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The great secret of sales is that being good is the selfish thing to do.

I’m sure goodness is the last thing that pops into the popular imagination when anyone thinks of sales. Sales and goodness are immiscible, to most people’s way of thinking. Effective sales is as much a moral proposition as working for Greenpeace, the March of Dimes, or the Catholic Church. (Well, maybe more than the Catholic Church given the fallen nature of some of the priesthood.) Sales is a vocation that should be a calling every bit as “other” centered as any of the so-called helping professions like ministry, social work, psychiatry or nursing.

The cliche of the sales ethos is most memorably summed up by Michael Douglas playing the smarmy M&A corporate snake oil purveyor Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. “Greed is good.” (My personal favorite testosterone-fueled salesman is Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross personifying a stone-cold amoral hunter–a fierce closer, a killer and a “winner” at any and all costs.) Or the TV car salesman riding on the back of a hippopotamus, screaming “Deals! Deals! Deals!” into the screen.

Vince Lombardi is famous for saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Much as I admire Vince Lombardi, I don’t agree with the tone of his statement even in football, and certainly not in life. But I can assure you as a salesman for my own executive sales company Corporate Rain International, the way of winning in entrepreneurial sales is simply the path of service, truth and genuine care for potential clients or buyers. The really good salesmen I know are people who truly care about their clients. And by this I mean a soul deep caring, as to a fellow inhabitant of God’s universe, not the ersatch empathy or facsimile fellow feeling of the manipulator.

The “winning” of the salesman, and a true “selfishness” leading to long-term sales success, lies in really being good, bone deep good. Or as close as we can expect to be as imperfect beings. Just as physicians owe their service first to their patients, so salesmen owe their truth and passionate caring to their client at a soul deep level. This is not a treacly, wussy, or pollyannaish idealism. It is a winning and selfish practicing of goodness.

In fact selfish salesmanship, in the larger picture, is serving all members of society by the way you do business. Capitalism itself, in it’s best form, is simply dealing with customers and suppliers in mutually beneficial exchanges of goods, services and money. That’s how I try to see myself as a capitalist. That’s how I see myself as a entrepreneur. That’s how I see myself as a salesman.

Selfish.

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Here’s a headline from the New York Post last year. MOST WORKERS WOULD FIRE THEIR BOSS! According to a survey conducted by the website badbossology.com, almost 50% of workers would fire their boss. The poll is based on the responses of 1,118 employees who elected to fill out a questionnaire on the site.

While this might not be the most compelling scientific study ever conducted, it is buttressed by other more authoritative studies. For example, a recent Gallup Poll of more than one million employees found the biggest single reason cited for why people leave a company is a bad boss.

Bad bossism is one of the things I try to avoid by fostering a sense of community and equality within my firm. There are several ways I do this. One, I genuinely try to never hire anyone who isn’t better than me. Two, I hire people who are self-starters and who think like a boss; that is, who think in terms of the whole company and not just their part of it. Three, I practice an open door policy and actively encourage advice and creativity from everyone in the company, including secretaries and  interns. And, whenever possible, I try out these suggestions, giving full credit. Four, I avoid hiring yes men and timid souls who are not comfortable with autonomy and responsibility within the boundaries of ethics and appropriate business process. I sometimes tell clients of my firm Corporate Rain International that we are as close to a communist company as you can get and still be a functioning capitalist entity.

One night several years ago I was watching The Sopranos. In this particular episode Tony Soprano was worried he was being yessed to death by his subordinates. He asks his wife about it. She replies:

“They go around complementing you on your new shoes, tell you you’re not going bald, not getting fat. Do you think they really care? You’re the boss! They’re scared of you. They have to kiss your ass and laugh at your stupid jokes.”

I recently read an interview (January 31, 2010–New York Times) with Mark Pincus, a serial entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Zynga, who speaks of turning each of his employees into mini-CEOs. He recounts, “One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, ‘By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re CEO of.” That’s how it should be.

One of the ways I judge a company when I first walk into a new office is what the receptionist says when I ask him or her about the company. If they can tell you with clarity and verve what the company’s about, it is almost invariably a well-managed, integrated firm. In a sense every employee should ideally be a salesman and PR representative for the corporation by securely embodying and articulating the corporate trope.

We entrepreneurs are passionate, driven, intense people, often with big egos, so it’s not easy. But I feel it’s worth a patient effort to bring a tonality of genuine openness, collegiality, and dialogic creativity to business. Surely, this form of corporate communism is not antithetical even to the ubercapitalist spirit of Ayn Rand’s John Galt.

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One of the joys of fatherhood is discovering the insights and blunt wisdom of children’s books. My eight year old daughter, Truitte Rose, had a favorite book last year titled “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst. I couldn’t read it to her enough. It chronicles a day in a boy’s life where nothing goes right.

I too had a bad day last week at my company, Corporate Rain. I hit my chair dealing with client crises, fighting a cold, losing a valued associate, dealing with a minor credit card fraud, and reading a dense legal contract. On the side of my desk there was a Mt. Everest of overdue sales calls I needed to get to. And this was before 12:00. I was frustrated. I was angry. I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

As an entrepreneur I’ve learned that a day like this can be dangerous—not because of the circumstantially difficult day, but because of my internal reaction to it.

On such a day I invariably feel I have to push hard—to move, move, move—to rush, rush, rush—to compensate. And when I give in to this feeling, I make poor judgments. I make mistakes. I insult people and lose my temper. My whole mien becomes frenetic, forced, faked and joyless.

The ScreamAs an owner, it’s hard to slow down while Rome is burning around you. You’re responsible. (Only you can prevent this forest fire!) I’ve had to learn the efficiency of hitting the pause button, of not trying to be more than I am, and, especially, not making crucial decisions on such days. For me, when I have a very bad day, everything sort of emanates from a dark, bleak, shrunken part where I exist only as a miasma of cosmic insufficiency; that essential place where dwells the cowed and frightened child, as well as the cornered beast. So my “professional” response is to assume the trappings of a sanguine and competent businessman and push through. But, in fact, the real good me is not present. The fact is that on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day I am in reality one dark, primordial, primal scream inside: a rootless Edvard Munch template, an enraged troll.

Over the years I’ve lost money, sales, friends, and reputation on days like this. While grinding my teeth and determinedly…getting…it …all…done, I have frequently caused myself harm under the guise of mechanically doing my duty to God, country and the capitalist way. Only slowly have I learned to overcome this hubristic folly.

Many years ago, when I was a callow, arrogant, idealistic, difficult young actor (often the bane of my fellow thespians and directors), one of my first professional roles was in a play in Los Angeles called “Darkness At Noon“, based on a novel by Arthur Koestler. I played a tortured political prisoner. It was an especially intense role and my rehearsal process was unhealthily over committed to the point of almost masochism. There was an old Portuguese actor in the company named Lorenzo. He’d had a long and picaresque life and he was kind, wise and a generous acting colleague. One day in rehearsal he took me aside, sat me down, put his hands on my very tense shoulders and said simply, “You can’t push the river, Timothy. Flow with it.” That’s all he said.

I think it’s hard for any entrepreneur to follow that advice. We live to push the river. But the fact is, you can’t.

So what’s the answer to the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?  Well, I guess my answer is just to stop on those days. Go to the movies. Or, as Scarlett O’Hara says at the end of a very bad day in Gone With The Wind, “Home. I’ll go home…After all, tomorrow is another day.

My special thanks to this week’s blog muse, my sweet daughter Truitte Rose.  Thanks, Truitte.

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