I’ll never forget it. The date was January 20, 2016 at 8:00 am.
After working for the same company for the past ten years, I was starting the next step in my professional journey. I was doing something I’d never done before.
I was taking over an underperforming sales team.
Aside from my new boss and the one team member I met while interviewing for the job, I knew no one on the call. As I was being introduced as their new boss, I’ll be the first to admit I was pretty nervous.
In my previous management role, I had been promoted to lead the team I had been a part of for eight years prior. Although I knew everyone and knew that business like the back of my hand, those two years were harder than I ever could have imagined.
My former team had been the top producing team in the company for several years, we had some high caliber performers, and we had even stronger personalities. As a first-time manager in the medical device industry, it was a lot to handle.
The team continued to perform well, and things went well. But it didn’t always feel like it.
As I got hired at my new company, the leaders had complete faith that I would help this new team achieve its objectives. In my heart, I believed it too.
The team was ranked ninth out of eleven regions, and it had three open territories that needed to be filled right away.
What I did know is the product was a really good fit in the market, and the five individuals who were on the team were experienced medical device salespeople who knew their stuff.
As I logged onto the conference call to meet my new team, I knew the time had come to put my plan into action.
Here’s what I talked about during that first introductory call, and here’s the plan I executed during the first few months leading that team:
1. Made a positive first impression with strong expectations
During that first meeting, I praised everyone for their work ethic, how hard I knew they’d been working, and all the good things I’d heard about them during the interview process.
I made it known that I understood the experience level most of them had, the knowledge of medical sales they possessed, and that I was looking forward to working with each one of them. They had all been successful in sales before, or they wouldn’t have been hired to begin with.
The team and individual performances weren’t coming close to meeting expectations, and I didn’t shy away from bringing that up.
The last thing I wanted to do was disconnect from the team members before we even got started, but I wanted them to know that the expectations are firm, and that I believed in them and their ability to meet the objectives in front of us, even if they weren’t being met currently.
It was up to us as a group to figure out what was working, what wasn’t working, and adjust.
2. Overshared about myself early on, especially personally
When I got off that first call, my new boss called me right away. His immediate feedback: “Man, that was awesome. That was one of the best introductory talks I’ve ever heard, and what made it so good is how much you opened up and told them who you are. Most people keep that stuff really close to the vest, but I can tell they’re going to love working with you!”
When I introduced myself, I started by telling them about my family, a short bit about how and where I grew up, and a very brief work history. I also told them about my hobbies and the things I’ve always been into.
To me, a team is a family, and lot of the time you’ll spend more time with your work family than you do your personal one. I knew we’d have plenty of time to talk work, and I also am not a fan of bragging about past accomplishments too much when you meet someone.
In my mind, you should let them experience working with you first hand. If you’re good at what you do and help them, that’s where the real credibility is built.
3. Spent the first 60 days just learning
The concern people always have with new managers coming in from outside is that they will want to start changing things, get rid of people, or task the team with actions that don’t make sense, because they don’t fully know the business.
This concern also exists when people are promoted internally as well, although not as bad.
The easy answer to this: don’t come in and change or recommend anything until you fully know the people on the team, and the business you’re in. It’s that simple.
During my first couple rounds of field visits, I just observed, got to know the people on the team, and asked a lot of questions.
It was really important to me that I get to know each person personally, what their motivations were, their career goals, their family life and situation, how they like to be led, how they run their business, what their current business plan looks like, and where they thought they may be able to use additional help or support.
As hard as it was to keep my mouth shut, especially when I spotted things I thought could be improved, I resisted the temptation to point it out. I knew I’d have the opportunity, but first they needed to trust that I truly had their best interest in mind.
4. Allowed everyone to start with a clean slate
When I take over a new team, the only background I want on the individuals is anything currently in progress from an HR perspective.
Is anyone on a performance improvement plan? Has anyone been written up for anything in the past couple years? Are there any HR-sensitive situations or dynamics that I need to be made aware of?
I’ll listen to the backstory and any tips the prior manager or senior leaders will give me on the team. But they’re merely to gain context and history on the team and the people. Aside from that, I don’t want to come in and have too many preconceived notions on how the people or team will be.
Sometimes people need a fresh start. Regardless of how bad things have gone, the reasons for that, and the actions that were being taken by the prior manager, sometimes a leader that brings in a new environment and culture can be exactly what some members of the team may need.
5. Welcomed constructive dialogue and open conversation in team meetings
Meetings should not be quiet. They shouldn’t be a didactic setting where only the leader does the talking. If that’s the case, that’s a big problem.
