Leadership is the art of influencing the thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and choices of others. In that sense, anybody who is in sales is in a leadership role, trying to influence the thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and choices of another person. And to some degree, we’re all involved in sales, in one form or another, every day of our lives.
The way we sell—or rather, the way we buy—has undergone an intriguing metamorphosis over the last five or six decades. It’s quite interesting to be aware of that evolution so as to understand a bit more about the leadership process as well.
Let’s start with the early days—in the 1950s and 1960s—where the salesperson was expected to be able to articulate the benefits of the product, to be able to overcome the prospect’s objections, and to be able to close the sale. The salesperson needed to have product knowledge and closing skills.
Later on, in the 1970s, Frank Watts, who at the time was working with the Wang Laboratories, developed “solution selling”, wherein the salesperson would engage the prospect in a process of questions and answers to help diagnose the essential needs of the prospect and offer the product as a solution to those needs.
Coming into 2000, Harvard Business School professor David Maister developed the idea of “trusted advisor”, which has become an overused phrase; nobody says “salesperson” anymore—everybody is a “trusted advisor”. But being a trusted advisor is not a simple matter. It can’t just occur through somebody declaring themselves as a trusted advisor. It’s a relationship that needs to develop, because a trusted advisor has to show authentic curiosity for the prospect’s deeper interests and needs and has a passion for solving them.
Even later than that, coming into current times, Duane Sparks, the founder and chairman of The Sales Board, talks about a “partner in success”, wherein the salesperson is committed to the prospect’s success every single day, not just in the moments they are meeting. They are committed to every phase of the prospect’s operations and will look for any way to help. They understand the prospect’s world and the levers for the prospect’s success.
In the spectrum of moving from salesperson to solution sales to trusted advisor to partner in success, the biggest transformation is the one from solution sales to trusted advisor, because that is a movement, a change, a growth. This movement is not just about developing new process or skills—it’s about the individual salesperson being able to grow in stature and character, to be able to grow an intimate and trusting relationship with the prospect.
I wrote Lead by Greatness as an argument that character fuels success and as a methodology to help people develop, strengthen, and access the greatness of character that each of us has. I hope you have an opportunity to read it and use it, and I look forward to any comments or thoughts you have.