April 9, 2011

Truth, Sales and Leadership

Salesmen, politicians and chief executives are all cut from the same mould. Their fundamental job is to impress and make others feel good about buying what they have to sell.
As someone who has spent his career in product delivery, and who is sceptical by nature, I’ve had a mixed relationship with the sales and presentation types. I have all too often ended up on the hook when one of them sold unicorns when what we had in the barn was donkeys.
But, unlike many technically oriented delivery specialists, I have a deep appreciation for the value and necessity of presentation and sales. I understand the symbiotic nature of our separate disciplines. In the end, things only work out well when both roles are filled competently, and both sides need to remember their dependence on the other if they want to succeed.

To Impress or to Be Impressive

If at this point you aren’t sure which side of this proposed divide is your natural home, let me propose a simple way to decide: which do you think is more important, to impress or to be impressive? If you don’t understand this distinction, let me rephrase: would you rather be famous and admired for something that you didn’t put a lot of effort or skill into, or be amazingly accomplished at something that no one knew about you?
Now some of you are I’m sure objecting that these are always or usually the same thing: accomplishment and skill, and recognition for that accomplishment and skill generally go hand in hand.
But the truth is that it is rarely the case that the two go together naturally. Are the best singers and actors the biggest stars, and vice versa? Are the most successful politicians most often the smartest and most qualified decision-makers? Is your average CEO the biggest expert in the business he is running?
This isn’t a complaint that the world isn’t fair. On the contrary, I think there is a good reason why things work this way. Impressing people requires that you present yourself in terms that they can understand, evaluate and appreciate. Being impressive requires honing your abilities and understanding beyond the experience and comprehension of most people, to make distinctions and to have perceptions beyond what is evident to a non-expert.

When Sales or Fulfillment Goes Bad

Each of these sides has its obvious pitfalls, and to understand these, all you have to do is think about the negative stereotypes of these two groups.
The bad salesman or politician is full of hot air, with plenty of promises that never get kept. The bad salesman is convinced he could “sell snow to the Eskimos”, the bad politician certain that he could finesse over the most egregious scandal and get away with breaking every promise.
The bad expert (let’s use software developer as an example) is disdainful of the buying public, mystified that they don’t see the deep technical skill that went into solving several difficult and subtle challenges but are instead impressed or put off by trivial details, such as the colour choices on the main screen. The bad software developer is convinced that good software will always sell itself, and sales and marketing are clueless bozos who soak up money and accolades that rightfully belong to the technical geniuses.
Both of these stereotypical bad guys are wrong: they desperately and inseparably need each other.

Commanding Officer and Executive Officer

To illustrate the symbiosis of these two callings, I will draw on an example that has literally been battle-tested over centuries. It is traditional in the military for there to be two command roles for every unit: Commanding Officer (CO) and Executive Officer (XO).
The CO is the external face of the unit. It is his job to represent the skills of his unit up the chain, to convince the command hierarchy to give his unit more resources, and to cheerlead and praise his men for their accomplishments. Ideally, he should be loved by his men, and they should feel proud and honoured to serve under him.
The XO is the internal manager and disciplinarian of the group. It is his job to push, prod, terrorize and manhandle his men to improve their skills and achieve their mission goals. He must be the first to observe and criticize any short-comings and ruthlessly punish any breach of discipline. He is the expert in building the best possible soldiers. Ideally, he should be respected and feared, at best grudgingly liked, and made fun of when the men are absolutely, positively certain that he can’t hear them.
With such radically different profiles, you would expect that these two officers should not work together very well, right?
But the truth is that, if both men actually understand their roles, they should be working in perfect collusion with each other. The XO should be feeding the CO with good things about the men that can be praised, and let him know when the men are achieving their best and can’t be expected to give anymore. The CO will let the XO know if any bad reports are coming in from outside the unit and share his fears of how the unit might fail in upcoming missions.
The two roles are distinct, and require different focuses, but they must be done in perfect concert to achieve maximum effectiveness in the situation. Such dual leadership roles can and often are performed by a single person in non-military leadership situations, but there is something to be said for the collaborative specialization of individuals dividing up the areas of responsibility. Even if you find yourself with both roles, you have to find some way to separate them in the minds of others so that they don’t contaminate and undermine each other.

Truth and Presentation

I think we would all agree that the ideal situation is the one where things both seem good and are good, but where the downside is also known and managed. Being aware that some aspects of the truth (possibly not the most important ones) need to be highlighted for the sake of presentation is important for experts to understand. Keeping in mind that finding and fixing negatives is essential for quality products and that it is in everyone’s interests to not diverge too far from the truth in presentation is vital for sales to understand.
A well-packaged truth can only come about when both perspectives work together and respect each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment