“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way”
Time by Pink Floyd
You’re ambitious, driven, and thoughtful. You set goals to improve your excel skills, learn programming languages or take actuarial or underwriting exams. But to get ahead, to be in a leadership position, those activities just aren’t going to cut it. Though all of those activities are important, they aren’t nearly as vital as the two most important business skills you can have. In our ultra-competitive business world, the difference between winning and losing can be whittled down to two things, can you sell and/or can you effectively lead a team?
Sales is the most critical function a business can have. A great sales team can often overcome a bad product, poor strategy and bad executive decision making (at least in the short term) but a great product sits on a shelf until a sales effort gets someone to hand over cash.
Likewise, management is the glue that holds the company together. Even the sales function needs proper management to align and coordinate activities. Without proper management, businesses wallow in their dysfunction, underachieve and create unnecessary drama and chaos. Reflect back on your own experiences. When were you most effective? What atmosphere allowed you to be so effective? What were your experiences like between having a great manager and a poor one? If you are like me, my answer is that I have been at my best when I was in an environment that allowed me to be my best. I was at my worst when I was in an environment where I was constantly looking over my shoulder, being micro managed, misled, or otherwise surrounded by other disgruntled employees. Under great managers, I produced, and my satisfaction on the job carried over into my personal life. Under the tyranny of a bad manager, not only did my my work life suffer, but it was really difficult to not take that drama back home with me.
To use a sports metaphor, sales and management are like a football team. Management is the head coach, who needs to keep a group of players all moving in the same direction with maximum efficiency. They need to be stern, when that is what is required, but they also need to be caring, and lift their players’ confidence when that is what is required. They can’t just be great tacticians, just like you can’t just be a great programmer or a great actuary. Getting a group of humans to pull together for a bigger purpose requires a fine line between being tough and being soft. Which is what makes the job so hard, yet so important, because so few can do it well.
Sales on the other hand is like the quarterback. He’s the producer. Can you win a Super Bowl without a great quarterback? It has happened, but it is rare. All the great teams have great quarterbacks…all of them. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel dedicates an entire chapter on sales. According to Peter “even though sales is everywhere, most people underestimate it’s importance”. In Peter’s experience in working with startups, most engineers think building the product is the hardest part, but in reality, a beautifully built product does NOT flow magically from engineering to customers. People are emotional, and they are just as likely to think the status quo solves their problem better than your product. No, we humans have to coaxed, cajoled, coddled and/or charmed. If you think that’s easy to do, think again. Watch all the awkward attempts used to sell Jordan Belfort the pen in this movie clip and then think about how you would convince someone to fork over money for a pen (or a car, or an insurance policy). And sales isn’t just about selling a product. Sales is also convincing your boss that you deserve that promotion or raise. Sales is also about convincing a significant other that you are the one for them. Sales is also about convincing the city council in your local community to supply funds to clean up a park. Sales is all about persuasion, and the need to persuade is everywhere and constant.
The ability to sell (persuade) and the ability to manage people and teams are critical to your career. These two skill sets will set you apart. These are the skill sets that I discussed in my New Year’s Resolution article that make you valuable and set you apart from your peers.
Unfortunately, rare and valuable skills means hard work. You cannot pick up a book and acquire sales or management skills. Developing these skills requires constant effort, practice and introspection. These two skills are so important that we will be detailing each in it’s own dedicated article over the next month. Until then, please enjoy what I think is the greatest sales pitch I have seen on television:
Two things matter in business: Sales skills. Management skills. Sales is the quarterback, management is the coach. Everything else is ultimately superfluous. For the most part these skills can only be developed by experience, but a solid academic base helps.