We rarely analyze how performance in sales leadership intersects with individual salespeople’s results. Instead, it's assumed that any group of salespeople will produce results that end in a Gaussian distribution (a Bell Curve), with a top 20% on the right, 60% of results in the middle, and the last 20% on the left, at the bottom of the curve.
We have been taught to look at the world using the Bell Curve, accepting the median as normal and the results as immutable. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, would challenge you to walk across a river with an average depth of just four feet. The average can’t make up for the extremes.
As a sales leader, it's your responsibility to ensure that every member of your team turns in their best performance. The better each individual salesperson's results, the better your overall performance. That goal should prompt you to consider a second Bell Curve.
Dangerous Curves Ahead
Imagine that your team’s sales performance matches a standard Bell Curve, with the typical performance in the middle, super successful sales superstars standing in a small section on the right, and the straggling strugglers on the far left. But now add a second Bell Curve to your screen, this one tracking a team whose leader is significantly more engaged in improving their team’s results.
On this second curve, your colleague’s lowest 20% perform better than your lowest 20%, the middle 60% outpace your average players, and the elite 20% make your top performers look, well, just okay. Sure, you have a few salespeople with better outcomes than their counterparts on your colleague’s team, but in general, their team is behaving better than yours. What makes the difference?
Pulling Your Curve to the Right
No matter where your curve starts, as a sales leader your goal should be to pull the entire Bell Curve to the right, moving the centerline towards the top performers and dragging the rest of the sales force along for the ride. To achieve this result, every group needs to improve their results, which will naturally increase the group’s median performance.
Moving that distribution is your responsibility, especially in terms of improving revenue growth. It’s not easy to do, but the alternative is to watch the curve lurch leftward, a common result in terms without strong accountability or a clear vision. Every strategic choice you make should seek to improve your team’s overall results.
The Variability of Results
There are only two real outcomes you need to improve to achieve revenue growth. The first outcome is the creation of new opportunities. Sale leaders who allow their team to avoid the work of creating opportunities will struggle to grow revenue (how could it be otherwise?). The second outcome is capturing those opportunities, winning enough deals to create growth.
The first outcome, new opportunities, is most often threatened by too little activity and too little effectiveness. The second outcome, won deals, is mostly an effectiveness issue. Most sales leaders prefer to believe other factors lead to lost deals, but even your weakest competitor has a top twenty percent, their best performers who consistently win deals.
The variability of sales leadership and results is measured in the difference between the two Bell Curves. The sales leader who is deeply committed to improving their sales force's results will have a result to the right of the sales leader who’s simply going through the motions, allowing their teams to coast. To improve a team's performance, you must improve individual performance—through training and development, coaching, communication, and engagement.
A Third Distribution and Variability
There is a third type of distribution called a "fat tail." Imagine that the highest point of the Bell Curve is to the right of the centerline. This would indicate that more people are succeeding, meaning there are more high performers and the sales force is improving. A distribution with a fat tail to the left of the centerline would indicate that the sales force is struggling.
The only way to move the entire Bell Curve to the right is to improve everyone’s performance. If you believe that your C-team simply cannot improve much, it will be immensely challenging to move your whole curve to the right. More to the point, a C-player under one sales leader may transfer to a different department (or a different company) and become an A-Player under a different sales leader.
Sales leadership plays a large part in the variability of results. Better leadership rarely fails to improve results, while poor leadership always ends up with results below the team’s potential. While you may not be able to change the Gaussian distribution, you can improve the whole Bell Curve through your engagement, accountability, and leadership.