We’re All Salesmen

sellerJim Collins, my wonderful boss at what is now the A&E Network used to say: “Remember Augie, everybody got a boss. The vice president reports to the president. The president reports to the CEO. The CEO reports to the chairman of the board, and the chairman reports to his wife. All God’s children got a boss.”

Alfred North Whitehead said that the European philosophical tradition is just a series of foot notes to Plato. Many of my ideas are just foot notes to Jim Collins, and one of those ideas is, like it or not, all God’s children are in sales as well.

At heart sales is just the science of persuasion, and every day in many different ways our own success depends on persuading others to go along with our ideas. Whether we call it sales, marketing, politics, leadership, or just plain people skills we all must be able to “sell” others. The only difference between the professional salesman and most people is the conscious effort it takes to be good at it.

Many people think that selling always implies the manipulation of the proverbial used car salesman, but that is not necessarily true. When a mother persuades a recalcitrant baby to give his veggies a try she is doing both the baby and the reputation of salesmanship a good turn. Even a research scientist must “sell” in order to get the funding he needs to cure cancer and a lawyer must “sell” a jury.

In business, no matter what rung on the corporate ladder we currently call home most of the people we rely on for success don’t report to us. Even the CEO depends on people who don’t report to him – customers, vendors, stockholders, government regulators – to be successful. For many years, as Microsoft grew, Bill Gates eschewed public relations and politics as tawdry activities unbecoming of a pure entrepreneur only to find himself up to his eyeballs in government law suits. Arguably it was the distraction of these suits that enabled Google to beat Microsoft to the Web.

In the early days of MTV: Music Television I came up for promotion. The interview seemed to be going well until an objection was raised that I didn’t have any previous management experience. I countered that as a top sales rep I was already successfully “managing” dozens of accounts across five states. I added that I owed much of my success to all the folks in our accounting, legal, research, engineering, and marketing departments who always came through for me. I finished my pitch by saying, “If I can lead all these people through persuasion alone imagine what I could do with a little power.” I got the job.

At heart sales relies on empathy or the ability to resonate with others. Empathy means knowing ourselves and taking a sincere interest in what makes others tick. When we consistently and successfully empathize with others we find that people, and therefore life itself, becomes far more predictable. Being able to successfully predict what others will do is critical to effective leadership. Will discounting our product lead to more sales or just a hit to margins?

We all want to be effective in life. Even if it is merely being able to successfully predict whether that joke we are thinking of telling will make others laugh or just embarrass us instead.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many MBAs throughout my career, and I would be the first to admit that our business schools and undergraduate business programs impart many useful skills. However one area where they woefully fall short is teaching the people skills that every business person needs. Despite what the comic strip, Dilbert, might imply, the days of cracking the whip are over. Whether we are managing others or just managing our boss, clients, and colleagues success increasingly relies on our ability to lead through persuasion.

It is axiomatic in business that the higher up in the organization we climb the more critical people issues become. And when I look back at my own tenure as the CEO of my own company, I realize that most of the skills that made me successful in product development, marketing, management, or just collecting our receivables were just footnotes to that crash course in human nature that I got from sales.

 

For more great leadership strategies read my bookBusiness Secrets of the Trappist Monks: One CEO’s Quest for Meaning and Authenticity (Columbia Business School Publishing; July 2013). Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook http://facebook.com/aturak, or check out my Forbes blog http://blogs.forbes.com/augustturak/ for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.

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