I left a sales job to found my company.
6 min read
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There are so many stereotypes about different company departments: Marketing teams make things look pretty but don’t drive results; HR is either the politically correct police or the firing department; and the engineering team is vital but not strategic. Salespeople tend to be typecasted more than anyone: We’re pushy, greedy and self-centered.
Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader
Stereotypes don’t formulate out of thin air, but they are usually exaggerated and imprecise; we all have our strengths and shortcomings. I found this out firsthand: A little over two years ago, I left my role as an SVP of sales at retail marketing company Promoboxx to scratch the entrepreneurial itch I always had. In 2016, I founded my own company, Spotted, a celebrity insights and research platform that services many of the world’s largest celebrity endorsers.
For salespeople who are looking to start their own companies or who have become CEOs, it’s important recognize how advantageous your experience is. But, you should also understand the areas where you are weakest and that you’ll need to develop in your next role. Here are some ways you can maximize your strengths and develop your weaknesses as you make the transition from sales lead to CEO or founder.
Turn everything you do into a sales process.
The vast majority of sales leaders have pounded the pavement as on-the-ground salespeople, dealing with quotas, living in a CRM database and coping with the day-to-day stress of trying to close deals. It’s not always the easiest job, but it produces many valuable executive characteristics: Salespeople know how to generate revenue; we’re confident tapping our network to expand our relationships and get vital introductions; and we’re unafraid to push our team to always strive for the highest results. These qualities are vital, and they make organizations viable long-term. Believe it or not, the sales process is applicable to many other processes for young companies.
For example, are you looking for angel investors? Treat them like early prospects and load a list of target angel investors into a CRM like Hubspot to track them through every part of your investor “sales cycle.” Want to get press coverage as an early stage company? Make a target list of publications, identify top journalists at each publication and create email templates to send them that helps you break into them faster. Looking to bring on a new key hire? Use advanced searching on LinkedIn to create a list of 100 applicants from competitive firms who fit the experience you’re looking for, and create a short sequence of InMails that expresses your interest in talking to them about the position. That’s how I’ve hired my last four employees!
Treat your colleagues like sales partners.
But, being a salesperson can also make you very independent, often striving to meet individual goals. In many cases, there’s incentive to work alone because if you close a big deal, you might get the commission to yourself. Therefore, it’s not always the most natural thing for us to lead large teams, a range of departments and work toward long-term strategic goals.
But, from work with prospects and clients, salespeople are very good at listening to other people’s problems, evolving their strategy accordingly and finding a solution that best fits customer needs.
While salespeople may not have as much collaborative experience with colleagues — as long as they can shift their mindset and treat employees like partners — they can to tap into their interactions with prospective customers and apply those learnings to their managerial style.
Don’t judge your team based only on wins and losses.
Sales teams tend to operate with language that is all or nothing, a “win” or a “loss.” We talk incessantly about qualified leads, pipeline goals and revenue quotas. This type of language is likely not working for your sales team.
It can be discouraging, too binary and not conducive to seeing experiences as learning opportunities, even when they don’t go the way you hoped. Think about how you want wins and losses described at your company. Perhaps wins should be “achievements,” and “losses” should be “learning experiences.” A “lead” could be a “potential future partner.”
Winning matters, and is often what drives sales people. But, if your employees aren’t winning and learning, you aren’t going to win as a team long-term. For one, wins and losses are harder to judge outside of sales. Moreover, as a founder or CEO, you’re going to have to create a larger mission for your company and have greater perspective. That’s why I’ve moved away from it: I’ve found this language to not only be discouraging, but also too black and white. You can “lose” a deal and still learn a great deal, and that makes the process worthwhile. Executives need to foster learning at every level, and it’s vital their language reflects these efforts.
It’s important to constantly work at creating a culture of learning. Not only will you better understand your employees, but you’ll set the example. I continue to work with executive coaches to learn how to be more empathetic to my employees, how to better coach them and how to show my gratitude for their hard work. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold them to a very high standard — I do. But, I’ve also found that sales leaders aren’t always able to genuinely show their gratitude, and being grateful and demanding are not mutually exclusive traits. A good leader needs both in order to drive results and create a positive, sustainable work environment for all teams.
You should constantly look for ways to engage your employees and make sure their work is challenging and fulfilling, and that they’re learning skills that will help them throughout their career. This could be through a mentorship program, offering online courses or helping pay for graduate coursework at local universities.
Never take “no” for an answer.
Resilience and persistence are some of the best qualities of good salespeople, and CEOs should operate no differently. When you are in startup or scale-up mode, you will be constantly fighting rejection, skepticism and hesitation about your business model, and it is the CEO’s job to take in the helpful feedback and to push out the negative feedback in order to stay on top. CEOs who succumb to negativity don’t succeed because they spend too much time thinking about what went wrong, and not enough time thinking about how they are going to capture the next opportunity.