Sales Team Performance – The Game is Changing

How do you continuously improve your sales team’s performance?

The traditional answer was to put in place a tough, heroic sales leader who embraced an aggressive sales culture, high-pressure pay-for-performance, intensive training, and constant culling of weak performers – practices that emerged after WWII and were refined in the 1980’s corporate world. In today’s sales environment, those approaches can seem about as useful as the abdominizers and Walkman’s you might find at a garage sale. Sales leaders today face challenges far different from the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In a dynamic global marketplace characterized by rapid product innovation, pricing information transparency, short product life-cycles, and intense competition, today’s sales leaders must simultaneously convey a compelling vision; set clear, ambitious (but achievable) targets; hire, develop, and align generationally and culturally diverse sales teams; and still deliver immediate results. Moreover, they must deliver those results while simultaneously spanning the boundaries of their internal organization and external ecosystem of prospects, customers, and channels. For sales leaders to deliver superior performance in a complex, boundary-spanning environment, they not only need a broad set of competencies but new ways of approaching sales team leadership and development.

Lessons from Athlete-Leaders

Leadership and coaching are fundamental to performance in both business and sports. Unlike in the business world, a coach can’t hide mediocrity once a team steps onto the field. No matter the sport, in the first few minutes of a game, capabilities are on full display.

Athlete-leaders improve team cohesion, athlete satisfaction, team confidence, and motivational dynamics within the team.

Recent research into the practices of consistently high-performing teams uncovered a new insight – the leadership qualities and actions demonstrated on the playing field by “athlete-leaders” have a significant impact on team performance. Athlete-leaders improve team cohesion, athlete satisfaction, team confidence, and motivational dynamics within the team. A study by Stewart Cotterill and Katrien Fransen, covering almost 4500 athletes and coaches, describes two on-field leadership roles (task leader and motivational leader) and two off-field roles (social leader and external communications leader). The results of their research showed that teams who had all four roles fulfilled (regardless of whether they were fulfilled via multiple people, or through a single athlete-leader), saw higher team confidence, stronger team identification, and better team performance.

The authors observed that team performance is enhanced when leadership is shared across the team, and the role of the team leader should be to foster that shared leadership. Moreover, the research studies showed that the qualities of a good athlete-leader were not determined by playing time or experience. Teammates said that it was their relationship with their teammate, along with a willingness to “walk the talk”, that most determined their perception of leadership quality,

Developing Today’s Sales Athlete-Leaders

The lessons from the athletic playing field offer valuable insights to sales leaders who want to consistently win on the playing field of business. This research is consistent with studies of business teams that use peer-coaching as a means of improving performance. Those teams consistently demonstrate improved effectiveness, and the team members report a greater sense of satisfaction with their teammates.

If your formative sales and leadership development experiences were inside a siloed, hierarchical 20th-century organization, you may struggle with the practice of sharing leadership with your sales team. Here is a practical 4-step approach that will make shared leadership easier, and significantly improve your sales teams performance:

  1. Identify competency gaps. Coaching works best when you know what you’re trying to improve. Conduct a short workshop that focuses on ensuring that every salesperson on your team has a clear purpose, role, and goal. Then identify any gaps that need to be closed to enable your team members to achieve their purpose and goal.
  2. Identify your sales athlete-leaders. Choose your peer-coaches wisely. These are team members that have the desire to coach and competencies to share. Most importantly, they have relationships with their teammates that will ensure that they are respected and effective.
  3. Set clear expectations. Make sure that the team member who is doing the coaching, as well as the team members who are being coached, have clear understanding of the objectives.
  4. Measure progress. Track the progress of closing individual gaps, as well as the overall team performance.

For sales team leaders, recognize that the biggest challenge may be that, as you develop a team culture of shared leadership, your role must shift towards being a supporter versus superior. You should find yourself spending more time supporting your peer-coaches than directing the team.

Peer coaching works, and it can be a game-changing approach to building and sustaining a highly-effective modern sales team. It also provides the added benefit of identifying and developing future sales leaders.

Like the abdominizers and Walkman’s of the 1980’s, the sales practices of that era had their place. In today’s fast-paced, complex customer-oriented selling environments that approach is best left to the history of 20th century.

Dimas, I., Rebelo, T., & Lourenço, P. (2016). Team coaching: One more clue for fostering team effectiveness. Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée. (66). doi:10.1016/j.erap.2016.05.003

Hackman, J. R. (2012), From causes to conditions in group research. Journal of Organizational Behavior. (33) 428–444. doi:10.1002/job.1774

Stewart T. Cotterill & Katrien Fransen (2016) Athlete leadership in sport teams: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 9:1, 116-133, doi:10.1080/1750984X.2015.1124443


Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Jeb S. Hurley
Dr. Hurley, the co-founder of Xmetryx, has deep expertise in team science and team leader development, and his passion is inspiring leaders to craft extraordinary teams. Jeb’s career journey began on new product innovation teams in Europe and Asia. This led to GM / VP and CEO roles at companies ranging from Fortune 500 to VC backed startups, as well as co-founding 3 software companies. After nearly 30 years in VP, GM, and CEO roles, Dr. Hurley spent five years walking in the shoes of today's team leaders while earning his doctorate in leadership. He experienced what was and wasn't working on the front lines and combined his research with insights from the best minds in the field of team science. His TRM workshop is based upon his groundbreaking research into human motivation, employee engagement, and team performance. Jeb regularly speaks and writes about team leadership and improving employee wellbeing and is the author of Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams, as well as The ONE Habit: The Ultimate Guide to Increasing Engagement & Building Highly-Effective Teams. Jeb has published over 50 articles on team leadership and is a Columnist and Featured Contributor for BIZCATALYST 360°. See Jeb's full bio, and connect with him, on LinkedIn.