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Simon Sinek says the following: “Offer someone the opportunity to rebuild a company or reinvent an industry as the primary incentive, and it will attract those drawn to the challenge first and the money second.”

I believe much of what is expressed about incentivizing the salesman emanates from underestimation, condescension, and even contempt for that person and her profession.

I don’t read sales books. They make me mad. From my own experience as an executive salesman, I believe most sales managers approach the whole subject of sales incentivization ass-backwards.

In my case, this judgment comes from being an unexpected, untrained, and accidental success as an entrepreneur in elite sales outsourcing. My intent as a company founder was to build a happy life and create a community of peers who shared my values. While I wanted to make a comfortable living, money was not my business raison d’etre. And over the years I have managed to assemble a coterie of sales executives who, to one extent or another and in their variegated ways, were compadres in the realm of service, morals, humor, and fierce independence.

After 20 years of sales success emanating from my personal sales intuition and longing to be part of an ethical sales and service community, I began to discover I was not as odd or alone in my approach as I had always assumed. And even more, there is an increasing body of scholarly research that supports the instincts of my life experience.

This is particularly true in the realm of sales incentivization. My core assumption has always been that good salespersons don’t fundamentally work just for money. Rather, they work for satisfaction, service, happiness, a free life and other non-quantifiables as much as for money. Research has shown that, after reaching a threshold of $75,000 or so, money has limited ability to incentivize. (Note, Conscious Capitalism and the Small Giants community).

Dr. Edward Deci, Director of the University of Rochester’s Human Motivation Program says:

“When people say that money motivates, what they really mean is that money controls. And when It does, people become alienated–they give up some of their authenticity–and they push themselves to do what they think they must do.” (Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation).

I have always felt that salesmen are particularly misunderstood. I’m told that sales hires fail 75 percent of the time within the first year. That is a phenomenal statistic. While the reasons for this are complex, I believe the overemphasis on monetary reward is a large part of it.

People want to be part of an organization that imbues quality and meaning to their lives. Yes, they need to make money, but I don’t believe it ever activates their ardor and deep commitment. It does not inspire full use of their internal resources, their full being, their passion.

When I ran my executive sales outsourcing firm Corporate Rain International, I genuinely tried to start with the assumption that every person I hired should be better than me, that every person I hired could teach me something, that each person I hired could comfortably grow the extant values of my company as a corporate companion.

To quote Edward Deci again, “[In speaking about motivation] the proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves.'”

I agree. Thank you, Edward Deci.

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Russian playwright Mikhail Bolkakov once said “Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”

I’m a member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (That’s only one of my eccentric personal hobbies.) I’ve been a huge fan of the Oz books since my mother read many of them to me when I was a boy. (Most people know only L. Frank Baum’s first book, “The Wizard of Oz”, but there are actually 40 marvelous, magical, beautiful books in this series.)

I love the Cowardly Lion. He reminds me so much of me. In the movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy confronts the Cowardly Lion and tells him he is nothing but a great big coward. The Lion’s reply is:

“You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all! I even scare myself. Look at the circles under my eyes! I haven’t slept in weeks!”
Me too. To be an effective executive for my company Corporate Rain International I have needed to slay this “fear” dragon each day for many years. One of the things I do to cope with this fear I learned many years ago from a fantastic acting teacher I had in New York named Michael Howard.

Michael Howard spoke to my acting class one day about how to begin rehearsing a new scene. What he said was to go immediately to the most risky, scary, personal place in the scene: that place that made us feel most fearful and exposed. This might be a spot that involved physical intimacy, like kissing, violence, or nudity. Or jealousy, rage, or cowardice. By facing the most dangerous part of the scene immediately, the rest of the scene became more accessible, less fraught. As Joseph Campbell puts it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

How do I apply this lesson to entrepreneurship? By each day immediately doing that thing I most want not to do–by immediately making that call where I have the greatest fear of rejection, where my own feelings of cosmic inadequacy might be most called out and exposed–and taking this sweaty-palmed action the first thing in the day. I act as if I had courage and confidence and thereby have it in reality. I guess it’s kind of a business version of your inner mother telling you to eat your vegetables first. For me, it works to go daily and immediately toward my most fearful task.

So go to the danger first. As the Cowardly Lion so insightfully sings: “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” A sage observation indeed. As science-fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Thanks Kurt.

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anger_controlls_himThe Bible’s Book of Proverbs 16:32 says this: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

I’ve been thinking again about business and anger this week. (Note my Inc. column of ApriI 25th, “Anger, Forgiveness, and Entrepreneurship.”) It has been important for me to learn to deal with anger over the years. It’s never pleasant.

