The World’s #1 Executive Coaching and Business Coaching Blog (2017-2020)

Jonathan Farrington

We asked Jonathan Farrington about a time when he believed he failed as a leader. He took us all the way back to grammar school at the tender age of 8 when he was asked to be captain of the school soccer team. “In reality, I was merely a manager and I had to learn the difference between managing and leading,” he says. “My biggest mistake was thinking that the two roles were the same.” The founder and CEO of Top Sales World and editor of Top Sales magazine quotes Field Marshall Slim when describing the difference between managing and leading:

“There is a difference between leadership and management. Leadership is of the spirit, management is of the mind. Managers are necessary, but leaders are essential. We must find managers who are not only skilled organizers, but inspired and inspiring leaders.” Jonathan – who’s also a consultant, keynote speaker, business coach, sales strategist and author among other roles – recently checked in with us to share more about his leadership philosophy and how he thinks sales managers can become better leaders. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us about your professional background.

I come from a farming family, and my father insisted that I should follow in his footsteps. But this only motivated me to find another career path, and we eventually agreed that I could become a chartered surveyor. I did that for six months, but I saw that my pals selling houses had nicer cars and seemed to earn a lot more money, so I managed to convince my father to let me try out a sales role. It proved a good move, as I discovered I had a natural talent for it.

In nine months I was outselling everybody. I couldn’t believe it, and they certainly couldn’t! In those days, you could get by without having advanced selling skills. It was almost cronyism. You didn’t need to understand the rudiments of negotiation, presentation or communication. If you had a natural personality, you could get away with it. You can’t now, of course. My father ended up buying out an estate agency on the condition that I would pay him back within five years. I managed to within 18 months, and soon opened four other branches before selling the business.

I then ran Cambridge’s first cocktail bar for a couple of years, before helping two of my regulars to set up a software company. That’s how I got into IT – completely by accident. So I worked with them for three years and got to know the IT industry. Then I got poached and went to work as a corporate account manager. Within six months, I took over as sales manager, then became general manager, sales and marketing director, and then CEO.

That all happened pretty quickly, but it was a very exciting time to be in IT. I worked in corporate life for another 10 years with IBM, Wang, Bank of Tokyo and Andersen Consulting. In 1992, I formed my own consultancy and I was extremely fortunate to pick up some very large accounts extremely quickly … France Telecom, Autodesk, Cisco, etc. During the next 12 years, I personally trained more than 100,000 frontline salespeople and their managers. This first consultancy was always meant to be a 10-year project, and I sold it in 2004.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

You can buy someone’s physical presence, but you cannot buy loyalty, enthusiasm or devotion. These you must earn. Successful organizations have leaders who focus on the future, rather than cling to the past. Leaders bring out the best in people. They spend time developing people into leaders.

I also believe that whatever got you where you are today will not be sufficient to keep you there. A rapidly-changing environment is the regular background against which organizations must develop. Change is continuous and will become more rapid as we move forward over time. Leaders must be capable of reacting to those changes and be prepared to take advantage of them, and yet stay within the overall framework and agreed-upon strategy.

What are the biggest/most important leadership lessons you’ve learned so far in your career?

Here are just a few that I have worked hard to adopt:

  • Cultivate a sense of compassion and responsibility for others. As a leader, you have a bigger impact on the lives of those under you than you can imagine.
  • Once a career decision has been made, commit to stick it out through the tough learning period.
  • Play your part in creating an upbeat environment – a positive and vibrant workplace is important to productivity.
  • Broaden your cultural and social horizons beyond your normal experiences. Learning to see life from different perspectives will give you greater flexibility when it comes to problem-solving at work.
  • We live in a rapidly-changing world, so be willing to venture in new directions to seize new opportunities and learn new skills.
  • Find ways in which to turn setbacks and failures to your advantage. This represents a good time to step forward on your own.
  • Be bold in vision and careful in planning. Dare to try something new, but be meticulous with your proposal so that your ideas have a good chance of succeeding.
  • Learn from your mistakes – yours and those made by others. Sometimes, the best teachers are the worst bosses.
  • Never insist on achieving a goal or objective at any cost. It must be achieved at a reasonable expense without undue hardship on your staff.
  • Don’t be drawn into public disputes with rivals; it’s better to engage in respectful competition. Remember, you may need their cooperation someday. (Due to my crusading spirit and refusal to lower my standards of what is fair and right, this is the one that I have had the most difficulty with!)

Why is it important that companies help their sales managers become strong leaders?

Leadership was once about hard skills, such as planning, finance and business analysis. When command and control ruled the corporate world, the leaders were heroic rationalists who moved people around like pawns and fought like stags. When they spoke, the company employees jumped.

Now, if the gurus and experts are right, leadership is increasingly concerned with soft skills – teamwork, communication and motivation. The trouble is that for many executives, the soft skills remain the hardest to understand, let alone master. After all, hard skills have traditionally been the ones that enabled you to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.

The entire career system, in some organizations, is based on using hard functional skills to progress. But when executives reach the top of the organization, many different skills are required. Corporate leaders may find that, although they can do the financial analysis and the strategic planning, they are poor at communicating ideas to employees or colleagues, or have little insight into how to motivate people. The modern Chief Executive requires an array of skills.

Some suggest that we expect too much of leaders. Indeed, “renaissance” men and women are rare. Leadership, in a modern organization, is highly complex; and it is increasingly difficult (and sometimes impossible) to find all the necessary traits in a single person. Among the most crucial skills is the ability to capture your audience; you will be competing with lots of other people for their attention. Leaders of the future will also have to be emotionally efficient. They will promote variation rather than promoting people in their own likeness. They will encourage experimentation and enable people to learn from failure. They will build and develop people.

