The Story of Paul and Planning

Paul was a super seller.  A true Rock Star. He was a savant in so many ways.  He could read the extremely large product catalog and know not only the product numbers, but also the page they were on in the several hundred pages of the catalog.  He had little fear when we walked into a customer’s place of business.  He could solve problems.  He was the kind of seller that every sales manager wanted.  He made his goals.  With one exception.

When I met Paul, he was coming off a phenomenal year.  He had made President’s club and had earned the ring, the trip, and the large merit increase along with a terrific bonus.  I was the bad guy in this story.  After two months of the new year, Paul was tracking at 20% below his prior year.  Not 20% below his goal.  Even worse, below prior year.  I called him into my office and asked what was going on.  He shared that he had a $200k order he was working against and he wasn’t going to be able to overcome that large order.  

We worked through the details and figured out that the order he had identified wasn’t going to hit his numbers until June.  He had not even seen the effects of it yet.  In essence, he had given up on the year based on something that hadn’t happened yet.  

I have been working in sales for a long time.  I understand the push to end a year and make a number.  After that push, I have felt the need to catch my breath and take it a little easier for a week or two.  I knew Paul was needing a break, but I was a new manager for him.  He was a valuable seller, a good person with a strong work ethic and attitude.  Something was missing. That something was a plan.  An understanding of how to reach his goal, other than just working harder.

I love the start of a new year.  Everything seems fresh and everything seems possible. I asked Paul to work with me on planning his year and identifying how he could overcome the large, one-time order.  

  1. Identify your gap between what the number he finished the previous year with, and what his goal is
  2. Look for non-repeating business.  One-time orders, and business lost.  Add those to your gap.  Now you have a true gap.
  3. Define what your close rate it.  If it’s 50%, then you need to double your pipeline to reach your goals
  4. Identify targeted products or services for targeted customers.  Total that dollar amount and define your timeline for winning the business.
  5. Break it down into actionable steps to win business with the 20% of your customers that make up most of your business, plus your targeted prospects (companies and products).

Now Paul and I had a roadmap to his success.  Paul worked hard to make it a reality and he not only made up the deficit but exceeded his goal for the year by 5%.  

I spent several years working for a large manufacturing company, and several years working for a large distribution company before I started my consulting practice.  I was fortunate to work for two great companies with great people that helped me build a base of knowledge.  I learned a great deal from working with Paul and for that, I’m grateful.  

Can your sales team identify how they will make their goals in 2020?

Do You Really Need A Rock Star?

Do you really want to hire a Rock Star?  The short answer is yes, or at least it should be!  

Let’s narrow the focus for the sake of this article.  Let’s focus on salespeople.  They are the face of your company to the customer.  They are the ones building the relationships with existing customer and with prospective customers.  Do you really need a Rock Star to do that?  

Maybe it’s easier to ask the question differently; why would you want anything less than an “A” player?  They are providing the fuel for your company engine.  Anything less than an “A” salesperson brings you less than stellar results.  Why would you want that?

What defines a Rock Star?  I recently worked on a project to define the qualities of a star seller, using metrics, not just a gut feel.  We polled several CEO’s, owners, and sales leaders.  The most prevalent metric was around revenue and profit, as you might expect.  However, there was more to the story.  Consistency and sustainability in performance rated higher than a one-year blowout of revenue and profit goals.  Does that fit with what you are looking for?

How do you define a rock star?

• Past two roles/jobs performance vs. goal

• Performance vs. peers in that time frame

• New logos added

• New product added

• Sales cycle improvement

• Close rate improvement

• Increase average order size

• Ability to upsell/cross sell

• Their prospecting processes

• Their selling processes

• Compensation history

• Promotions history

• Voice of customer contribution to the company for product or service or terms improvements 

If you were just starting your company and hiring your sales team, would you hire the team you have in place today?  Would they be the group that catapult your company to success?  Are they helping you grow your business at a rate that fits your needs?  Hiring “A” sellers is not easy, but establishing a consistent process for finding talent, hiring talent, and developing talent increases your odds dramatically.  It starts with defining what you are looking for.  Are you looking for Rock Stars?

Jerry Phillips is the President of NineRuns.  He works with companies that want to improve their sales and profits.  He is the author of “Always Be Looking For Stars” available at Amazon, and speaks on “Finding, Hiring, and Developing Talent”.

