It’s no secret that sales cultures can be notoriously problematic. In fact, nearly half of sales reps believe they work in a toxic environment.
And while the industry is beginning to move away from the traditional coin-operated approach, many leaders still maintain a single-minded focus on sales goals. This total fixation on “the numbers” can quickly create a highly toxic environment—one where sellers push themselves to the brink to close deals and hit quotas and end up burning out or leaving when they can’t keep up.
Fortunately, a new era of forward-thinking sales leaders is proving that the industry doesn’t have to operate this way. Their teams are beating the odds, fostering healthy sales cultures, and redefining what sales success means in 2022.
To learn more about how they’re doing it, we went straight to the source. We spoke to:
- Steph White, Director, Revenue Enablement, Loopio
- Thomas Smeallie, Regional Director of Sales, Meltwater
- Odi Bosah, Head of Business Development, Blue Yonder
- Jason Rozenblat, Head of Strategic Accounts + Partnerships, CallRail
- Adam Jones, VP of Sales, Thinkific
All five of these leaders hail from organizations with top-ranked company cultures and sales teams. We sat down with each of them to learn how they’ve nurtured a healthy sales culture and sustained seller motivation at their companies, and unsurprisingly, there were some common threads and themes.
Here’s how they’re rewriting the narrative on sales leadership and how you can take a page from their playbook.
(Editor's note: This is part one of our two-part series on sales leadership, culture, and motivation. Stay tuned for part two where we’ll dive into sales culture trends and how our subjects' approach to sales leadership has changed over their careers.)
Q: Why do so many sales cultures turn toxic?
Sales is a numbers game.
No matter where you sit in the sales cycle, from sales development to closing the deal, most sales professionals have a number that they need to hit every day, week, month, and year. While many sales professionals thrive in this kind of environment, it can also be stressful.
“You are constantly measured by number attainment, and number attainment is not always within your control,” says Steph.
Adds Thomas: “When there's always a quota to hit and a number over your head, there's a lot of pressure.”
This is especially true in startup environments with lofty revenue projections and valuations. “If founders start to see that revenue projections aren't adding up with the valuation, a lot of pressure will come down on the sales team, and specifically on the sales leader,” explains Thomas. “Then you get people who are worried about job security, nervous about performance, and end up doing and saying things that in a different setting they otherwise wouldn't.”
Culture starts at the top.
According to many of the sales leaders, a toxic culture tends to trickle down from management.
“If you’ve got a founder that’s stressed about hitting revenue projections, and you've got a sales leader that's worried about their performance and job, then that trickles down and creates this kind of nervous energy in this environment of ‘Don't make a mistake,’” explains Thomas.
On top of this pressure to perform, toxic cultures can form when there are mismatched priorities between leadership, middle management, and the rest of the organization.
“I think [culture] is often a representation of how leadership and middle management treat their employees. As a result, there's often a lot of misalignment on compensation, career path, and work-life balance,” says Jason.
Hiring for performance over culture.
Last but certainly not least, all the sales leaders agreed that prioritizing performance over culture add can quickly tank a sales organization’s culture.
“You need to make sure you hire the right person who will add to a culture, a culture other than sales, and not just somebody who's cutthroat and does whatever it takes to get that sale,” says Odi.
Adds Jason, “Reed Hastings, [the CEO of Netflix], once said, ‘There's no tolerance for brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.’ For me personally, I know that one toxic person can absolutely infect a lot of other people and an organization.”
To prevent a bad apple from spoiling the bunch, Steph recommends that all sales leaders look at the balance of skill set, potential, and culture add when evaluating a potential candidate.
“What makes somebody an amazing seller in one organization does not make them an amazing seller in your organization. So be acutely aware of the skills and the personality traits that drive your company,” says Steph.
Q: What makes for a solid and healthy sales culture?
Understanding the factors that can lead a sales team down the wrong path is one thing, but how can you get back on course? Our expert interviews identified four essential building blocks of a strong, healthy sales culture:
- Intentional culture building,
- Healthy competition,
- Team alignment, and
- Learning and development opportunities.
1. Intentional sales culture building.
As Thomas says, “Whether or not your culture’s defined, you'll end up having one, so it's better to be intentional about it.”
Three words guide Meltwater’s culture: moro, enere, and respekt, which are the Norwegian words for “fun,” “number one,” and “respect.” These values are communicated to candidates and new hires and are a part of the company’s day-to-day, so every team feels connected to the culture and is responsible for upholding it.
From there, they’ve built a culture-first approach to management and sales. As Thomas explains: “Culture is the foundation, people development is our rocket fuel, and sales results are the grades on how well we do the first two.”
Adam takes a similar approach to leading his sales team at Thinkific. “It's the right team serving the right customers to generate revenue. In that order. It's not revenue at the forefront of everything.”
2. Healthy competition.
Healthy competition came up a lot in our talks with the sales leaders. While there is a naturally competitive element to sales, what sets a healthy sales culture is how its people compete. Namely, it’s not about competing against your fellow teammates, but with them.
Steph explains, “It's not that they want to knock down the person beside them. They want to be on the best team. You don't want to be a superstar on a C-league team. If you're playing basketball, you want to play with Steph Curry, right? That is where you want to be.”
What might this look like? You could take a page from Adam’s book: This VP of Sales rewards his team with prizes when they achieve goals collectively, so recognition isn’t purely tied to individual performance. For reps that might not hit their quota that month, competing as a team keeps everybody engaged and morale high.
3. Team alignment.
There’s a pervasive idea that sales reps are very individualistic, lone-wolf types. Still, many of our sales leaders cite their healthy team dynamics as a significant factor in their success.
“Sales is only successful if you don't think of it as just an individual contributor to the role, but how do I work with my broader teams to get that success?” says Odi.
Jason and Adam have a similar team-building focus and use their current staff as a blueprint for future hires. Jason based his hiring blueprint on the qualities he likes in his current team, while Adam took a slightly different approach—working with his team of 10 at the time to answer questions that would eventually become his sales teams’ guiding principles.
Some of the questions Adam’s team considered include:
- What do we like about our team right now?
- What makes it good?
- What are some of the challenges that we're facing with the team?
- If we fast forward a couple of years, what are the things we're worried about?
- What is that future state that we want to avoid?
- What are our fears about how the sales team could go if we're not careful?
- How do we want to be viewed in the world?
- What type of team do we want to be a part of?
4. Learning and development opportunities
While sales reps tend to be money-motivated, the lure of another commission check will only work for so long.
“We see people get stuck in sales roles where leadership tells them, ‘You're making us millions. You're making lots of money. Aren't you happy?’ While on the inside, they want more,” says Steph.
Your salespeople want growth opportunities just like any other employee, so it’s essential to understand what advancement looks like to them so you can help them develop. Maybe you have a salesperson who wants to lead people, coach, or transition into a new role. Maybe they want to sharpen their skills by going to sales workshops and conferences.
Whatever the case may be, providing learning and development opportunities is critical to the individual seller’s experience and their ability to feed that momentum back into your team.
Q: How do you motivate your salespeople?
Newsflash: it’s not just about the comp plan. Our leaders agree that the key to sales motivation is ensuring that each team member feels valued, both as an individual and as part of the collective. Offering a variety of personal and team-based rewards and recognition can help you achieve this much-needed balance.