Sales Leader's First 90 Days: Learn and Take Action for Early Wins

By Hope Eyre on Aug 23, 2017

Introduction

This is a continuation our multi-part exploration of how sales leaders approach their first 90 days in a new role at either a new company or with a new sales team at their current company. The topic was born from a startling statistic: The average tenure of a Sales VP working in the same role at the same company is incredibly brief – only about 18 months.

So many of our clients have found themselves in new positions after relatively short tenures that we wondered what we could learn from their experiences.

Article 2 of 4

In Article 1, we tackled onboarding yourself with your new company or team in order to prepare for day one. We offered concrete steps for cutting down on the initial chaos that comes with a role change, what we call the fog of transition.

And we discussed how to avoid falling victim to the six common “transition traps” that can potentially derail the sales leader’s first 90 days; a period when so much is at stake.

In this article, we’re going to extend our top onboarding themes (team, customer, structure, financials) into your initial 30 days and show you how to learn your new organization well enough to start achieving the early wins that are critical to establishing credibility.

SO FAR: You Should Have Accomplished…

By this point, you have ideally used our on-boarding checklist to gather and review as much information as is available before arriving on day 1. If you haven’t, don’t worry. But by all means, continue using the checklist to gather and review the information suggested in it. These insights are your first clues as to where you might be able to achieve early wins.

You should also set a meeting with your management to confirm (or re-confirm) their business priorities. Have these in mind when determining where to focus your time.

BOLO: Transition Traps #1 and #2

During your initial 30 days, be on the lookout specifically for the first two of our six transition traps:

  1. Failing to secure your team because you've made assumptions about team morale, commitment, and job satisfaction
  2. Misjudging sellers or making hiring/firing decisions based on assumptions about the ideal seller capabilities required for their job

The remaining four transition traps are important of course, but you’re more likely to encounter these two right off the bat.

Your INITIAL 30 Days Objectives

In your initial 30 (to 45 days) as a new sales leader, you need to do two things:

  1. Learn your sales organization well enough to start making informed decisions
  2. Be seen as taking swift action in order to signal personal leadership and obtain early wins that establish credibility

You see the conundrum. Learning your organization fully and deeply takes time. Sometimes a LOT of time, which may include a lot of travel. That doesn’t lend itself to taking swift action that’s informed. (Uninformed action is marvelously easy, just not recommended.)

And we do so want to take action. It’s human nature, particularly when under scrutiny and time pressure. Taking action makes us appear decisive. It broadcasts the message that we’re in charge and we know what we’re doing. It can be useful in raising team morale, lowering management anxiety, and fending off political detractors.

The Action Imperative

For new sales leaders however, the temptation to start taking action before understanding their inherited sales situation well enough, what Michael Watkins calls the action imperative, is overwhelming. We know this because we’ve seen it.

One sales leader, days on the job, demanded we build an overly complicated, highly rigid sales process for his new team without bothering to understand that the laid-back, informal sales culture he’d just inherited would simply not absorb it. Or that his hardline management tactics would likely incite rebellion. The results were predictable.

When sales leaders take over a new team, they need to take the time to learn, but they also need to act fast. How to reconcile this dichotomy? Fortunately, we have a solution.

“Secure & Get Right”

We call it Secure and Get Right, or SGR. It balances the need for learning with the need to be seen taking decisive action by alternating the two activities.

Think of it as a variation on the Galloway “run walk run” method for marathon training.

Instead of taking action without learning (liable to cause injury to your team) or spending all of your time learning without taking any action (liable to cause political injury to you), you work your way through your initial 30 days by alternating the two in a structured and prioritized manner.

The SGR Methodology

The SGR methodology has five steps and sticks with our ever-important onboarding themes: team, customers, structure, financials. Here are the steps:

Step 1:  Secure the team

Step 2:  Secure the customers

Step 3:  Get the initial structure right

Step 4:  Get the financials right

Step 5:  Get out of the way

SGR in Action: A Case Study

Jason Barnes is a Sales Vice President with Central Garden and Pet, a $1.8B consumer packaged goods manufacturer based in Walnut Creek, CA. Central makes products like grass seed, fertilizer, and weed control in its Garden division, where Jason manages a portfolio of four disparate sales teams. He is responsible for just under half of all revenues.

