Coaches and Player

What Can Great Sports Coaches Teach the Sales VP?

Not long ago, we noticed a study showed the average tenure of a VP of Sales had decreased about 1 ¼ month per year for seven straight years and at that point stood at just 19 months.

The reality is that VP of sales is like being the head coach of any performance profession in sports or the performing arts. They are tasked with delivering results fast and predictably while building a great culture and developing a strong core of leaders with salespeople who consistently outsell their competition. And if they fail to deliver quickly, they are often replaced.

While it could certainly be argued that replacing a senior sales leader isn’t the best or shortest path to improved performance, there is no denying that it happens frequently – just as it often does in professional sports. Meanwhile, there are a number of examples of head coaches who’ve made a career out of turning underperforming teams into perennial winner. Regardless of whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard not to respect what great head coaches such as Nick Saban in college football, Pat Riley in the NBA, Bill Belichick in the NFL, and Sir Alex Ferguson from the EPL have been able to accomplish with teams that had previously struggled.

Fortunately, whether you are the struggling current head sales coach, or have just joined the team with a mandate to turn things around, there are great lessons ever sales VP can glean from successful coaches in other fields.

In fact, we believe there are at least four areas in which great coaches excel, and these areas are the foundation of their success. We’ll review these below, and then you can decide if they will become part of the foundation for your success.

1.   They put their system in place.

Their system is defined in three ways:

Their Principles — This defines the fundamental, universal, and non-negotiable truths they expect from everyone in their sales organization. Adhering to these principles gets people recognized and rewarded. Not adhering to these principles results in immediate and sometimes even public negative consequences.

One very successful VP of Sales I know laid down the law in her first 90 days that they would not win business or build relationships by frivolous spending on entertainment or gifts. She believed that wining and dining with prospects and customers was pointless if they couldn’t build relationships and create value based on their expertise and the company’s solutions. Those who hadn’t been abiding by this principle had to either change their approach or find another place to work.

Their Process — Great head coaches have a crystal clear and measurable definition for “what good looks like.” They have quantifiable and verifiable expectations for their team’s practice (learn), how their managers conduct pipeline and forecast reviews, how they should prepare for customer meetings, and how they should execute their sales process.

But great coaches don’t over-engineer or overly control the process. Otherwise, it comes across as something their team will comply with but won’t commit to. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells would even have his team practice how he wanted them to line up for the national anthem, as he knew it set the tone for playing together with efficiency and preventing the chaos that often comes from ad-hoc processes.

Their Playbook — High-performing coaches know a critical driver to productivity and effectiveness is to get everyone doing their part to execute well-designed plays. In sales organizations, this means ensuring a common language for pipeline management, creating/pursuing/winning sales opportunities, and developing and executing account plans. It also means that essential tools (like CRM) are in place to reduce complexity — not add administrative burden 

2. They invest in developing their leaders.

For the great head coaches, there is nothing more important than developing their assistant coaches. In the sales profession, the head coach makes it their top priority to invest in equipping, coaching, and training their regional sales directors and front-Line managers. Sure, many sales VPs talk a good game about developing other leaders, and many do a great job of it. Unfortunately, you need only look at the calendar of some head sales coaches to see how little time they are spending with their sales directors and managers. Further, the head coach knows they need to define “what good looks like” for their leaders, provide them the tools, training, and resources to do the job, and then get out of the way.  

The best head coaches certainly have their way of doing things, but they leave enough room for their assistants to grow their capabilities in their own way. Great head coaches often define their own success by their disciples — which makes a lot of sense. If you can list a healthy number of the VP of sales’ disciples who are now leading their own sales organizations, you can be sure they are serious about investing in the development of their leaders.

3. They build and vigorously protect the desired culture.

A successful head coach can’t spend too much time building and PROTECTING the culture. To quote Edward Schein, an MIT professor and expert on corporate culture, we define the concept of culture as: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group has learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” The most successful VPs of sales more often creates a culture of high accountability, radical helpfulness, relentless optimism, real grit, and the belief that learning and performing are not mutually exclusive things. And the most powerful way to build this kind of culture in a sales organization happens through sales coaching.

Unlike most sales organizations, the best sales VPs don’t allow their leaders to treat coaching as an optional activity. They make sales coaching a mandatory activity – many even require their sales leaders to get certified to ensure they’re coaching during pipeline, forecast, opportunity, and account reviews. They also measure and reward their leaders on the frequency and impact of their coaching while also applying negative consequences when managers don’t coach. 

4. They prevent complacency and continuously "top-grade" their team

A successful head coach is convinced the best day their organization has had hasn’t happened yet. They set increasingly high standards for the skills, knowledge, and commitment they expect from their organization. They challenge their people to grow into these high standards so that they always have a team of “A” players and protect against complacency.

As an example, wildly successful college football coach Nick Saban ‘top-grades’ his team each year because his greatest fear is complacency. He has a list of specific requirements for every position on his team at every level — right down to their height, weight, speed, intelligence, character, etc. If they don’t meet that top grade or standard, he won’t recruit that player. Or, in the case of his existing players, he won’t keep them on the team if they don’t meet these increasingly high standards. 

This may sound a little harsh, but he only wants players on his team who embrace the challenge of getting better every year. He clearly doesn’t want players who are satisfied with their past performance. Again, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to argue with his team’s consistent success. What if the VP of sales applies this same approach to top-grading?

They’d be confident their organization is well positioned for growth, they’d be outlearning their competition, and they’d be consistently delivering the expected results.

Want to learn more about how you can leverage these and other best practices to build a winning sales team and sustainable competitive advantage? Let’s connect.

Axiom provides a unique alternative to traditional sales training. Unlike traditional sales training events, we embed our methodology into your sales cadence, delivering dramatically better sales results. To learn more about our Mindful Selling Methodology, Kinetics Sales Effectiveness Platform, or our unique, guaranteed approach, please visit us

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