More than 20 years ago, while working in the area of corporate transformation, I came across a fascinating explanation of the nature of culture within companies. I, like many people, saw the culture of a company as something “inherent” in any organization. But until that time, I failed to understand how it came into being and underestimated the enormous impact it had on the performance of those within a company.
While studying “Total Quality Management” in 1992, I came to understand that a company’s culture is like a virus; good or bad it invariably infects all of those within the company, including all new people that join the company. It fascinates me that companies often seek to “bring in new blood” when they recognize that they have a problem with their culture — only to find that the anticipated changes and improvements are ineffective. Often, in fact, the resistance to change is so great that either the “new blood” leaves the company or succumbs to the path of least resistance — the existing company culture. In short, they are assimilated.
I recently came across a perfect example of this principle as it relates to salespeople. We were asked by a CEO to conduct an evaluation of his sales force. Our findings were intriguing, as they showed that every member of the sales team from the sales manager down had the same significant sales weaknesses; those being a “Non-Supportive Buy Cycle” and “Money Weakness,” according to OMG assessment tools. These are two of the most serious sales weaknesses. They negatively impact the ability of salespeople to close sales as it makes them highly vulnerable to being put off by prospects.
In discussing this with the CEO during my debrief of the findings, he began to understand why they had the sales problems that they did and committed to taking steps to address these issues with our assistance. What happened next was fascinating; the CEO called me three weeks after the debrief to challenge the findings of the evaluations.
As it turned out, the company had employed their most recent salesperson only six months before we evaluated the team. The company they had used to recruit this person used our OMG candidate screening tools to identify suitable sales candidates. The successful candidate had no significant sales weaknesses according to the pre-employment evaluation; in fact, he had a very supportive buy cycle and no money weakness at all. This candidate was recommended to the CEO and was subsequently hired.
When we evaluated the team six months later, including the new hire, the findings were significantly different, which led to the follow-up call from the CEO. His first comments to me were, “I’m beginning to doubt the accuracy of your sales evaluations,” after which he proceeded to tell me the story of the two different findings just six months apart.
In looking at the original pre-employment evaluation and comparing it with the findings six months later, it became clear to me that the new salesperson had become infected by this company’s sales culture.
The new salesperson started out with very strong sales capabilities and beliefs. In fact, in his first four months he outsold everyone else in the company. Over time, he picked up the major sales weaknesses from his sales manager — as had the rest of the team! He now was vulnerable to resistance from prospects and had developed a belief that price was a major issue with their product; something he didn’t believe six months prior. He had been on sales calls with the sales manager and had started to adopt his style and beliefs — and why wouldn’t he? It was the path of least resistance and meant that he didn’t have to try; failure was seen as being acceptable.
You can imagine how the knowledge of this devastated the CEO. The discovery that they had brought in a superstar salesperson and within six months they had turned him into a failure.
This is a cautionary tale for all CEO’s; before you hire new sales talent, evaluate your existing team. Any hidden weaknesses in your sales culture will infect all new team members. It is vital to eliminate these pre-existing weaknesses as the first step to instilling a successful sales culture. Otherwise, you could turn a good salesperson bad, which is tragic for you and the salesperson.