Jason has been at Central for more than a decade, but when he became a Sales VP, it was initially for one team only. The additional three teams were added gradually. Each has a distinct sales culture and very different customers that cut across a variety of retail channels. There was always a lot to learn.

And then there was this wrinkle: Every new sales team added to Jason’s portfolio had declining revenues. He was expected to turn these teams around, and he did that by applying the Secure & Get Right methodology.

Which brings us to an important caveat. SGR works beautifully in a turn-around situation. If you’ve just taken over a start-up or a sales team that’s experiencing high-growth, or even one that’s cruising along just fine, you may not need all steps and you may not need to do them in order. In the startup, securing early-adopter customers may need to take precedent over securing the team.

But sooner or later, every one of these steps is going to be required to get the best performance from your team. And if not this team, the one you’ll have 18 months from now. So we’re using a turnaround example as the best way to illustrate the method.

Step 1:  Secure the Team

When Jason assumed management of the team dedicated to Central’s third largest retail customer, revenues were at a staggering 10-year low. Morale was, if anything, lower. But the team had real talent. Jason knew this. So in his first 30 days he needed to secure the team to:

  • Ensure he didn’t lose this talent (early win #1)
  • Dig deeper into the team’s morale concerns and individual capabilities (learning #1)
  • Figure out how to raise morale (early win #2).

Run, walk, run.

If he couldn’t sort out the morale issue, no amount of effort would produce a high-performing team. And he absolutely couldn’t afford to lose its talent. His sellers had deeply technical product expertise that would be difficult to replace. Fortunately, the morale and retention issues were linked.

“The first thing I did was sit down with every person on the team, direct report or not,
and asked them, ‘How’s it going?’”

He learned one reason morale lagged was that the team felt their considerable expertise wasn’t being fully used and that the customer had been kept at a distance from them by his predecessor. So, Jason immediately upgraded titles for most team members and added to their responsibilities. His goal was to ensure they felt valued for being the experts they are. The effect was immediate.

"It was like watering a (nearly) dead flower; everybody perked right up, 
because they were suddenly empowered to do their jobs."

Jason also used the interviews as a way to begin “sorting” the capabilities of individual team members. What strengths and weaknesses did each have. How could they complement each other. What were the implications for any structural changes? Did anyone need new skills? Did the team need enabling tools? These were learnings he filed away for later use (and which we will discuss again in Article 3).

He also knew he hadn’t begun to get to the bottom of the financial performance issues. What’s more, if the team felt the customer was being kept at a distance, the customer probably felt that way too. In fact he already knew they did. He’d had breakfast that morning with the Merchandising VP, the most senior executive with whom Central did business at this customer.

Step 2:  Secure the Customer

“If there are customer relationship issues to address… do it immediately.
Rip the band-aid off.”

At breakfast that morning, Jason took the opportunity to be candid. “Look, Central has lost its way.” Fulfilment issues were at least partly responsible for the team’s financial decline. Grass seed and fertilizer, among other products, weren’t getting into the customer’s distribution centers at the rate they should, which means they weren’t available for the retailer to sell. But the reasons for why this was happening weren’t transparent to the Merchandising VP.

Customers don’t like being in the dark.

Clearly the situation called for higher collaboration and immediate operational transparency. To address these, Jason decided to concentrate on operational basics: product fill rate and on-time order delivery, the bread and butter of the manufacturer/retailer relationship.

So in his first 30 days, Jason needed to secure the customer by:

  • Being transparent with them on product fill rate and on-time delivery status (early win #3)
  • Digging into the cause of the fulfillment issues and determine how to fix them (learning #2)
  • Constantly keeping the customer apprised of improvements as one way to begin repairing the relationship (early win #4)

Run, walk, run.

By now you’ve detected the pattern for prioritizing learnings and actions to achieve early wins.

It would be even better if you had a set of criteria to help you choose which early wins would have the most impact AND the best chance of succeeding. So we’ve built a decision table to do this and added space to note the learnings and actions required for proper execution.

Step 3: Get the Initial Structure Right

Once you've secured both your team and customers, use what you’ve learned so far to start getting the team structure right.