Every team I’ve taken over, I’ve made it a point to encourage people to speak up in meetings, especially if they have a clarifying question, are running into challenges, or feel they need support or guidance beyond what they’re currently getting.
As a leader, this is the feedback you want.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t happening within several teams I’ve taken over, and this one in 2016 was no different.
When team members don’t talk, it’s the result of several factors, but almost always, it’s a sign that the past manager was a weak leader who shied away from uncomfortable conversations with tension.
They wanted to just give directions and tell the team to go do it, and questions or excuses were not allowed.
Business is hard, and that’s not the way it works.
I’m all for accountability, but there has to be a balance, and you have to be willing to offer support when people are struggling or need additional guidance.
One ask I always make: if you’re going to bring up a challenge or a concern and need help, be ready to explain the steps you’ve taken to attempt to figure it out first. Then ask the team for their feedback on how you can solve it.
When teams learn to solve problems together, the performance skyrockets, and the culture builds even stronger.
6. Spent one-on-one time with each team member ASAP
There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. In today’s day where virtual meetings have become more acceptable and more widely adopted, they have a place.
But nothing beats meeting with someone in person, shaking hands with them, having a meal or two together, sitting down for some live discussions, and getting in front of customers with them.
If you’ve done the first few things right, your new team should want to spend time with you in person. If anyone is resistant to this, a red flag should go off in your head.
During your first live interactions with your new team, spend at least two-thirds of the time talking about them. Get to know who they are, their family, the names of their spouse and children, the vision they have for their life and career, and how they feel about the current track they’re on.
From that point, the conversation around how you can help them get to the next level they’re seeking is a natural one.
The biggest impression you can make is for them to feel like you care about them, first and foremost. The business objectives will come up, and you want to spend some time on that early on, but get to know them as people first.
Once you have a solid rapport, connection, and trust, you can truly start helping your new team members.
7. Let the team teach me the business and make suggestions
One of the best ways to build trust with your new team is by letting them teach you what they know about the business.
A lot of leaders get this dead wrong. They think they need to come in and show the team how much they know about business, how experienced they are, what they’ve done in their past jobs, and how those lessons and plans will turn things around in the new business.
While all those things may be true and are why you’ve been hired into this new role, that doesn’t build connection early on.
In the mind of the team, they will think they know the business better than you do. For them to take your advice and follow your lead, they need to know that you truly understand them, the situation they’re in, what they’re doing to become more successful, and that you have their best interest in mind.
Go through all the trainings your team went through when they were hired. A lot of managers will skip this step or do an abbreviated version, thinking they have more important things to worry about in the business than learning the business from the field level.
As a leader, you will have additional responsibilities, especially in terms of filling open positions, managing personnel situations, and high-level meetings and responsibilities. You’ll have to find a way to make it all fit in.
Learn the business the way your team did. It will earn their respect and gain yourself credibility. Then ask where they specifically feel like they need help.
Now you’re ready to coach them, and they’ll want you to.
8. Identified the team members with the most influence and took them under my wing
When I took over in 2016, of the five account managers already on the team, there were two who were the clear leaders. Justin and Erik had been President’s Club achievers, were well respected by the team and the rest of the company, and were always willing to help others.
They were exactly the sales people I wanted to duplicate across the team.
However, the prior manager never did that. He let them go out, do their thing, and “tried to stay out of their way.” So that’s what the two of them did.
It was no surprise the two of them were excelling and none of that success was spreading throughout the team.
It wasn’t because they weren’t willing to help out. The prior manager had never brought them in and asked them to contribute in that way.
During my first field visit with each of them, I explained how impressed I was with what they’d accomplished, how knowledgeable they were about the business, and that I needed their help. I needed them to be an extension of me.
I needed them to keep a pulse on the culture of the team, to be a sounding board and provide me constructive feedback most people weren’t comfortable giving, and I needed them to be our leaders who will motivate, support, and inspire the others.
They both did exactly that, and they were amazing. They both became field trainers for the company within a year, had the opportunity to participate in leadership development projects, and Justin ended up backfilling me when I got promoted eighteen months later.
9. Set the example I wanted followed
Growing up a sports fan, I’ve always been fascinated by the effect that a new coach has on a team. It doesn’t take long for that coach’s personality, mindset, and standards to rub off on a team.
If you’re in charge, most people will try to do what you say, but they’ll always do what you do.
The example you set as a leader permeates the entire team and culture. What most new leaders don’t always realize is, it’s usually the simple daily tasks and habits that stand out, good or bad.
On every business team I lead or sales team I coach, I have two rules:
· Be on time
· Do the right thing
I don’t like making things more complicated than that, and I’ve never had a problem with people following either of those rules.
