Take a lesson from the best sports coaches, who spend most of their time with their top performers
Imagine that you were tapped to become the coach or manager of one of the nation's most successful sports teams. How would you spend your time? If most sales managers applied their current methods to such a role, we would immediately question their sanity. We would find them in practices, in pregame preparation, and during timeouts spending time not with their starters and stars, but with the bench warmers. Watching the best coaches of the most performance-driven organizations -- big-time sports teams -- shows that effective managers spend most of their time with their best players.
Here's an exercise you can try yourself, and you can also use it to challenge your sales team leaders. Fold a ruled piece of paper in half vertically. On one side of that sheet of paper, write "PRODUCTIVITY" as a heading. Write the names of the players on your team, from the most to least productive, under that heading. Now, flip the piece of paper over and, before you complete this exercise, move on to some of your other responsibilities.
Is your mind clear? Okay. Then it's time for step two. On the other side of that folded paper, write the heading "TIME SPENT WITH/ON." Before you start writing your players' names, let's clearly define this heading. As you think about your managers or reps, consider how much time you spend riding along with them, teaching them, reminding them, providing for them, badgering them, apologizing for them, answering questions for them, complaining about them, talking to Human Resources about them, and -- we hope in few or no cases -- wishing they worked somewhere else.
Have you totaled the minutes and hours you spend with or on each person? On the top line, write the name of the player you spend the most time with or on. Continue writing names until you reach the player you spend the least amount of time with or on. (Please don't cheat by looking at the PRODUCTIVITY side of your page.)
Now, unfold the piece of paper. Let's say you've written Susan's name at the top of your PRODUCTIVITY list and second from the bottom on your list of TIME SPENT WITH/ON. Draw a line that connects the appearances of her name on your two lists, and follow this procedure for all of your players. What's the result? Well, if you're like all too many sales managers, you will have an unholy mess.
Our research confirms that you will best use your management time if your lines are parallel or as close to parallel as possible.
We know what you're thinking:
- "I have to spend a lot of time with Jane even though she's not at the top of my PRODUCTIVITY list because she's so new. She has to be trained."
- "I'm spending a lot of time with Harry because he's 'on plan.' We have to decide once and for all if we should let him go."
We agree that both of these are valid reasons for your time allotment to be a bit out of sync. These temporary time investments should produce results that you are looking for. But, if like some sales managers, you think, "I have to spend a lot of time with Zelda because she has a huge opportunity, and I want to make sure she doesn't mess it up," you obviously have not distributed your time investment in an optimal way.
Top-driven versus bottom-driven
The sad fact is that many managers and organizations are bottom-driven. Unlike the great performance-oriented sports leaders we mentioned above, most leaders of sales organizations spend an inordinate amount of time on their least productive and least talented players.
There are many compelling reasons for reversing this trend to become more top-driven in allocating your management time:
- It's simply good business sense to make your
largest investment in those areas where you stand to gain your
biggest return. Some of you may be thinking, "My best sales reps
don't want me looking over their shoulders." And you're probably
right. But when most salespeople ask to be "left alone," they are
not asking to be ignored.
Consider how you can spend more time on your best independent players. How can you remove obstacles for them? What can you do to get them the kind of pay plan, car, or perks that will keep them with you forever? Can you come up with meaningful recognition for all they do for you and the organization? Can you get them the resources they need to minimize limitations to high performance?
- You will "manage smarter." Just as those great
sports coaches don't dole out equal treatment to their best and
worst players, they also don't think that every person has a shot
at success in every position. As you spend more time thinking about
the talents of your best people, can you find strategies to
position your most aggressive, persistent reps to pursue new
business; help your most disciplined, responsible reps to "farm"
existing accounts; or ask your smartest, most experienced reps to
help out talented rookies?
- You will learn more. One of the most reliable
ways to increase the per-person productivity of your sales force is
to mine the secrets of your best and share them with the rest. Some
of the average and above-average players can benefit from their
- You will have more fun. Management feels like heavy lifting when you are trying to get people to do things that they don't have the talent or motivation to accomplish. Management is at its most exhilarating when you can position people in the game to score more -- and more often.
What should your schedule look like? We suggest using these four categories to manage your time:
- Stars. Spend 50%-60% of your time with and on
your great performers. Give them all the support they need and the
freedom they want and deserve. Ask them what they need to be more
successful and engaged in their work, and deliver as much as you
can to meet those requests.
- Top draft picks. Spend 20%-30% of your time on
your new, talented rookies, and help them become stars. They'll
more likely become stars themselves if you invest your time in
training and developing them.
- Utility players. Spend 10%-15% of your time on
those smart, experienced reps who might not be your most talented
players. Think about how to position them to leverage their
knowledge and skills in partnership with your more gifted
salespeople. Sometimes, you will have to make a tough call and
decide that you don't have the time to reposition these players.
Instead, you're better off replacing them with better talent.
- Non-performers. Spend whatever time you have left thinking about how you can get rid of them. For persistent non-performers, you must decide if the problem stems from a lack of needed talents or a lack of knowledge and/or skills. If it's the former, give up on the idea that you can change a non-performer into a star. If you decide it's the latter, put the person in the "Top draft picks" category and help him or her save a career.
So, as you make your next push to close a quarter or to have your biggest year ever, what team members will get most of your time? To paraphrase Damon Runyon, the race is not always won by the quickest, nor the fight by the strongest, but that's the only way to bet your most precious asset -- your time.