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When I started my career in sales more than 20 years ago, I quickly learned that there are specific skills that would allow me to stand out in a crowded field. I later found that the same skills would define my leadership style and ultimately drive my success as a CEO — the position I currently hold at the digital employee experience (DEX) company, 1E.
Sales is a very useful background as a CEO as many of the required attributes and skills learned apply directly to the role and responsibilities of leading an organization. Here are my key lessons from my sales career about what it takes to be an effective leader in today’s business environment.
Related: So you’re in sales, but (secretly) yearn to be a CEO. Here’s how to make that happen.
Great leaders create an inclusive, purposeful community that makes people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. We see this happening all the time on sales floors, where everyone unites by working towards a common goal. Enterprise sellers instinctively understand that the value of team camaraderie is just as important as the product or the market.
Building a community is about the people. You can have star players within an organization, but you won’t win with them alone. You win when you have a close-knit team that works in unison. At 1E, we build community by relying on good operations, minimal politics, and making sure everyone feels part of the decision-making process. When you have a great community, you build trust within an organization and you are able to get people focused on a shared result.
A study of McKinsey and Company found that 70% of employees feel their sense of purpose is connected to their job. Employees who have a sense of belonging and purpose are more motivated and productive. This is essential for leaders to cultivate in the era of the Great Surrender, where burnout at work is more common than not.
To succeed in sales, you must have a strong degree of emotional intelligence so that you can read people and situations quickly and accurately. This means having a high degree of empathy for meeting your customers where they are and understanding any barriers to their success.
In the sales world, people with the most potential often fail to achieve their goals because they lack empathy and cannot connect with prospects. The best way to interact with people and create strong connections is through authenticity. This criterion also applies to CEOs and employees. Employees don’t want their leaders to act – leaders need to be themselves to earn the trust of their workforce.
Authenticity in the face of adversity is also key. In sales, there will always be certain obstacles that come your way (e.g. product delays), but the best salespeople are resilient. This is the same for CEOs – setbacks are natural and often beyond a leader’s control, but employees will pay attention to how a CEO responds to adversity and how they guide the company accordingly.
Related: Here’s Why So Many Successful Entrepreneurs Got Their Start In Sales
An important responsibility of every leader is to create meaning. Everyone – regardless of their title or position in the company – should feel important in their role. Just like a sales team functions, every employee should feel like they are part of a greater mission to drive the success of an organization. At 1E, we like to cultivate a smart and healthy environment. Smart means we use good systems and processes, and healthy means we work with minimal politics.
For example, we recently decided to discontinue a new product line after our teams spent a lot of time on it. After analyzing the data, we concluded that it was not aligned with our business priorities and the needs of our customers. We knew this would be disappointing for the team, who spent countless hours on this project. To make sure everyone feels heard and important, before making the decision, we had a healthy debate with the whole team about the pros and cons of progress. This allowed us to reach a consensus while also making everyone feel that their opinion mattered. Moments like these continue to motivate people to show up every day and do their job.
Large-scale sales success is largely linked to constant motivation and encouragement, but so are other areas of the business. Organizations can only succeed if their staff is excited to come to work every day. This excitement should range from big business decisions to smaller logistics topics.
Just as you can’t really sell something you’re not passionate about, you can’t effectively oversee anything unless you’re passionate about it. Passion creates the energy and excitement needed to motivate people in their work. Constant guidance and feedback to an objective and greater sense of purpose helps to spread this passion throughout an organization. At 1E, we are united by our mission to evolve the way technology is experienced by employees.
Related: How Howard Schultz Turned an Entry-Level Sales Job into a Coffee Empire — and a $5.7 Billion Net Worth
Just as a sales leader uses the power of community, authenticity, meaning and excitement to help their teams achieve a common goal, a CEO does the same to motivate an entire organization. As such, many of a salesperson’s core principles and values translate directly into those necessary to be effective in the CEO role.