I make it a point to follow them myself. I’ll never ask someone on a team I lead to do something I either am not willing to do, or not capable of doing.
I always show up a minute or two early for meetings, and take steps to manage my schedule so that happens. The team just knows that I’m going to show up prepared, on time, engaged, and ready for a great discussion.
If you follow this principle, and always set the example you want to see emulated, in all areas of teamwork, your team will follow you. It really doesn’t need to be more difficult than that.
10. Once I had trust, buy-in, and understood the business, I started making changes
One of the biggest balancing acts I had to figure out was how to make changes. At the end of the day, the team wasn’t performing. What it was doing wasn’t achieving the objectives set forth by the company.
That had to change, and there was no hiding from it.
I didn’t hide from it, nor the fact that the business had to evolve. However, the balancing act was, changes had to be done in the right way.
My assessment and direction had to make sense for the business. The team members had to be bought in so they would go out and take the appropriate actions.
Here’s the exact talk track I gave to the team during the very first meeting. I was probably four to five minutes into my intro speech.
“One thing we have to realize is, business changes and evolves, especially in medical sales. We can’t hide from the fact that the current performance of this team isn’t what the company wants to see, and I know it’s not what you guys are satisfied with either.
“Here’s what I can assure you of: we are going to have to get better. We are going to have to look at our business and look for ways to improve, and I’m going to lean on you guys to help create the plan for making that happen. I’m also going to rely on you guys to help me learn this business as quickly as possible, and then once I’m up to speed on everything, we will work together to shape the best plan for our path forward. Does that sound fair to everyone?”
All five people responded back, “Yes, absolutely. Let’s do it!”
That was the only level setting conversation we needed to have. Just like that, we were off to the races.
11. Be strong in the vision and mission, with tactical flexibility
There are some things in business, especially strategically, that are not open for debate. When I took over the team, the quotas were already set for the year, everyone’s territories were already mapped out, and the overarching business strategy for which products we needed to spend time on, in what types of customers’ locations was all set.
We weren’t going to change that.
So as a leader that’s where you stay strong, and that’s what I did. We had an innovative niche product that was new to the market. The company knew exactly where the biggest market opportunities were. That data was provided to the team, and everyone had access to it.
For the most part, the sales plan shouldn’t deviate much from that.
However, what does deviate a little are the specifics in individual territories and geographies around the nation. In medical sales, things like number of hospitals, number of clinics and physician offices, patient population and demographics, insurance plans and coverages of certain products, and types and of quantity of procedures and services offered can vary from one territory to the next.
A health system in Washington state may have less hospitals and more outpatient clinics than a health system down in California. There may be a different number of physicians in certain specialties or different sizes and types of hospitals in different areas.
That’s real, and that’s where I let the team have some flexibility. This ended up being one of the moves that helped our team grow so quickly.
I realized that most of the sales team was executing a plan that didn’t work as well as it should in all territories. We needed to build in more latitude for our team to target and work accounts differently.
During my next call with my boss, I explained this, showed him data to support my theory, and got his blessing to give the team that flexibility.
It worked. We never looked back.
When I first stepped into that role, I was really concerned about taking over an underperforming team, especially as an external hire. The risk was high, both for me and for the company.
Ultimately, that job ended up being one of the biggest catalysts for my career.
My balanced and humble approach connected with everyone on the team quickly. It also helped me fill the three open territories within my first two months on the job.
Justin and Erik were happy to take on leadership roles and mentor the members of the team. They also helped me create the agendas and run several of the team meetings.
When I took over that team, we were ranked Number 9 out of 11 regions in the country.
In six months, we moved all the way up to #3.
In just over a year, the team was ranked #1 and earned me a promotion.
The fun thing about it was, it wasn’t about me. It was about the team, and all they needed was a leader to let them feel safe and supported, and to let their true talent shine.
Fortunately for all of us, that’s exactly what happened.
I’m still friends with several of those team members today, and a few of them have received multiple promotions and job offers since our time together.
Every other job I’ve had since then, I’ve been an external hire from outside the business. I’ve had to walk into leadership positions, connect, build trust, and use my influence and leadership skills to make an impact.
In every one of those jobs, I’ve followed this exact playbook. The performance in every one of those jobs has exceeded all expectations and objectives, by a long shot.
I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given back in 2016. That experience has paved the way for a great deal of success in my leadership journey.
It also helped me create a plan and roadmap that others can follow as well.
If you find yourself moving into a leadership role soon, put these steps into action, and you’ll watch your team turn things around quicker than you could ever imagine.
Make it a great one!!!
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