I try to be aware of the challenges of usefully managing my anger. Of course, not always with success. The entrepreneur is faced with a plethora of responsibilities and pressures that can make it difficult to handle strong emotions such as anger. They may not teach this skill in business school, but it seems to me fundamental for the small businessman or woman. Useful anger is practical, creative, and centering. Unuseful anger is immolating, destructive, and overpowering. It reduces one to impotence and stuttering incoherence.

george_costanza029Let’s consider unuseful anger. Italian novelist Pietro Aretino wrote in 1537, “Angry men are blind and foolish, for reason at such a time takes flight and, in her absence, wrath plunders all the riches of the intellect, while the judgment remains the prisoner of its own pride.” Indeed.

There is an episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Comeback” in which George Constanza finds himself at the end of a zinger by a co-worker while gobbling shrimp at a company meeting. (“Hey, George. The ocean just called….They’re running out of shrimp.”). An enraged and humiliated George obsesses about finding the proper rejoinder. Despite the protests of his friends Jerry and Elaine, he settles on this ungainly comeback to his tormentors. “The Jerk Store called….They’re running out of you.” The worst sort of anger just makes you stupid.

For sure, the business world is often a cauldron of personal animosity. Just look at Silicon Valley. The list of bilious exchanges there is legendary. I can certainly recall several stupid moments early in my business life in which unnecessarily venting my spleen cost my company, Corporate Rain International, money and business.

220px-aristotle_altemps_inv8575On the other hand, focused anger is constructive when your true intent is to clear the air and maintain an honest, appropriate relationship. When done properly, constructive confrontation assures future harmony and better performance and productivity. For me constructive confrontation works best when I can couch my ire in courtesy, expressing my feelings in a calm, reasonable, and controlled way-when I can also empathize with the object of my anger, when I can focus on the behavior and action of an asshole-I mean associate-and not on the person. A dollop of humor doesn’t hurt either. Easier said than done.

Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., said this: “It is easy to fly into a passion–anybody can do that–but to be angry with the right person to the right extent and at the right time and with the right object and in the right way–that is not easy, and it is not everyone who can do it.” Thank you, Aristotle.

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4863121221_cff7356354_b“Give me your wackos.” Those were Jeff Bezos’s reported instruction to his original executive search firm when starting Amazon.)

In his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, Dr. Sydney Finkelstein doesn’t speak specifically about Jeff Bezos, but I suspect he would well understand and approve of Bezos’s sentiments. Finkelstein states,

“In any industry, superbosses seek out unusual qualities most bosses don’t even think about. Superbosses don’t want just the candidates whose skills enabled them to score high on some test; they want candidates whose abilities are so special, no one would think to test them. If a candidate seems to have what the superboss is after, he won’t hesitate to overrule human-resources specialists. The superboss‘ quest for superstars will override everything else.”

Sydney is the Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. His book Superbosses is a good read, though I do have a couple of cavils.

Finkelstein defines a superboss as “a leader who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.” They are leaders who delegate and place faith in their hires, even when the projects assigned are mission critical to their firms. They aggressively delegate meaningful and important work to their reports, their junior executives, and their employees. They know their hires will fail occasionally and they accept that. Furthermore, they create a nurturing cultural ambience that is supportive of managerial courage and thoughtful, creative risk. Superbosses put time into interaction with their employees–often working with them on the job and mentoring directly on projects, as well as giving direct feedback. They know their proteges first hand. He cites the old Reagan dictum: “Trust, but verify.” Finkelstein’s revision for superbosses is “Observe, coach, and trust. And then verify.”

Untitled-1The idea for Superbosses came out of Finkelstein’s avocation as a gourmet and foodie. He noticed that his friend Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, seemed to generate an exceptionally large group of successful acolytes. He started to research this and found that, indeed, the people who worked for Waters, including sous chefs, waiters, bakers and even busboys, went on to enormous independent success as chef/entrepreneur/owners.

From there Sydney interviewed hundreds of business leaders over a ten year period, looking for those who personally and culturally generated what he calls “trees of talent.” He focuses on 18 of these business leaders. These really marvelous examples are of people like Larry Ellison, John Stewart, Lorne Michaels, Ralph Lauren, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, and even Miles Davis, to mention a few.

Two of my favorite models of Finkelstein’s superbosses are Norman Brinker of Brinker International and Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team. Brinker was what Finkelstein calls a “hands on delegator.” He notes Brinker often would show up at his restaurants and bus tables with his employees He didn’t hesitate to share stories about his own mistakes and failures with his associates, helping create a fearless, through-branded culture. In the case of Bill Walsh, while he retired in 1989, the coaches trained by him still led 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL last year! Pretty amazing.

My favorite insight from Sydney is that the exceptional leaders he documents–leaders who create “trees of talent”–are confident enough to hire subordinates who are better than their bosses are. He says, “Superbosses take chances on people, and tolerate more churn if it means finding the right people later.”

