I love the ah-ha moments in my job! You know that feeling… when you are talking about something you passionately believe in and then–bam–you can practically see the light bulb go off for the other person. That’s a highlight for me and one I was able to enjoy just this morning. Talking with a new client who has never been exposed to the concept of strength management before, I was struck by how differently we each perceived the talents of the young seller we were reviewing. He was stuck in the old management paradigm of fixing people and hoping for improvement with additional experience until it all finally clicked. While this salesperson had quite a few strong talents, her account list and project responsibilities required her to lean heavily on areas of weakness. The fit was all wrong!
Our conversation led me to share with you these five common misconceptions of sales talent.
1. Our talents can change over time.
Lots of things change as we get older and gain experience both in life and in our careers, but talent isn’t one of them. Our natural patterns of behavior are set at a very young age and once they are hard-wired, our thoughts, feelings, and knee-jerk responses remain pretty consistent over time. Luckily as we mature, most of us learn how to use our talents more effectively and work around the weaknesses that keep getting in our way. We also learn which behaviors are socially acceptable and begin to conduct ourselves accordingly. So instead of throwing a fit on the floor, kicking, screaming, and crying like we may have done as children, a highly competitive salesperson will typically act like a good sport in public and save that temper tantrum for those first moments alone in their car. They didn’t become any less competitive; they just learned how to handle themselves.
2. Talent is good but it’s not as important as hard work and practice.
Many years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the importance of “deliberate practice” and he maintained that with 10,000 hours of repetitive training an individual could become world-class in any field. However, a Princeton study proved that, while practice certainly leads to improvement, that improvement is often marginal at best. Practice makes perfect? Not exactly. The closest that practice came to perfection in this study was in the world of games where it was proven that an individual could become 26% better with deliberate practice. Many attribute that growth to the stable nature of the activity; games have rules and the rules don’t change. At the opposite end of the spectrum, this study showed that in careers such as sales (which we all would agree can be awfully unstable), the bump was only a paltry 1 percent. Bottom line, if you have talent, you have the potential to grow and become excellent. If you don’t have talent, practice alone won’t get you there.
3. You can fix a weakness if you really focus hard on it.
Actually, sort of true… but not by much. If you dedicate great energy and many hours to becoming better in an area of weakness, you certainly won’t get worse! But the ROI is pretty low. Research shows that when we spend time developing our weaknesses we only become about 10% better. We never become great. What a wasted opportunity, because that same amount of time spent dedicated to developing strengths can make us 10 times better! Every one of us has a unique set of strengths and an even larger set of weaknesses.
Want to know what makes the most highly successful people so great? It’s the presence of the right strengths, not the absence of weaknesses. The goal is to focus on your strengths and become great in the areas of talent. Then your weaknesses become irrelevant.
4. If someone is really talented, you don’t have to spend as much time coaching them.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Maria Sharapova, Peyton Manning, and Cristiano Ronaldo would all disagree with that one! Who is more deserving of your coaching time and attention than the highly talented? No one. Of course when you are coaching someone who is packed with talent, it will be very different than when you are propping up someone who is not as natural. But it’s a lot more fun and your investment will pay off huge dividends. Coaching the highly talented involves proving your own worth, teaching them something new, challenging them to stretch themselves, and recognizing each area of improvement along the way.
5. It’s okay if a salesperson is not that talented, as long as their manager is.
It is a fact that one way to work around a weakness is to use the talents of another person. For example, if you are terrible at spelling but you have someone who is willing to proofread your work, you're set! But if someone is lacking talent in many areas, it is unfair to the manager and to that person to attempt to supplement them across the board. As a Talent Analyst, I find it incredibly discouraging when I come across a frustrated salesperson struggling to meet budget who has cast themselves in a sales role even though they are just not wired in that way.
Often outgoing and fun to be around, they heard from others their whole lives that they should go into sales because everyone loves them. But after accepting a job in sales they pretty quickly began to feel like a square peg smashed into a round hole. A compassionate manager is often torn between helping that salesperson keep their head above water and letting them go so they can find the space they is really the right fit. The bottom line is that when a sales manager has to support every aspect of the salesperson's job it is exhausting for them… and deflating for the salesperson. We all know the rush we feel when we are doing something that we are great at! Don’t rob people of that joy.
So what should you do with this information now that you have it?
- Hire for the talents you need in the job. You can add the skills and experience later but don’t count on their innate abilities ever changing.
- Invest in your people with coaching and training, and since you are going to only hire talented salespeople your investment will pay off.
- Provide support, coaching, and expertise, but don’t hire people for whom you would have to perform their job responsibilities for them.
- Spend the most time with your most talented!
- Get out of the business of fixing people. Instead, consider what their strengths are, line up those strengths with their responsibilities as often as possible, and talk with a Talent Analyst about how you can use their strengths to work around their areas of weakness.