Leading from the Front

By Anthony Iannarino

Leadership: Producing results with and through others.

As a marketer working with a sales team, you’re a strategic orchestrator. Like an orchestra conductor, your job is to keep everybody on the same page in order to produce the best result. You will lead others who have far greater knowledge of their particular responsibilities than you can ever hope to possess. The conductor doesn’t play violin well enough to sit first or second chair—but he or she knows the roles of those violinists well enough to deploy their talents where and when they are necessary. The people on your team who execute and deliver know far more about what they do than you do, but you have to lead them nonetheless.

That’s okay, because you are providing the vision, the direction. They’ll handle the details. Remember, you own outcomes, and they own the transactions.

No one makes you a leader.

What makes you a leader is your decision to take responsibility and to act on that decision, no matter your position on the organizational chart. You become a leader simply by behaving like a leader, by owning the responsibility for the outcome you sell.

Don’t worry about someone complaining that you’re leading. I promise that no one will fight you for the leadership role, especially when you have to overcome difficult challenges. Some people will try to snatch the credit once a successful outcome is obtained, but they will not fight you for the heavy lifting that gets you there. Others will follow you and help you because you are out front, leading the charge.

Manage the “Department of Sales Prevention.”

One of the most difficult sales you will ever make is to your own company. Your own company is full of skeptics who don’t believe they can produce the outcomes your dream client needs for you to win the business. That’s because the status quo isn’t just entrenched in your client’s company; it’s also deeply embedded in your own. This resistance to change, this unwillingness to stretch, creates what I lovingly refer to as the Department of Sales Prevention, headed by a vice president of We Can’t. There’s one (or more) in every sales organization.

Often, your own leadership team has to be persuaded to adopt your vision of what is possible and necessary. Instead of looking for ways to innovate, to create new value that can later be rolled out to even more clients, the folks in your Department of Sales Prevention will reflexively respond with, “No. We can’t do that.”

This is where your leadership is required. No, you do not have the formal authority to lead within your own organization, but don’t let that stop you. Lead internally. Offer a vision of a better future and build consensus around that vision. Play politics if you have to. Be bold enough to ask for commitments from people over whom you have no authority. Stay the course until you finally get what you want.

Let’s get one other thing straight when it comes to leadership: the fact that there is resistance within your own company is the reality you are faced with sometimes. It’s not something to get upset about. It isn’t something that you can whine about or wish away. There is nothing easy about selling today, and this reality means that you have to step, lead, and move people into the future sometimes kicking and screaming.

Never blame your company—lead it.

If something goes wrong and you can’t deliver the promised results to your client, you can’t blame your own company. Doing so will not absolve you of responsibility for the failure, even if your company was obviously to blame.

As far as the clients are concerned, the salesperson is the company. You are never going to hear a customer say, “It’s okay. We’re not mad at you for failing us. We’re mad at your company. We’ll buy from you again when you work at another company.” Look, if you couldn’t get them the result this time at this company, why should they believe you’ll do a better job at another company? You are responsible for delivering results—that’s what you’re selling, and that’s what a leader delivers.

Lead your own team.

Meet with your team members—including your management team, operations managers, accounting and IT departments—to give them a vision. When they struggle, act on the belief that they are doing their best. Assume good intentions. Instead of being critical or judgmental, spend time understanding their world and the obstacles that prevent them from executing. Your role is to help them succeed, not to blame them for failing.

Your team might need more time, more money, more people, or more support from the leadership inside your company. You are responsible for making sure that they have what they need or helping them to acquire it. Now you are reminded why you need to be resourceful, influential, and why you need to build consensus.

Give your team firm leadership, and it will go out of its way to help you deliver.

Clear the way.

There is a great scene in the movie Patton where General George S. Patton is racing across Italy in an attempt to beat the British general Bernard Montgomery to Messina. Patton’s soldiers are trying to cross a bridge, but a donkey pulling a cart is blocking it. The donkey, proving its reputation for stubbornness, refuses to move.

Eager to capture Messina before Montgomery does, Patton walks up to see what’s preventing his men from acting upon his command to get to the destination. Upon discovering the obstacle, the general pulls out his famed pearl-handled pistol and shoots the donkey—and his team reaches Messina ahead of Montgomery.

Obstacle removed. Objective achieved.

You, too, will encounter obstacles that slow or halt your team. Some of these obstacles may be as stubborn as a donkey. Your role as a leader is to deal with stubborn donkeys and clear the road so that your team can race to deliver the promised results. You don’t need to act with the same cruelty that Patton did; he was literally at war. But you do need to act with as much vigor and commitment.

This is why you must always lead from the front: you need to be the first one to spot the donkeys so you can deal with them right away.

How to improve your ability to lead others.

Ask any leader, and they’ll tell you that it is difficult to lead under the best of circumstances. They’ll explain how ineffective the use of force is when leading a team, and they will tell you that they wish they had more influence. Great leaders always choose persuasion over force. They know that they are salespeople selling a vision and asking for the commitment of action to bring that vision to life.

Great leaders will also tell you that what keeps them up at night isn’t the threat of their competitors. It’s the risk of failing the people that they have the honor to lead.

Here are some tools that will help you strengthen your leadership skills:

  1. Read about and study leadership.

I like to read books by practitioners of leadership—leaders who were faced with challenges that seemed insurmountable—such as Sir (Ernest) Henry Shackleton, President George Washington, and General George Patton. Distill these stories into lists of ideas and attributes. If you don’t like to read biographies, or if you don’t like distilling the lessons yourself, choose a book that has a number in the title, which means that someone else has captured the stories and distilled the lessons for you.

Also study the great leaders in your organization. These leaders may not have the formal titles you think of when you think of leaders. Look for the people who get things done because people willingly follow them. Notice how they communicate with the people they lead. Watch for clues that help you understand what makes the leader worth following. Does she care about her people? Does she provide them with a compelling mission and vision? Does she frame their work as something so important as to provide meaning and purpose to the daily grind?

  1. Learn to own the outcome.

Leaders always take responsibility, whether or not things go well. Even if a failure is due to unforeseen circumstances or to the client’s omissions or errors, a leader takes responsibility.

Don’t hesitate to lead because you fear you will be on your own: good leaders naturally attract dedicated followers. In fact, the very act of leading is how you create followers—people who join your effort because they, too, want you and your solution to succeed. When you jump right in to do the heavy lifting, you earn followers.

You learn to lead by stepping into the breach. You learn to lead by tackling the tough issues from which most people run away. You will quickly find yourself in over your head—and that is where leaders are made.

  1. Lead from the front.

Leadership is found where the action is—at the front—with leaders helping out, rallying the people, and securing the necessary resources.

Do not lead from behind a desk. Go where the action is and make your presence felt. You must be on the front lines with your soldiers as they battle their fiercest challenges.

Remember, you created and sold the vision. When problems arise, answer the call. Rush to the scene to make a difference and keep your vision alive. You’re not sure what to do? Don’t worry about that. Just get out and lead. The mere fact that you’re there, standing tall, will cause people to flock to you with ideas and resources.

All great leaders were baptized in fire and you’ll be no exception.

Anthony Iannarino is an international keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, sales leader, and sales coach. He blogs daily at The Sales Blog, and teaches part time at Capital University’s Capital School of Management and Leadership. Email: [email protected].

This article is adapted from The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need by Anthony Iannarino with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Anthony Iannarino, 2016.