Tom DeBolt

Tom DeBolt

“Great leaders will not weigh in too quickly, otherwise it shuts down any additional conversation.”  In making this statement, Tom DeBolt was describing a mentor of his, but it also reflects Tom himself.  Tom is the GM for Benelli USA.  They are the manufacturing company of world class shotguns.  The shotguns are works of art. He was named GM a few years ago and took over a company that had opportunities to expand their market share.  To do so, they needed to change their culture.  What had made them successful over the prior 20 years, would not keep them growing at the expected rate of revenue growth or profitability.  

Tom is thoughtful, strategic, and analytical.  He has a strong spirit of service to others.  He uses data to make decisions but is also very much in touch with the human element of decision making.  He weighs both before he makes his choices.  He shared with me the value of an interim leader.  

The Lutheran Church has a policy that requires an interim leader when the pastor transitions out of the church.  Tom sat on the committee to replace their pastor when he left their church after 20 years at the pulpit.  The church had an interim pastor for several months, to allow the congregation to “mourn” the transition and adjust to the changes of a new leader.  They then brought in the new church leader, who brought change to the church.

It’s the same pattern that Tom had witnessed in his GM role.  Prior to Tom’s arrival, there had been an individual named to replace a 20-year leader at Benelli.  The new GM was not hired as an interim leader, and his tenure was shortened by the challenges of replacing a leader who had created a culture.  That culture was now working through change.

When Tom took the GM role, his first order of business was to build trust, and find trust.  He had a good team, and they had a way of doing business that was not in alignment with where they needed to take the company.  They saw someone from the outside, coming into the role and it created a gap between the executive team and the management team.  How could he change a culture with people he doesn’t see every day with this gap?

The key was collaboration.  Tom asked great questions, listened to the answers and asked more questions.  His hunger for discovery, led him to the balance of using data and using his team’s anecdotal input.  He worked hard not to shut down input.  From the information, he received, he made some hard choices.  His choses included improving communication throughout the company.  He promoted from within; put more responsibility in the hands of his managers; held companywide meetings monthly.    He shared results toward revenue and profit goals.  He shared the challenges they were facing and the wins they had earned. He shared how they were tracking toward their annual company plan.  It had never been done before.

The executive team, with Tom’s leadership, created a mission statement and vision that the entire company could rally around.  They created a set of values and behaviors called the Benelli USA Compass that they live every day. They are changing a culture.

As I spoke to Tom I was struck by his humble and generous nature.  His story is one of personal growth through his openness to input and then the fortitude to make strong judgments.  Because of these skills, he has built trust in the organization.  Because of his willingness to have the entire groups participation in the process of building the mission, vision and values, they have a purpose that they all can rally around.  Tom’s understanding of how to change a culture comes from a high level of empathy.  He understands his people and their motivations.  He values their input.  Tom is now working to take that same level of commitment to relationships at all levels of the company.   They track adoption of the new culture that they have created together.  Great leaders, like Tom DeBolt, will not weigh in too quickly, so they don’t shut down any additional conversation.

The best seller doesn’t always make the best managers

What were they thinking?  The best seller doesn’t necessarily make the best sales leader.  

Does your rock star seller have great leadership skills?  How do you know?  Why then, would you take your top performer and make them the supervisor?  Rock star sellers are “A” players who attract other “A” players, but that doesn’t mean they can sell through others.  In fact, that may be the last thing the want to do.  They may be outstanding individual contributors.  They may have great selling skills.  Managing others is a completely different skill set.  

Have you identified the skills and values that you need in your leadership team?  Do you have a strong onboarding process that allows them to learn to be leaders and supervise their team so they can help maximize performance and develop their skills?

Look at professional sports for an understanding of this phenomenon.  How many superstar baseball, basketball, hockey, or football players have become successful coaches?  The most successful coaches and managers are the ones who are students of the game.  The ones who have had to learn through their struggles.  They understand the game, and they understand how to get the most out of their people.

Most leaders who are hiring the management team feel they are pretty good judges of character.  Perhaps… You can improve your odds dramatically by building a process:

  1. Define what a successful manager will have accomplished at 12 months in the role
  2. Capture the daily work they will need to do to be successful at 12 months
  3. List the values that you know the manager will have to have to be successful
  4. Develop your competencies and values for interviewing the candidates, internally and externally
  5. Create behavioral based questions for the interview team
  6. Delve deeply into the experiences, skills, values, and aptitude- can the be successful in 12 months?

The biggest challenge we encounter when working with clients on hiring talented people is, they do not have a well-defined understanding of what they truly are looking for in a candidate.  This makes it hard to find talent, and hard to hire talent.  When you can’t define success, you also have a hard time developing the individual. 

