Chaos Theory (Part 2): Re-Framing the Struggle of New Sales Managers

This post originally appeared here in the Selling Power blog.

Last month I wrote about some of the chaos and pressures new sales managers face. In this follow-up, I’ll examine a few small, high-impact changes that can help new managers succeed in their role.

Small changes make a big difference.

In my previous post, I raised the mathematical concept of Chaos Theory as a solution to the struggle. To review, the theory states that the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

In non-academic terms, this means a small change made to the current situation can yield a large change in a future result. In other words, new sales managers don’t have to completely overhaul what they are doing to be highly effective in their positions. Small changes – if they are the right changes and are implemented the right way – have the biggest impact.

So what are the “right changes” to make? Here are seven modifications managers can make to cut through the chaos, zero in on what’s really important, and produce big results down the road:

  1. One activity. Identify the single highest-impact activity each seller must execute well and consistently; then, orient coaching around that activity. Highly successful reps promoted into the manager’s position can readily spot multiple activities each of their reps needs to improve. The mistake often made is trying to tackle them all, which dilutes focus – leading to little or no improvement. Focus on the one, most impactful activity and coach to it until the rep is where he or she needs to be. You can then tackle the next highest-impact activity, then the next, and so on.

  2. Low frequency. Take one activity and identify a practical rhythm of coaching for which the least acceptable frequency will work. If you’re meeting once a week to discuss a topic, look at whether you could actually meet once every two weeks. Or once a month. The natural tendency of most new managers is to try to meet with reps more, but improvement comes more often because of lower frequency and higher-quality interactions.
  3. Preparation. Begin identifying agendas, inputs (in terms of seller and manager preparation), and desired outputs in advance of every coaching session. Be very clear about the level of seller preparation you expect and communicate the agenda ahead of each coaching session. While this change can feel like a lot of work to an overstressed manager, it ultimately reduces workload and stress as it ensures everyone is fully prepared for every coaching session – which leads to highly effective use of coaching time and improved seller performance. After the meeting, ensure accountability by having the seller summarize the session, capture action items, and send them to you.
  4. Clarify expectations. Sit down with each rep and clarify your expectations and standards for every high-impact activity. To execute well, sellers must be absolutely clear about what is expected, how much, by when, and what “good” looks like. Think you’ve already told them? Tell them again. Managers tend to under-communicate.
  5. Establish planning time. In the chaos of the new manager’s job, “planning time” can seem like an impossible luxury. It’s not. It’s critical to success. Set aside time each day or week for planning and put it on the calendar. Do not treat this time as optional; treat it as you would a meeting with a big customer – because it’s just as important. Use this time to evaluate your prior week: where you stayed on track, where you got off track, and why. Then look at the week ahead and determine whether you need to make any changes based on those insights. Also ask yourself if the “thinking and evaluation” time you have set aside in the week ahead is sufficient or if something needs to be moved or cancelled to accomplish this crucial task. Finally, communicate the importance of this time to your team. Let them know you will not be answering the phone or responding to texts/emails during this time. Set the boundary and stick with it.
  6. Delegate work. Are you doing any activities for your sellers that they could be doing for themselves? If you’re doing even one task for each rep on a 10-member team, it isn’t lightening your sellers’ loads by much; but, multiplied by 10, it’s likely adding a crushing burden to your own load. Look hard at how you are spending your time – with the goal of identifying seller-oriented activities reps could accomplish just as well by themselves. Then, pass those tasks along to them.
  7. Seek feedback. As part of your scheduled interactions with reps, seek feedback from the team on the effectiveness and perceived value of the various types of meetings and coaching sessions you conduct. What’s valuable? What isn’t? What do they need more or less of? This kind of feedback will help steer managers toward the most optimal interactions – at the most optimal frequencies.

While these seven changes can lead to big improvements in team performance and manager sanity, I find that new managers are sometimes reluctant to make them. Why? Small changes like these can feel like we aren’t really doing much – like we aren’t living up to our potential. The typical high-performer personality who is promoted into the sales manager’s role usually is drawn to wanting to make big changes as a means of producing big results. But that’s actually counterproductive: big changes in the sales management approach tend to have little impact. It’s the small changes that, little by little, add up to something big. They are do-able – so we do them. And, over time, we realize they have led to genuine, sustainable progress.