Sales And Leadership: The Differences That Matter

Knowing these vital differences can boost your job performance and your career.

By Brent Filson - 2/2007

Corporate learning leaders often seem to be going up the "down" organizational staircase. Their organizations and its executives are primarily focused on getting results tied to marketplace and operational activities while learning leaders are focused on results tied to human resources and training activities.

While those activities work together in some areas, their overarching differences in aims, outcomes, and resource allocations are clearly troubling to many senior executives.

This is evidenced by a survey described last summer in Chief Learning Officers Magazine.

"Accenture High Performance Workforce Study", which is conducted every 18 months and surveys more than 250 senior executives, found that only 10 percent of respondents reported being very satisfied with the performance of their human resources and training.

In these monthly articles, I have been examining a variety of ways that learning leaders can remedy this clearly unacceptable situation. (See Learning Leader Archives.)

In this article, I will provide another way by delineating the crucial differences between sales and leadership.

Ever since I was called in by General Electric leaders in the 1980s to help with their leadership communication challenges ("temporary" consulting that lasted 18 years), I have worked with many leaders of all ranks and functions and scores of other major companies worldwide. One thing stands out: There are widespread misunderstandings throughout all ranks and functions regarding the functions and interrelationships of sales and leadership.

Such misunderstandings are not academic. They're fundamental action triggers that confuse organizational intentions, thwart functional tasks, impair job performance, and cause learning leaders to make serious mistakes in choosing and implementing training programs.

After all, sales and leadership are two critical organizational dynamics. Clearly, as a learning leader, you're involved with both in terms of training and development.

Misunderstanding them goes right to the heart of your role as a learning leader.

On the other hand, understanding those differences and manifesting them through comprehensive, interlocking knowledge programs can help you cement and expand your role as a key results' partner in your organization.

You've heard something like this before: "He's not a leader, he's a salesman." Or: "She was trying to motivate me but gave me a sales pitch instead!"

Being a sales person can provide a poor foundation for leadership. Because leading and selling, though they share certain qualities, are different activities. Most people go along in their jobs and careers without thinking through those differences and thus mix up the two in self-defeating ways.

I've seen good sales people fail when moved into leadership positions; and conversely, good leaders fail when they become sales people or use certain sales techniques to lead.

In both cases, they misunderstood the differences or missed them altogether and so couldn't align their words and actions to take advantage of those differences.

Learning leaders can manifestly improve their positions in organizations by understanding what such differences are.

Clearly, on the surface, both sales and leadership focus on ways to influence people to take action. Both sales people and leaders must be knowledgeable, skillful, enthusiastic, and convincing.

However, when we drill down into the functions of the relationships involved in selling and leading—getting customers to purchase products or services as opposed to getting people to achieve organizational results—the differences emerge.

Here are three defining differences between sales and leadership that can help you both as a sales person and a leader. Note the differences are variations on a single, decisive theme.

(1) Sales people must satisfy customers. Leaders often have to dissatisfy the people.  People in most organizations are in thrall to a powerful force, the status quo. The status quo is simply the existing state of an organization. You might ask, "What's wrong with the existing state of an organization?" My response is, "A great deal." In fact, the status quo of any organization is almost always wrong.

The trouble with the status quo isn't that it gets poor results. After all, if you know you're getting poor results, you can do something about it. You can start taking steps to turn them into good results. The trouble with the status quo is that it gets mediocre results but represents them as good results. And poor results are less harmful to an organization than mediocre results misrepresented as good results.

Leadership is not about maintaining the status quo (as management does), it's about transforming the status quo to achieve big increases in results. Such transformation cannot be accomplished unless and until people are infused with a powerful dissatisfaction with the way things are.

Sales people want customers to like them; but leaders may have to get some people angry with them and what they are challenging them to do. (If they don't have some of the people angry with them, those leaders might not be challenging all the people enough. Though watch out when you have ALL of the people angry with you.)

(2) Sales people get people to do what they want to do. Leaders aim to get people to do what they may not want to do and be ardently committed to doing it. Having people get out

of the status quo to achieve great results means challenging them to be uncomfortable, do things in new ways, learn new skills, and take on perplexing tasks. Good leaders live by the rule that it is better to do the new, right things in the temporarily wrong ways than to do the old wrong things in the right ways.

(3) Sales people must counteract bad feelings on the part of customers. Leaders may have to live with and even accept bad feelings on the part of the people while getting them to move toward their organization's greater goal. When you lead people to go to the metaphorical mountain, for instance, many of them will want to go to the nearby hill or to stay where they are. Standing pat is more comfortable and less risky than going to the mountain. But the organization badly needs them to move to the mountain. That's where leadership comes in. In sales, you hop on customers' disapproval right away and try to mitigate or eliminate it. However, in leadership getting people to change from standing pat to being the cause leaders of going-forth can involve having to temporarily put up with their initial misgivings or even their outright defiance. A CEO told me, "The hardest thing I've had to learn as a leader is grace under pressure. How to keep focused on our company's objectives while weathering the criticisms from the inevitable naysayers."

Keep in mind that despite their differences, sales and leadership share useful similarities. Many sales techniques, especially with the art of persuasion, can be effectively used in leadership. Conversely, many leadership methodologies can be used in sales. My article on "Stepping Up Sales Results Using A Leadership Process" shows how.

2007 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Note from Brent Filson: Getting along is not necessarily getting results: Sales people and leaders have one thing in common: They must achieve results. However, people's natural inclination to get along with others often impedes the accomplishment of the best results. Sales people might develop great personal relationships with their potential customers – relationships, however, that may

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Brent Filson
Brent Filson