What unique qualities should a sales manager possess to be a great leader?

No one has all the skills of management or leadership to the same degree any more than they have the personality traits to the same degree. However, it is much easier to learn or acquire skills than it is to develop new personality traits. I believe that there are five basic skills, and the degree to which any individual cultivates those skills may well determine the degree of their success.

  1. Cooperation: No one ever got very far completely by his or her own efforts. It has been said that none of us have ever accomplished anything without the help or the results of someone else’s work. No one walks alone through life. Enlisting the help of the right people at the right time is what we call the ability to enlist cooperation.
  2. Organizing and Planning: An effective leader must be an organizer. They must have the ability to see and grasp the whole picture, separate it into its component parts, and determine what has to be done and in what sequence.
  3. Standards of Conduct and Performance: No measure can be made without some basis from which to start and some sort of yardstick. One of the leader’s greatest opportunities to lead others to high levels of performance is in the standards they set for themselves and how well their personal performance squares with them. They must lead by example, as well as by inspiration. A person who sets high standards of performance and conduct for themselves, and sets an example of enthusiastic performance, will be much more able to inspire others to outstanding performance. This means work and a strict adherence to the code of ethics and the rules of conduct required by your associates.
  4. Decisions: A good leader does not avoid decisions. A procrastinating attitude toward decision-making has ruined more than one otherwise promising career. A good leader makes decisions whenever needed and at the time they are required. They weigh up the implications of their decisions after having carefully examined a number of alternative solutions.
  5. Developing Your People: Most effective leaders try to make shrewd judgments of character. This does not mean that they are (or pretend to be) “psychologists.” However, just because an individual seems to be a “nice guy” or personally obnoxious to the leader, they do not allow their personal likes and dislikes or their emotions to interfere with sound judgment. Every able leader teaches their associates to learn and to grow. Their proudest moment is when one of their people achieves success!

How has sales changed since you started your career? How do you think it will evolve in coming years?

When I think about the future of professional selling, it is clear that sales has come a long way. Even a cursory glance over my shoulder confirms that sales over the past 60 years has evolved through five generations. These are the “5 Cs of Selling.”

  1. “Cronyism” was the first era of selling, prevalent in the industrial boom following World War II. The salesperson was essentially your buddy – that is, someone whom you got to know well and liked.
  2. We then moved on to “Commodity Selling.” This second era of selling took hold from the 1950s until the mid-1960s where salespeople basically sold on price. Again, there was little product differentiation, which resulted in discounting and price wars.
  3. “Content Selling” – The third era of selling was the first to involve a strategic differentiation of one product from another. Starting in the 1960s through to the mid-1970s, professional marketers, with the help of advertising agencies, were now able to create brand awareness and customer knowledge as to why one product was superior to another. The goal was to educate buyers on the “features and benefits” of a specific product, and thereby increase sales by generating excitement in purchasing the superior features and benefits. This is where I came in.
  4. Although this era marked the start of a more “professional approach to selling,” it was product-centric. The features and benefits approach did not take into account the unique and differing needs of customers. Customers were becoming even more sophisticated and competition was heating up; and as a result, customers demanded solutions that were customized to their needs. The focus of the sales moved from the product to the customer, and “Consultative Selling” – or customer need-based selling – was born. Over the past 30 years, consultative selling has been very much in vogue.
  5. “Collaborative Selling.” I see this as the era of collaborative selling. Customers are advancing in the sale before they engage with salespeople. Salespeople must bring greater expertise and resources to customers to add to what they already have researched for themselves. The emphasis is alignment of the sales process with the customer’s buying cycle. Today, the goal is for salespeople and customers to advance in the buying journey together. Collaborative selling occurs not only between buyers and sellers, but also partners.

As I think about the future of selling, I see the era of collaboration continuing and extending. In collaborative selling, both buyer and seller become customers to each other. This approach has three primary goals for both organizations:

  • Minimize short-term risk
  • Maximize long-term gain
  • Create value by partnering with each other

But of course, we know that the evolution that is happening in selling will not stop at the fifth era. Technology will drive the change and impact buyers and sellers in ways we can only dream about. What we all can be sure of is that change will continue at a rapid pace. As I see it, the next era – the sixth era – is an era of Commoditization. Don’t confuse this with the second era, “Commodity Selling,” although there are some startling similarities.

There is an air of inevitability that at some point in the not too distant future, many of the tasks now routinely handled by “salespeople” will become automated – in fact, it is already happening. Commoditization virtually eliminates seller-buyer human interaction, and as of now, it is a B2C “phenomenon.” It is, of course, due largely to consumers’ new affection for online shopping via the Internet, and sales organizations desire to capitalize on the breadth of audiences they can reach and the lower costs of sales and delivery.

However, it would be foolhardy to not anticipate that, as buyers become increasingly self-educated about our products, companies and our market sector, the sales role in many industries will undoubtedly become diminished. The role of sales is shifting to a consulting model that brings expertise in the areas of business, industry, company, stakeholder and capabilities.

While the role of the order-taker salesperson will eventually go the way of the Internet, for the complex sale for the foreseeable future, the role of the salesperson is secure. There will always be a place for the professional business consultant – the “Top 5 percent Player.” These people consult more than sell, as they assist their clients in making sound buying decisions. Perhaps the way to look at the future of selling is to compile a team consisting of a sales and marketing professor, a technology professor from MIT, maybe someone from ; history has shown writers like Ray Bradbury have been truly prophetic!

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