Let’s say your company posted a dating profile on Match.com to attract sales managers. Do you sometimes have the feeling that this is how it would read?
Stressful corporate environment in state of intense transformation seeks sales manager for long-term relationship. Enjoys pina coladas, long walks on the beach, struggling profits, business process breakdowns, technology glitches, compulsory conference calls, indecisive meetings, shifting strategic direction, constant stream of customer complaints and unraveling culture.
Attractive candidates should be fit non-smokers who are strategic yet process-driven, analytical yet emotionally intelligent, visionary yet detail-oriented and of course results-oriented.
Parent to distracted, fearful, and occasionally paralyzed, sales teams. Relationship requires 24/7 availability for irate customers, nervous employees, and demanding executive management via iPhone, iPad, iBook, email, Gmail, and Skype. Gallows humor a plus. Please, no overtly enthusiastic optimists, we’ll only crush your spirit. Must be sane.
Other than requesting the Playboy Bunny equivalent of leadership and management traits, it’s that last one that’s a killer.
Sales managers have the unique position of carrying responsibility for top-line growth, profitability, company reputation, customer satisfaction, product presentation, and the care and feeding of the field sales organization.
In times of high corporate stress, as from a big organizational change, sales managers can feel like they’re on a high wire crossing Niagara Falls while nursing a severe case of whiplash. This is because they occupy the middle ground between direct reports and top management while acting as the senior front line officer in all customer matters.
On any given day, the sales manager may have to ease the fears of employees spun-up by the rumor mill while keeping the knowledge of imminent layoffs to herself. She may lose a heated budget battle for necessary resources, then have to calmly outline austere operating conditions to her team.
She may have to step in to take the brunt of a customer’s wrath for missed deadlines or poor product quality. She may be expected to deliver on an unrealistic quota set by distressed top management. In all cases she has to maintain an outwardly confident and positive persona to her direct reports lest she incite panic.
The Jekyll and Hyde-ness of it all is enough to make a girl scream. Yet sane, steady leadership must be maintained, otherwise the negative impact on sellers and customers could become dire enough that she starts losing both.
Sales managers can never express frustration in front of direct reports and rarely do so to senior management for fear of risking promotion opportunities. Still, the negative energy has to go somewhere and not just for the sake of customers and employees; there are additional personal consequences.
Dr. Edward Hallowell, writing about executive stress in Harvard Business Review, offers this scientific explanation for how the limbic, or ancient part of our brain (the part responsible for the fight or flight response), takes over from the cerebral, or rational, part of our brain during times of high stress at work.
“When you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information on the day that the third deal has collapsed and the 12th impossible request has blipped unbidden across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic, reacting just as if that sixth decision were a bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger.”
He goes on to explain what your brain does next.
“In survival mode, the manager makes impulsive judgments, angrily rushing to bring closure to whatever matter is at hand. He feels compelled to get the problem under control immediately, to extinguish the perceived danger lest it destroy him. He is robbed of his flexibility, his sense of humor, and his ability to deal with the unknown. He forgets the big picture and the goals and values he stands for. He loses his creativity and his ability to change plans. He desperately wants to kill the metaphorical tiger.”
No one, certainly not sales managers with their unique set of constituents, can operate effectively for long in tiger-killing mode.
Dr. Hallowell suggests a variety of coping strategies based on brain function, but one in particular stood out to me: connecting with someone you like and trust every 4 to 6 hours during your work day.
As management consultants who drive sales transformation, often as part of stressful organizational change, we find ourselves acting in this capacity for sales managers all the time. We see an essential part of our service as providing a safe forum for sales managers to express the frustration that they cannot show to anyone else at work other than trusted peers. This connection helps them maintain sanity and balance.
Dr. Hallowell offers the physiological explanation:
“When you comfortably connect with a colleague, even if you are dealing with an overwhelming problem, the deep centers of the brain send messages through the pleasure center to the area that assigns resources to the frontal lobes. Even when you’re under extreme stress, this sense of human connection causes executive functioning to hum.”
So, make time twice a day to connect with someone you trust, however briefly and even if it’s just to discuss baseball scores, in order to maintain sanity in a stressful work environment. If you’re an over-achiever, by all means schedule your human connection time on your Outlook calendar and keep the bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger at bay.
For more on staying effective in a stressful work environment, read “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform” by Edward M. Hallowell, available for download at Harvard Business Review (www.hbr.org).