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 closing deals to hiring your first sales reps and managing them, 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 shares his advice for navigating successes and setbacks—and for keeping bad attitudes from quietly eroding team productivity. And he explains the importance of the “morale bank,” and how to balance yours.
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.
“You shouldn’t cancel one-on-ones—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.
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 popularized 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.
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-in to, 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.”
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 miscommunication situations. 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. Team wins, of course, but individual wins too. I think you want to broadcast individual wins as much as possible. You want to 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 feedback 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.
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.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.