Do what, according to Marcus Buckingham, great managers do: Find the unique talent of each individual on the team and leverage it to full advantage. (Certainly other circumstances, like cost of sales due to inefficient territory coverage can necessitate a structure change, but this is a longer-term effort vs. an early win.)

Jason discovered that some of the team’s fulfillment issues were caused, because sellers were spending half their time on internal process requests, including forecasting. It was terribly inefficient.

So he changed the structure by dedicating a resource to help sellers get the necessary information and assist with forecasting. This way, sellers concentrated on selling, forecasting became more consistent and fulfillment could start to improve.

“Get people into the right jobs or adjust their responsibilities to fit their talent.
Use every tool you've got (to do this). I'm a huge fan of
Birkman because
it allows me to talk to people in the way they (best) absorb the information.”

We want to stress here that any structure or organizational changes you make at this point should be grounded in what you know so far.

Be careful when considering radical changes to structure before you truly understand your new organization. You may later find yourself in the position of reversing what was likely an expensive and disruptive decision.

This happened to one of our clients who moved a 100-person sales team (which entailed interviewing, rehiring, onboarding, and considerable training) from one operating division to another. And then 12 months later, moved them right back after deciding the move was ill-considered.

Step 4: Get the Financials Right

Let’s recognize a couple of things about financials. First, they might not wait for you to secure your team and customers. Second, nearly everything having to do with sales has an impact on financials. We hate using a cliché, but this is one place where you must pursue low-hanging fruit.

Jason knew fill rates and on-time deliveries were key to ultimately getting more product on the shelf so consumers could buy it. That’s a more clear-cut task than improving revenue by changing product formulas or launching a new marketing campaign.

If you work in, say, discrete manufacturing or technology services, and your average sales cycle is 9 to 12 months, you will not be improving revenue in 30 days. Make sure whatever financial commitments you make to management are realistic.

Step 5: Get Out of the Way (to a degree)

Jason’s advice after securing team and customers, then getting structure and financials right, is this: get out of the way. He doesn't micromanage, but neither does he keep his hands out of the field, because knowing what's going on in his ecosystem is critical.

“ I travel to be with my teams about 75% of the time… (but) to get as much first person
observation as possible. Then my goal is to coach my direct reports to coach that person.”

At this point you have created an environment for initial success. Of course, it will need refining. In the next article, we’ll be assessing whether the team has the skills and tools they need to properly do their jobs.

You may find as you continue to learn that additional structure or role changes are required. New processes or technology may be in order. You will be assessing all of this in the next 30-60 days. But for now, your team should be able to achieve an operational rhythm that allows you to assess long-term strategy needs, and you should have set a regular management cadence with them.

Conclusion

Clearly the steps you take in your initial 30 days to learn your organization well enough while acting decisively to achieve early wins are highly situational. Our Secure and Get Right method and the “early win” decision grid (below) will add efficiency and thoughtfulness to these efforts.

FIRST 90 DAYS TOOLBOX: Choosing & Prioritizing Early Wins

We like this grid, because it calls out your true reasons for choosing early win candidates. Is it just to make you look good? Or, will it have a real effect on the sales team, company or customers, and will it truly aid in setting up a long-term strategy? It also helps us be realistic about the ease and speed with which we can likely achieve the early win.

If you tend to be aggressive in estimating how much you can do in a short time period, this grid acts as a reality check.

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 Article 2 Table 2.png

Stay Tuned for Article 3

In our third article in this series, you will continue your learning efforts to obtain an even deeper understanding of your organization and the capabilities of your team, which you’ll use later to formulate longer-term strategy. You’ll also begin building relationships with key influencers in the organization, many of whom head groups that your sales team requires for support.  

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Hope Eyre

Written by Hope Eyre

Hope Eyre is a sales effectiveness expert who takes a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to building winning sales organizations. She regularly works side by side with sales teams around account segmentation and planning and has helped numerous complex organizations rethink they way they serve their largest accounts. Hope’s specialties include sales transformation, sales capability development, leadership development/coaching and performance management. If “sticky” could be a word to describe a consultant, it would be a perfect descriptor for Hope, as clients like to keep her around.

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