Desperate people take desperate actions

Desperate people take desperate actions.  You have heard that before, I’m certain.  Have you ever thought of it when you are hiring?  

Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 95% of hiring is done to fill existing positions. Most of those vacancies are caused by voluntary turnover.  Only 28% of talent acquisition leaders today report that internal candidates are an important source of people to fill vacancies—presumably because of less internal development and fewer clear career ladders, per the Harvard Business Review.

If you don’t have internal candidates to backfill your vacancies, and you must go to external candidates, there will be a significant time that your roles will be open.  This hurts productivity and is expensive.  It can also force you to hire underqualified candidates.  This is the very definition of desperate actions.

This data is rich with information.  We can show the need to have internal options and succession planning for all roles, all levels.  This allows for immediate action when we lose an associate.  It minimizes the time the role is open.  Even if we are looking for an external candidate, we start the process more quickly. 

We can also make the argument for development of internal candidates.  If you have identified the backfill, you can also identify the development needs for that individual to be able to replace the associate lost.  You can make the transition more quickly based on having an internal candidate.  

I’d also suggest that you always be looking for talent.  I realize that budget constraints may not allow you to over hire.  Finding viable candidates and working to keep them interested (for up to six months) until you have an opening, can help you to have a candidate pool externally.  

Desperate people take desperate actions, but planning for turnover, and doing what you can to minimize the churn through succession planning, development of internal candidates, and building a candidate pool externally, can keep you from making a very expensive, poor hire. 

Diversity of Thought

There is a lot of activity and talk around the need to have diversity in a company and specifically on any given team.  It’s well documented on the justification and need.  Companies with diversity perform better.  What does it mean and how can you act on it?

For me, diversity is not based solely on ethnicity or gender.  It’s based on diversity of thought and diversity of culture and experience.  

We utilize an aptitude or preference assessment tool for hiring and development.  About two years ago we used it with a client to look at the preferences of their sales team and their sales leadership.  As I was analyzing the information post assessment, it was difficult to understand the diversity or lack of, based on individual reports.  We created a grid in an Excel format to be able to look at the entire sales team, the regional teams, and the individual.  

What we were able to see was a lack of diversity in preferences and aptitude.  That really wasn’t too surprising as a sales team typically has higher assertiveness and traits that fit a sales profile.  What was eye opening was specific to one region.  The leader and four of the five salespeople had almost identical preferences.  One salesperson did not.  He came from an engineering background.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have the skills, it was that he was different in the way he thought and the way he acted.  When we shared this with the Director of Sales, we warned him that the individual was at risk of leaving if the regional leader didn’t recognize the differences.  No action was taken, and a very talented individual left the company.  He felt he was on an island.  

We have since utilized the grid with other clients and other teams.  We specifically look for diversity of preferences that leads to diversity of thought.  Without the diversity, teams can have dangerous blind spots, and can make critical mistakes in their decision process.  

How can you avoid the same mistakes?

  1. Find a tool you trust and have your team take the assessment.
  2. Capture the results in a format that allows you to compare and contrast the result.
  3. Color code the results so you can get a clear visual of the current situation.
  4. Address your outliers, if any, and make them a part of the team.
  5. As you move forward in hiring, be very clear on the diversity in thought that you need and build it into your hiring process.

Hire A Star, Invest In A Star!

I’ve spent a great deal of effort in the past few months to help people understand the value of finding talented rock stars for their businesses.  Again, we don’t recruit, we build the process with our clients for them to identify talent, interview, and hire talent.  What has been interesting is the story of one of our early clients in this process.  

I was working with a friend of mine who leads a sales team for a large company on the east coast.  He is a rock star himself and his team loves him.  He called me with an issue.  He had lost several of his first line managers in the past several months, through no fault of his own.  He had hired talented individuals, but the funnel for promotion narrowed quickly.  The talent that left could not see a future for growth.  

When you have worked hard to find talent, it is a shame, and a great expense to your company, to see them leave.  The challenge my friend’s company had was not only finding talent but developing talent. Top performers don’t just leave the company for more money, they leave because they don’t see the challenge.  That is what they are looking for.  

We sat with the stakeholders and talked through how they were developing their managers.  We brainstormed different ways they could give them opportunities to grow.  We defined success at twelve months and worked our way backward in three month increments to determine what would set up the next three months to meet the expectations for success at the one-year mark.  I spoke to my friend again at the one-year mark from his last four hires.  He had implemented the plans we built, and they measured their impact.  Not one of his first line managers had left the company in over a year.

