.
When it comes to spoken communication—in a one-on-one, in the hall, on a call—I like to memorialize the outcomes of conversations in an email. Just so there’s no confusion, and the individual can articulate, “Okay, yeah, that makes sense. That aligns with what I thought we discussed, and those are the next actions associated with it.” Moreover, that doesn’t leave any wiggle room. No one can say, “Oh, I didn’t understand that you wanted that done in the next week” even though you specifically addressed that. It cuts off any opportunity for shirking. It reduces the malarkey quotient.
I’ve observed—through written communication and email, spoken communication, over conference calls, or what have you—that folks often lack communication skills. So as I mentioned earlier, in my sales organization, we train on the elements of effective communication: clear calls to action for stating what the goal of this meeting is or what the purpose of this email is; explicit communication of the topics that need to be covered; and specifically calling out anyone who’s expected to take on a follow-up item (“Christina, does that make sense? Can you execute on this?”). And again, as a manager you also need to constantly look for miscommunication and surface it quickly.
I think that a healthy amount of conflict is important. And by conflict, I mean respectful contention, if you will—not out-and-out conflict. When I see conflict, a lot of the time it’s caused by miscommunication, so I try to resolve that by helping people get to the bottom of the issue. If they’re going back and forth on email, I tell them to get on the phone. It’s like, “Hey, get in a room. Have a conversation. What’s going on?”
You also want to make sure that if there’s conflict, it’s principle-based conflict. “I’m having this issue with you because you are doing X, Y, and Z, which injures these business outcomes, A, B, and C.” If it doesn’t connect back to the business and the negative impacts on the business, it’s kind of a baseless accusation. So for example, I’m an AE and I’m mad at this SDR right here because he keeps putting bad meetings on my calendar, which are a waste of my time. That’s keeping me from paying attention to other business. Well, we need to have a conversation: “Hey, SDR, this needs to stop happening because it’s not good for the business.” That’s obviously very important. That’s a form of corrective feedback.
If it’s conflict for the sake of conflict, that kind of goes back to morale problems or prima donna behavior. The question is, from whence does this conflict derive? If it’s not coming from the team trying to do a better job at executing business, where is it coming from? Because that shouldn’t exist. At that point, it’s like kids on a playground calling each other names.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.