Sales performance doesn't trump culture

When the culture of a sales team is properly aligned, sales managers are free to invest their time in productive behaviors like identifying and integrating best practices, improving team dynamics, and designing growth strategies. All it takes, though, is a single prima donna to destroy a team’s culture and distract both a team and its leaders from what they should be focused on: maximizing both sales performance for the organization and value for the customer.

Core values and culture

After a few years in sales management, I deliberately set out to develop the culture I envisioned would be the most productive one for my organization. After reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, which articulates the importance of core values at Zappos, I determined that core values would serve as the cornerstone of that culture. This has been one of the most influential and liberating decisions in my sales career. Every team may have different core values, but the ones we have chosen to serve as the foundation for our team’s culture are: 

  1. Foster an extraordinarily fun and extremely productive environment
  2. Attract and retain individuals that improve team dynamics
  3. Meet our potential, not our minimum expectations
  4. Constantly pursue improvement 
  5. Be candid
  6. Be humble
  7. Build open and honest relationships through communication
  8. Develop and maintain a positive team environment through respect, open-mindedness, and a caring attitude
  9. Use a win/win approach to ideas, proposals, and decision-making
  10. Be honest, especially to yourself
  11. Admit to, and learn from mistakes

The core values we developed are a leading consideration in determining whom we choose to hire and serve as the basis for what is expected to remain part of our team. When we are carefully looking to find someone to join the team, we look for individuals that are capable of meeting both the tangible (sales performance) and intangible (core values) expectations. Sales production is merely a prerequisite. 

The values don’t bend to people simply because they put up big sales numbers. The culture is bigger than any one person regardless of how much money they bring through the door. This is clearly communicated on a regular basis, starting in the first interview and continues on a day-to-day basis through management’s messaging and actions. Sales do not trump values. There are no exceptions.

This concept has been integral in developing the most fun, talented, and successful sales teams I’ve had the opportunity to work with. The unique nature of our culture is an observation that’s been shared by nearly everyone that has interacted with the team. The values have played a critical role in creating an environment of teamwork, camaraderie, and a commitment to collectively achieving goals. The value of that environment can be quantified in a few ways, notably doubling revenue per sale, the elimination of undesired turnover, and a track record of exceeding sales objectives every year since the transition. 

As Shawn Parr (The Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond) wrote in Fast Company, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The prima donna dilemma

Every leader working to develop or implement core values in order to redesign or improve a corporate culture will invariably face what I refer to as the prima donna dilemma. This happens especially in sales environments.

In a sales environment, the prima donna dilemma is the challenge a sales manager faces when a sales superstar starts to believe their sales performance offers them immunity from being held accountable to the core values. And because sales managers want to hit their numbers, they often shortsightedly tolerate behaviors that are destructive to the culture, like disrespecting teammates, gossip, even cheating, for the sake of sales. 

Compromising values for the sake of sales destroys the credibility of the core values and diminishes any opportunity to develop a truly unique and highly performing sales culture in the long run. 

Capital investments in culture

If you own a real estate company, you’ll likely need to part with some cash to buy property and grow. You sacrifice short-term capital in exchange for long-term growth.

If you own a commercial construction company, you’ll likely need to buy some new equipment to grow. You sacrifice short-term capital in exchange for long-term growth.

If you develop a new product that has been offered more distribution, you’ll likely need to invest in production to grow. You sacrifice short-term capital in exchange for long-term growth.

If you manage a sales team, you may be required to do the same thing: sacrifice short-term revenue for long-term growth. 

The first step in dealing with destructive behavior from a prima donna is candid and direct communication. If the actions of a prima donna conflict with the core values, it is leadership’s responsibility to act decisively, address it, and reaffirm expectations. If that doesn’t work, it’s simply time to part ways. You may miss the numbers of a sales superstar, but temporarily sacrificing sales production is a capital investment like any other business. 

Prima donnas and producers

The primary difference between prima donnas you can’t afford to keep and producers you can’t afford to lose is that producers never compromise your culture.

A producer may feel they’ve earned some privileges, and most likely, they have. Give them all the privileges they want, so long as it doesn’t compromise your culture. We’ve offered a variety of privileges for producers. We’ve had a full size basketball hoop in the office, brought in putting greens, and have had satellite music installed for producers. Producers, however, are never in conflict with the culture we have developed. They help us meet our sales objectives and simultaneously improve the culture. 

Core values and culture don’t conform to individual team members. Standing by this principle, even if it costs sales in the short-term, will go a long way in maintaining the environment you want to develop in the long-run. As a sales manager, it will also make your life a hell of a lot easier and more productive as you focus on what really matters.