December 5, 2016
Three Leadership Lessons I Learned By Walking In My Team’s Shoes

Neither starting a family nor leading a sales team is easy. Juggling both, I learned, is nearly impossible.

Back in 1993, I began at California Casualty as a fresh-eyed sales consultant. Two years into my role, I transitioned into a sales leadership position and moved from Colorado to California. Seven years after that, I was blessed with twins. With a 3-year-old at home already, motherhood became a full-time job.

Despite the cultural trope of the “super mom,” I realized I needed to step back. I wanted to give my all to both areas of my life, but with three young children to care for and a team to support, it simply wasn’t possible.

Admitting that to my boss was, thankfully, comparatively easy. I asked whether I could move back into a part-time sales role, and he readily agreed.

With my new schedule, I could be the mom I wanted to be. Watching my twins leave for kindergarten is a day I’ll never forget — partly because, on the same day, another sales management job opened at work. With all three children in school, I jumped in with both feet.

The Leader’s Long, Circuitous Road

When I returned to sales management, I did so with renewed respect for how critical everyday employees are to a company’s success. They are the customer experience.

But once you start climbing that corporate ladder, it’s easy to lose sight of the front lines. My time back on the vanguard had reminded me of the important role our sales team plays, the support salespeople need to succeed, and the accountability required for them to perform at their peak.

Across a company, 70 percent of the difference between one team’s engagement and another’s can be attributed to management. Reliving the challenges, frustrations, and rewards of frontline work helped me to appreciate that.

I took three lessons away from my journey that have, in my humble opinion, made me a better leader the second time around:

1. Roll up your sleeves and help.

When I went back to sales, one of the first things I remembered was how hard it can be to follow up with a customer for more information. And considering that, across industries, just 2 percent of sales occur at a first meeting, it’s essential to master the follow-up.

So when I returned to management, I resolved to meet with every sales consultant to guide them on how to make those follow-up calls. I made the first call to model how the conversation should go. Then, I watched them make calls and gave feedback.

Helping with calls might not sound like a leader’s responsibility, so had I never returned to sales, I wouldn’t have realized my team needed my help. The tutorial helped my team do a better job, and it helped me create a “we’re all in this together” office dynamic.

2. Act like one team.

No one wins when a company’s culture pits management against employees. Unfortunately, research indicates that’s become the norm at American companies, with just 49 percent of employees saying they trust senior management. For a team to be at its best, the two pieces must work as one.

The second time around, I held many more roundtable meetings to get employee feedback. Employees deal directly with customers. They hear their frustrations. They think every day about how clients could be better served. I wanted to hear all those ideas and support the team in making improvements.

3. Show you’re grateful.

Never be too busy to say “thanks” for a job well done or to show empathy when someone’s having a rough day.

Going back to sales reminded me of the hard days — the days spent grinding, dialing call after call — sometimes with no sales to show for it. Sales always come eventually, but it’s nice to hear in the moment that your work is appreciated. Then, when you finally close that big sale, a “congratulations” from your boss is the cherry on top.

And, because I needed a little boost to get back into the swing of sales after I left my leadership role, I made a point of recognizing senior consultants who mentor new recruits. Seventy five percent of Millennials — the demographic that represents most of our newest employees — surveyed by a recent PGi study said they didn’t just want a mentor, but also deemed it crucial to their success. Making sure young employees are positioned to succeed doesn’t bring mentors new sales, but it’s extremely valuable to the company.

As a leader, you must earn team members’ respect. When they feel like you’re “one of them,” they’re not following your orders; they’re following your lead.

Lisa Pearne
Lisa Pearne is vice president of sales at California Casualty, an auto and home insurance provider for educators, law enforcement officers, nurses, and firefighters. Having spent 22 cumulative years with the legacy company, Lisa oversees 65 sales team members in its Colorado Springs, Colo., and Leawood, Kansas, offices. She earned a B.A. in Business Management and Administration from the University of California-Riverside in 1993.