Several companies feel hiring stars will allow them to get them into the company and let them find their way on their own.  It’s a painful mistake to make.  Don’t spend the effort to hire a great fit and then lose them because you don’t invest in their development.  

The Value of Strong Mentors

The path for many of us, is not a straight path.  We believe we are going to be something or do something, and then our life plan changes.  Bob Pilon is no different.  Bob was a talented hockey player and bright student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.  He was a pre-med major when he realized he didn’t want to spend the amount of time in school that was required to become a doctor.  There were two things that he had to do, now that he had made this discovery.  The first was to figure out what he would do with his life, and the second was to tell his parents that he was not going to medical school.  Neither was an easy task.

There is great benefit to having a trusted mentor.  As an individual, you can gain from their experiences.  You can have an outside view of possible paths to follow.  Mentors are not easy to identify, but when you find one, learn from them.  A great mentor must truly care about you and your wellbeing.  They must have credibility with the outside world, and they must be willing to be totally honest with you.  Bob was fortunate to have a great mentor.  His college advisor John M. Lammert, PHD, Biology Professor, earned his trust.  He was wise, blunt, and held him accountable.  He was consistent in his feedback and his expectations.  His experience allowed him to see the talent and potential in Bob and allowed him to make early course corrections.  

Bob’s mentor offered that he had two choices; he could teach high school biology and coach hockey, or he could leverage his lab work into the field of medical devices.  As he worked through the choices, he chose the path of medical devices.  

Bob’s parents, while I’m certain they were a little disappointed in the change of direction, were just as supportive.  We sometimes take our family for granted, but Bob’s parents were strong mentors as well.

I asked Bob his advice to people who are early in their careers and he was quite adamant about mentorship.  “Find that relationship!” was his answer.  He has shared that with his step daughter who is a sophomore at the University of Tennessee.  The human element to productive work is critical.  Strong, trusting relationships are critical.  The things that stood out from Bob’s story were Professor Lammert’s recognition of Bob’s talent, and the empathy to understand where Bob was coming from.  He saw the potential.  He nourished the talent and Bob turned it into a full and productive career.

Bob took the path of working for a medical device company as a Project Manager upon graduation.  He worked on a cross functional team where he ended up taking the notes.  He was underwhelmed in the role and slightly bored.  There was one individual who didn’t make many of the meetings and Bob asked his superior who it was and why he didn’t make the meetings.  He found out that the individual was a Product Manager/Marketing.  He didn’t make meetings because he was in the field talking to customers.  It was intriguing to Bob.  He felt he could be successful doing that.  He shared that with his manager, and shortly after that he had an opportunity to move to Santa Barbara, CA. and take on a similar role. 

Bob’s work in the Project Manager and Sales and Marketing lead him to his current role.  He is the President of Unipart-Olsen.  They manufacture precision machine parts for Ag, Construction, and other markets.  While it may seem like a leap to go from medical devices to manufacturing for farm equipment, and construction, it was a logical path.  

I met Bob when I was doing consulting work for UOI.  They were looking for someone to sell for them.  We found Bob and could hire him, mainly because he lived near the facility and he wanted to travel less.  His talent was way beyond the role, and in a couple of years he was promoted into a manufacturing role that integrated and aligned the India plants into the offering.  Over time, Bob proved himself to be a great leader and in the past few years, he earned the role of President of the company.  

When he became President, there were issues he needed to address.  The first was a fear of conflict.  His direct reports were made up of a group of individuals and not a team.  There was turf protection but not an open discussion or conflict resolution.  Bob has made changes in his staff and built rules of engagement.  There are still challenges and limiting behavior, but they are addressing these at the staff level.  The challenge for Bob, as well as any other leader is “What happens when you aren’t in the room?”  Bob is very candid, professional, and humble.  He recognizes the challenges of this and his staff is still dependent on his knowledge, but they are learning.  They use metrics to help them track their progress and set the rules of engagement at all levels in the company, even on the production floor.  

From pre-med hockey star to company President of UOI wasn’t a planned path for Bob, but an honest, trusted mentor helped send him in the right direction so he could make the right choices.

He has industry experience so he must be good…

He has industry experience so he must be good.

Earlier this year I worked with a client to define the skills and values for their sales team.  They had never defined the skills needed for the role.  They left it up to the first line manager to determine who they wanted to work with.  The skills at interviewing and hiring varied widely, and the result was a large portion of the sales team didn’t have the aptitude for sales.  The favorite candidate was to hire someone from inside the “shop” who knew the product, or a runner who drove product to the end customer, because they knew where the customers were.  