I could not agree more. Though I do not consider myself a superboss, my own philosophy is to hire only people better than myself at my firm Corporate Rain International and turn ’em loose. Within the context of a deeply imbued service culture, I only want “bosses” working for me–bosses who can efficiently bring their best talents and full passion to their job without micromanagement. And that includes the receptionist. (If you want to read more on this subject, try my Inc. column of August 29, 2016. [“Why Giving Your Employees Autonomy is Crucial to Business Success”]

walsh-050736_original_crop_northSo bravo to Sydney Finkelstein. His book Superbosses is an impeccably researched, truly useful and actionable guide for leaders wanting to create “trees of talent.” While I do have a minor quibble or two (Sydney can be a bit didactically repetitive with some of his writing), this book offers an original, accessible, and learnable new way to approach HR and leadership development.

I like what Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatich & Saatchi Worldwide, says on the back of Superbosses. To wit, “This book could make some bosses angry–and that’s a good thing. Finkelstein’s examination of what actually makes a legendary leader goes against the grain of much standard management ‘best practice’ and offers a whole new way to think about talent.” Well said, Kevin. Thank you.

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maxresdefaultVoltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

I hope Voltaire is right, because a lot of my experience of what little success I have had as an entrepreneur has come out of my supreme ignorance and inexpert background in my business.

I founded an elite executive sales outsourcing company called Corporate Rain International over 20 years ago without a priori experience in sales or any education in business—not even a basic college course in economics.  My company is an accidental creation.  I just made the thing up.  I have a business and a life based on “I don’t know,” a business of improvisations.  As to having any formal qualifications to lead a company, I have none.  In that sense I am a fake and a fraud.  Yet my firm has lasted and succeeded.

I’ve been thinking about this since I published my book The Poetry of Small Business:  An Accidental Entrepreneur’s Search For Meaning last year.  I’ve done a number of interviews about the book and invariably I’m introduced as an “expert” which fills me with unease.

Actually, what I am is a guy who has responded continually, day-after-day and year-after-year, to constant quotidian business conundrums with the simple response of “I don’t know.”  Let’s figure it out.”  Kinda like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland suddenly saying, “Hey, gang.  I know what we’ll do.  Let’s put on a show.”

God, I wish I was an expert.  A knower.  What I am is an unsystematic autodidact.

1941-Babes-On-Broadway-Judy-Garland-and-Mickey-Rooney1Responding to questions with “I don’t know” is often taken as a sign of incompetence. People want to know the secret sauce, a certainty they can take into their own lives and leadership, dammit.  Yet leading from ambiguity and personal uncertainty has some real advantages in a business world that increasingly values the strengths of empathetic leadership over command-and-control absolutes.  And this applies in spades to creating a robust entrepreneurial culture.

So, can a whole company, a whole culture, a whole career, a whole life be based on the vulnerability implicit in frequently admitting “I don’t know”?  Well, in my case, yes.

Here are some advantages of leading from uncertainty.

  1. It creates community.  Nothing binds a group more certainly than admitting common frailty and the need for others.   It is a basis for most religions.  It is the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous.  To say, “I don’t know” is admitting we are not and will never be God.
  2. It encourages creativity.  If the boss shares her honesty and uncertainty, it gives courage and permission to everyone to be imperfect, to fail, to be wrong—and also to succeed with the outrageous new.
  3. It creates leadership credibility.  If a leader can sometimes admit “I don’t know,” it creates trust in that leader and encourages honesty for all corporate associates.
  4. It reduces corporate fear.  If the boss leads from admitted uncertainty, it frees employees to concentrate more fully on their work, on bringing their “A” game and their whole non-rational intuition to solving communal puzzles.
  5. It helps personal development.  An “I don’t know” culture opens all corporate citizens to honestly ask for help.  People actually like to help.   They actually often feel honored to be asked to teach something or guide an uncertain colleague.  It builds relationships.  It builds personal honesty.
  6. It encourages humility.  Humility is a real business skill.  A salubrious quality.  It saves us from smug overconfidence and opens our heart to the new.
  7. It encourages a culture of ethics and truth.
  8. It creates meaning.  It takes effort to go beyond the immediate and the obvious. Leadership’s sincere and open search for integrated solutions, based in mission and culture, gives permission for every corporate citizen to look to deeper long-term truth, both personally and corporately.

All this is not to say that ignorance is bliss.  Ignorance is to be assiduously remediated and overcome.  Obviously.  But ultimately admitting “I don’t know” when appropriate is really a statement of power and centered leadership.

As Greek historian and general Thucydides put it,  “Ignorance is bold.  Knowledge reserved.”  Thanks Thucydides.

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