By John Styring, CEO of IglooBooks
Many successful CEOs start their careers in sales. The enthusiasm, drive and power of persuasion of the salesperson can all be the foundations of a good leader.
As someone who was once on the front-line, it’s true that a CEO with a strong grounding in sales will have an intimate knowledge of the "coalface" of the business. I believe that my background in sales was the foundation for our rapid rise as a company. As they say, a good salesperson never loses their sales spirit.
This obviously can be good and bad so here are some practical ways to turn the experience to your advantage and avoid the pitfalls.
1. IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT SALES
I know it sounds unbelievable but it’s not all about the sales figures. The sales route gave me an unparalleled experience of what it’s like to sell a product and I’ve carried that with me to this day. That passion for selling great value products is part of our ethos and a lesson I try to pass onto all our employees.
But if sales experience was the only criteria for a successful leader then everyone would be at it.
Beware of becoming the textbook example of a salesman CEO. The classic, pumping-fists-in-the-air sales leadership may be great in a conference venue, but it’s arguably a liability in serious talks with suppliers and financiers.
2. BECOME A REALISTIC OPTIMIST
As a salesperson, you know that of course positive sales figures matter. But when it comes to the financials be realistic and honest about what’s working. New companies can often be killed by a CEO’s optimism about the accounts.
A good boss will learn how to gain and retain finance from banks and providers. Being pro-risk and entrepreneurial is one thing, but you have to show the banks that you’re dependable and can be trusted. Here, the worlds of the CEO and the salesperson collide: banks will trust a company that has both a successful history of pitching to new business and good client retention but also has excellent know-how when it comes to the finances.
3. KNOW YOUR ROLES
Today more than ever, a CEO needs a strong sense of vision. You have to be able to see where the market is going and how to respond to any changes. A CEO’s background should reflect the challenges their organisation is likely to face over time. You need a strong sense of understanding – of both the varied roles within your own company and the diverse skills of the employees who fill them.
A CEO who provides a clear sense of direction is important but a leader who can build a competent and able team is arguably even more crucial. Partners and clients have confidence in a CEO who understands all of their business, how products go to market and how different roles contribute. If distributors can see that a CEO understands their needs, they will get on board whatever their background.
4. TRUST YOUR GUT
Most sales roles involve making important decisions on a daily basis. Good leaders, like the best sales people, are more able to make hard decisions without fear of failure. By experimenting without fear, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. The ability to read business and react accordingly is one of the most important skills of a successful leader - but it is difficult to teach. A successful sales career is a good start.
5. KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER
Sales roles offer you more customer interaction than any other position. You have the opportunity to gain direct feedback from the customer. You get to understand their requirements as well as what keeps them up at night. Building this knowledge of the customer can offer valuable useful insight into how to tailor your offering to their needs. Keep this conversation with the customer going even when you reach the top. Keeping personal clients as a CEO will allow you to stay up to date with customers’ expectations of your company.
6. COMMUNICATE DON’T SELL
When selling was once what communication was all about, it can be hard to take a step back. A successful CEO knows how to communicate at all levels but there is much to be gained from sales experience in this respect. A good salesman knows the right people to talk to and how to convey that essential passion for their company. This is good preparation for the role of CEO where communicating the unique selling points of your company is essential. It is a skill which translates into sales by persuading clients - new and old - that you are the best company for the job.
7. UNDERSTAND THOSE AROUND YOU
A good CEO will understand all the parts of their business. Rather than relying on the expertise of your staff, get involved in the different departments in your company. If you lack understanding in a particular area of the company I recommend spending time with that team. That way you get a real insight into how all of your company works. My sales background also helped me understand the importance of partners. Now IglooBooks has partners all over the world and we are constantly building alliances across the globe – with international offices in Europe and the US – and with distribution to 58 countries.
8. BE FASTER TO GROW FASTER
The importance of a speedy response was learnt in my sales days and it pays dividends if a CEO understands its importance for clients. The challenge is to learn how to adapt your company as it continues to grow.
So my final lesson is to use the ambition and professional intuition from being a sales professional to get to the top. But once you finally make it, remember the challenge has just begun. As CEO, there are new lessons to learn and often your own employees can be the best teachers.