The team of first line managers gathered with leadership, and human resources to work through an outcome-based process to determine the skills and competencies needed for a salesperson.  They also captured the values they needed to be a part of the organization.  They had never considered it before.  

As I was working with the team, I was trying to understand why they defaulted to hiring from the industry or hiring from the shop instead of looking for talented sellers.  Was it laziness, ignorance, or lack of process?  Maybe a little of each.  Hiring a person, even the wrong person, inside the company was easier because the first line manager felt they didn’t need to work to train them and because there was no onboarding process needed. Or so they thought.  Just remember B players never hire A players.

Hiring someone from inside the company can be great.  You know them, they know the product and procedures, and they probably know the customers.  So, what is the issue?  The issue is they may not have an aptitude for the role.  One of the people hired from the shop was a strong operations individual, but he did not have an aptitude for sales.  When he was placed in a sales territory, he failed miserably.  After a year, the company moved him back into an operations role.  Two weeks after that “demotion”, he left the company.  They not only wasted a year of sales opportunities; they lost an employee who was good in his prior role.  

The hero of this story is the new VP of Sales.  He is in the process of upgrading his sales team.  And he knows to do that he has to upgrade his first line managers.  Now we are working the same process for sales managers that we did to define skills and values for the sellers.  It’s a critical hire for the VP.  His first new hire in the role, and it affects about fifty percent of his total business.  He recognizes the need to define clearly the needs of the role.  

Do you have a clearly defined set of skills and values you look for in your employees?  Not just sales, but all employees?  People are the life blood of your organization.  Making a bad hire is costly not only in dollars, but in morale.  Please take the time to own the process and define the skills and values for your company.  It is not a silver bullet, but your odds of finding the right people are much improved.


I have a theory that I shared with my team throughout my career.  My role as a leader was to find great talent, give them the tools to do the job, and then get out of their way.  I still feel very strongly about all three of those.  Finding talent is not easy.  Developing talent through providing the tools and the training is challenging as well.  Letting the individuals develop, even when they are making mistakes, is the hardest challenge.  

I spoke with Ned Hunter, Executive Vice President at Kito Corporation recently and he shared what has made him successful.  Ned leads a very large portion of Kito, globally.  He is a thoughtful, soft-spoken individual with a charismatic way about him that earns a strong following from his team.  They follow him, not just because they like and respect him, but also because of how Ned challenges them to grow into new roles.  Some of the roles may be surprising, even to the individual in the role.  Ned has that kind of eye for talent, and the heart and stamina to develop his staff.  He trusts his instincts.

It’s rare that we think about a high level executive coaching and developing their team.  Most of the time we are sharing stories of great strategists making great decisions.  What makes Ned stand out is his people strategy.  People are the life blood of any organization. Great strategies poorly executed fail. Mediocre strategies executed well, can bring great results.  Kito benefits from Ned’s strong strategy and his team’s excellent execution of those strategies.  

Ned started his career with Kito as the CEO of Harrington Hoists and advanced from there to become a Senior Executive Officer, Chairman of the Americas, then was promoted into his current role where he leads the corporate subsidiaries and market operations globally, except for China.  I first met Ned when he was a Senior Director of National Accounts and Government at Grainger.   Ned was at different level than his peer group, myself included.  He was extremely professional and highly respected. 

Ned saw his role as one to develop not only customers for Grainger, but also develop his team so that they could perform at this best.  He provided them opportunities to grow in their current role.  He has done the same with Kito. 

He started by using discovery.  He would observe his staff in 2-3 different group sessions to see how they interacted and then he would evaluate based on 11 different criteria, including traits like financial acumen, interpersonal skills, time management and negotiation skills.  He then identified strengths and weaknesses and helped to create plans to address them.  “With the right combination of people and talents, the sum is greater than the parts.”  He continues to observe, to look for growth in the individual and the teams.  

Ned found talent in people that may not have even seen it in themselves.  He worked with his finance manager to develop him into his CFO.  He worked with his sales leader to develop him into the CEO that could replace Ned as he moved into new roles.  

The gift that Ned brings to his team is his ability to be patient.  He coaches them based on his view of what he sees. He “plays the tape” so that they can get a clear picture of their behavior, then offers suggestions on how they can grow.  He uses data, derived from asking questions, then listens.  He is curious about what and how people think.  He actually listens.

I’ve worked with leaders who do not invest in their team’s development.  They believe they hire people with talent and their either “get it” or they need to leave.  That is a costly way to grow your business.  The investment in hiring and developing talent that can grow, leads into a long-term strength.  Ned Hunter not only knows this, he has perfected it.