It was late March and my 40 sales reps hadn’t called a prospective customer since two weeks before Christmas.
We had no chance of hitting our quarterly sales target and if something didn’t change immediately, we risked tanking the entire year.
I wanted to fire EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM.
I tossed and turned all night. I woke up sweating, swearing, and I punched the pillow in frustration. The stench of anger fouled my sleep and I worried hate was filling my heart. “Just do your fucking job,” I growled.
Alone in the night, the downtrodden feelings snowballed: sweat-wet sheets, eyelids broken open with ire, I stared into the black. There was no relief, no tonic to ease my burden. Helplessness never gave way to sleep.
I knew my job was on the line. But so was my pride and worth.
My sales division was the perennial top team at a fast growing software company. How does a team this talented finish the previous year at 110% of quota and then the very next quarter only hit 69% of its quota?
The numbers were staring me right in the face. The senior sales reps hadn’t just put the tools down early for a boozy Friday lunch and failed to restart in the afternoon. No, no, that would have been lamentable, but excusable. They had all gotten together in a pow-wow and thrown their tools in a heap, poured jet fuel on the pile, lit a match, and walked away like forsaken heroes. Had I not seen their sullen faces in the office, I could have assumed they had turned into hermits and were living in caves.
Throughout January and February, I tried everything to re-ignite their interest and motivation. I started with the routine: increased focus on metrics, weekly reporting became daily reporting. I leaned on my sales managers to lean on the sales reps.
When that didn’t work, there was a period you could call innovative or desperate. We created contests with lavish prizes. At one point, a prize table was laden with a large screen TV, motorized scooter, and enough other tech gadgets to make Santa blush with envy.
When prizes and contests didn’t work, the sales managers and I oscillated between public celebration and personally delivered condemnation. One day a division wide email might celebrate the most effortful sales reps, the next day the most slothen would get an extra mouthful of cheap motivation, lazy cajoling, or drill sergeant-esque discipline. We tried everything.
One late night in March as the clock marched towards 8 pm, one of my best reps was still in the office as I was heading home.
I snapped a pic and sent a team wide email celebrating the effort. This was the type of effort we needed to get back on track.
The message back from the team was unanimous: DON’T DO THAT. The expression they used was, “It’s demotivating.”
“Fuck you!” I thought. “You know what’s demotivating? Watching all of you not do your job!”
Everything about a sales team is driven by incentives. Quotas, commission pay, bonus pay, fancy trips around the world. And when things aren’t going well, performance plans. None of it seemed to matter to my team. No carrot or stick seemed to motivate them like it used to.
Lost and alone, I teetered on the edge of helpless despair. I was ready to fire them all. I also knew you can’t fire an entire team.
I imagined myself saying, “Umm, hey, boss. Sales performance is down because the sales reps aren’t doing their jobs. Let’s fire them all and start again. What do you think?”
I would have fired myself for saying that.
If your best option is to fire the entire team, it’s better to fire the leader. There are no bad teams, just bad leaders.1
Out of ideas and at a fork in the road, the conventional paths forward looked barren. I’d have to forge a new way, so I stepped off the road and into the dark woods and meandered alone with my despair. As March became April, I searched for answers until a novel question came to me, “What if the low effort is a symptom of something else? What if the low activity isn’t the problem?”
As soon as I asked myself that question, I had a renewed sense of curiosity. That question was a bread crumb of inspiration, but I still had no plan. I set out in a direction following my wonder, “What can I not see that is sapping my team’s motivation?”
I went on a listening tour. Meetings happened outside the office, walking in a park or at a favorite lunch spot. I started with the clues the team had left me: What did it feel like to be demotivated? How long had they felt this way? What did it feel like to be motivated? I worked hard to remain in a state of wonder. It’s amazing what you can learn when you don’t have an agenda. Over the course of a week and a few dozen coffee chats, I had a hint of what was going on.
My office had been around for two and a half years. The sales team had been the best in the company for the last two years. We had just promoted a few sales reps to become managers and those left behind couldn’t see a future that included them. They had lost their why. They had successfully put Sydney on the map, but what came next? What was in it for them?
The team had never seen a company grow exponentially and it was difficult for them to predict the massive opportunities ahead. When I joined the company with 150 employees, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have 500. When I left after a decade, we had 4,000 people across five continents. My team failed to recognize the opportunity in front of them just like I had many years ago. In the absence of a vision, they had made up their own stories, and they tended to all be tragedies.
I took all the sales leaders out of the office for two days. I made a massive bet and we created a new vision for the Sydney office. After the second day, on my way home, I was filled with panic. “What did we just commit to!”
Our new vision was bold. We threw out the “Put Sydney On The Map” vision and we created a new mission tied to helping our customers, growing revenue, and most importantly, creating more leadership opportunities in our office. I understood my fear as a sign that the vision was inspiring. It was going to take all that we had to bring it to life.
It took months for the new vision to sink in, but we finished the year at 99% of our target and turned around a terrible start to the year faster than any other team in the history of the company.
The sales reps’ lack of effort was never the true problem. Their visionless leader had been asleep at the wheel.
There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.