How My First Boss Saved Me From Failing

I was 23 years old, in my first professional job and I was failing big-time. My boss had recently handed me a list of five-hundred names and phone numbers and instructed me to cold call them. I picked up the phone and started dialing. I felt a palpable sense of fear and anxiety as I reached for the phone to make each call. I experienced a wave of rejection the likes of which I had never before seen. I was demoralized.

My boss could see I was floundering and ready to quit. After a few days, he stopped by my desk. I was sure I was fired.

His first question caught me off-guard, “what do you think about sales?” You see, at that time I had a very low opinion of sales people. In my naive view of the world, sales was a dirty word. Sales was some sort of trick a used car salesman played on gullible car buyers to induce them to overpay for a lemon. My degree was in Mathematics and what I really wanted to do was work on the development side of the business, writing code and creating content. But the only opening was in sales, so I took the job thinking it couldn’t be that hard, and eventually I could work my way into development. I was beginning to regret that decision.

My boss was a former sales and marketing executive at Intel. He went on to explain how critical the sales function was to Intel’s success. He described the level of esteem and respect afforded the sales department because of the value it added to the organization. Now he had my attention.

Furthermore, he explained how mastering the art of sales would help me no matter where I go in my career. “Sales is not about pushing a product,” he said. “Sales is about listening, asking good questions and solving a problem for your customer. It’s about guiding, influencing and advising.”

Next, my boss switched gears and addressed my woeful sales skills. “I can see you’re struggling, and your results are below expectations, but I can also see you’ve got raw talent. With a little coaching and feedback, I think you’re going to be excellent at sales.”

Could he be serious? Did he not see how terrible I am at sales? I was skeptical at first, but I decided I had little to lose if I followed his lead.

To improve my skills, we role-played sales calls. He played the role of the customer and I practiced winning the sale. He gave me suggestions and advice for how to overcome objections, how to make a connection, how to ask good questions, how to present a solution and how to ask for the sale.

I didn’t turn it around overnight, but that conversation started me on a journey of learning and improving that led me to eventually become the top sales person at the company. And not a day goes by in my career that I don’t rely on my sales skills in some way.

In a short period of time my boss effectively repaired my self-esteem (“what you’re doing in sales is important”), provided motivation (“If you can get better at sales, it’s going to help you in your career) and instilled confidence (“I believe you can be successful”).

When I coach people today on a specific skill, I use the same steps:

  1. Help people see how the skill is important for their career goals.
  2. Provide feedback in light of high expectations.
  3. Take the time to practice or critique the skill in a safe environment.

Great leaders are great teachers. They carve out time to have meaningful conversations with their people. They don’t avoid uncomfortable conversations. They have the confidence and maturity to provide feedback and help people grow. In today’s busy work environment, with texts, alerts, instant messages, email, meetings and all the demands on our time, I worry that these coaching conversations aren’t happening as often as they should.

If someone on your team is struggling, don’t give up on them. Try these steps. Invest in their future. You just might change someone’s life.

Sean P. Murray is an author, speaker and consultant in the areas of leadership development and talent management. Learn more at RealTime Performance.

Image Source: Lost Oldtimer by Wendelin Jacober. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

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