By Donncha Carroll

What a difference a decade makes.  In 2006, a VP of Sales typically remained in the top sales job for an average of 26 months.

By 2016 that number had fallen to just 18.

Of course, no one plans on leaving the role in less than two years, but the implications of what we’re learning about sales leader churn are significant.  How could anyone effect meaningful change in such a short time frame?  The window for impact has narrowed and the timeline shortened with increasing pressure to make positive organizational change faster.  Consequently, new sales leaders must increase their focus on the few areas where they can deliver business results in the shortest possible time.

So, with a lot of pressure to get out of the “starter blocks,” new sales leaders must ensure they’re focusing their energies in the right direction between the lines and down the track.  Many leaders respond to this urgent need to make change by doing a lot of things quickly with the hopes it will increase their chances of success.  While this is understandable, it often results in wasted efforts, with scattershot impact that doesn’t build toward a compelling case to keep going.  Impact requires greater focus on fewer areas with practice and effective planning that ensures what should be done – can be done.

As Einstein famously said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem.”  It’s essential to take the time to develop a detailed assessment of the current state and then quickly identify the most compelling opportunities to pursue.  Arguably underinvesting here or cutting this process short is where the greatest risk of failure lies.  Invest the time to figure out what you can—and should do – before you launch into execution mode.

While quick fixes can have an immediate and positive impact – more typically it can take six months or more to introduce significant and lasting change.  Most organizations have limited resources and therefore, only so much capacity for change.  So, apply some simple steps to increase your chances of getting an early lead that can be sustained over the distance.

Focus on Future Potential | Identify areas of the market that hold the greatest potential for higher revenue and profit while protecting your core business.

Build a detailed understanding of the current state

  • Conduct one-on-one conversations to get initial perspectives from key stakeholders and influencers from the business and determine the key factors that disproportionately impact business results.
  • Identify areas of high and low growth in the market, what might be behind each trend (e.g., product or service quality, shrinking market) and then determine implications for your business.
  • Bring your team together to test and refine your ideas on where growth exists or is emerging, what’s behind the trend and what you can do about it (e.g., new segmentation model, new product or service offering).

Develop and validate hypotheses using quick-hit analyses

  • Develop a set of hypotheses that provide an explanation for each of the trends and market forces that you’ve discovered through discussion.
  • Identify and calculate revenue contribution and growth from top markets, channels, customer segments and customers.
  • Estimate gross margin and the total cost to serve each market (don’t over-rotate on accuracy here).  This will give you a good approximation for profitability and therefore desirability of each target market.

No organization has perfect data so don’t worry about getting this step exactly right.  Focus on the 80% and getting to good enough information that will help direct your efforts – so keep it simple!

Develop an Action Plan | Determine the two to three actions you can take that will materially impact results within a reasonable timeframe.

Identify top priorities

  • Focus on some combination of current sales and potential at the macro level (i.e., focus on segments or regions vs. accounts).
  • Develop a methodology for prioritizing opportunities using factors such as level of investment needed, capability and capacity to execute, change required, expected return in revenue & profit, time to impact, etc.

Develop your action plan

  • Pick the two to three things that will make a difference and focus very intently on getting those done on accelerated time frame.  Taking on too much is not only complex it’s fraught with risk so take other initiatives off the table now to make room for what’s important.
  • Develop the action plan including accountability and resourcing required to get it done.  Be realistic about what’s possible and focus on items that are easier to execute.
  • Make a choice – don’t allow the options to overwhelm you, but very quickly acknowledge that you have all the information you need to make an informed choice, and then make it.

Secure the right resources

  • Understand very clearly what you need to get the job done.  Do you need specialized capabilities or support from technology?  Figure out what those things are and then put together a high-level plan for review and discussion.
  • Quantify the value of the change you’re about to make.  Use the analysis to build the rationale when you’re ready to ask leadership for those resources – again keep it simple.

Assess Organization Performance and Potential | Determine the organizations ability to execute the plan and the people you should enlist.

Identify top contributors in the sales organization

  • Use historical sales and pay data to understand the distribution of performance by role and where your top performers sit.  Consider the possibility that some of this will be driven by goal setting and how territories have been developed and assigned over time.
  • Set aside the performance analysis, identify who the team looks up to, seeks advice from and the individuals that occupy key points of influence in the organization.
  • Review your action plan with a select group of the individuals you’ve identified and adjust the plan based on what you learn.  Don’t be dissuaded from your course of action but be open to adjusting it based on the facts vs. untested perspectives.

Assemble and deploy your change team

  • Surround yourself with people that can help you get things done and limit your time with the people that bring problems without solutions.
  • Make a distinction between the folks that have important knowledge to share and the individuals that are enablers of success – very often those folks are different.
  • Develop messaging that can be broadly and consistently shared throughout the change journey that ensures everyone is clear on the why, what and how.

Changing how a sales team operates takes time, requires resources and demands a maniacal focus on execution.  While planning is crucial to success, change initiatives more often fail during the execution phase (46% in execution vs. 10% in strategy development according to a 2016 Robert Half study).  For sales teams more specifically, changes must be managed quickly and efficiently to reduce the impact on both operations and customers.  This means you’ll have to “rip the band aid off” vs. slowly progressing to a new way of working.

Making change is hard so look for the shortest path to the most impact, be ready to respond to new information, be open to adjusting your approach without sacrificing your goals and you’ll set the stage for many years of individual and team success.  Ultimately, extending your tenure beyond two or more years requires getting to positive results faster, while minimizing the disruption that could undermine what’s already working.

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