Taming the Problem Child: A Look at Sales Ego

By Jason Bader

Last month, a coaching client posed an interesting scenario. He is relatively new to sales management but has been a successful salesperson for many years. One of his younger team members had developed a bit of an ego. Shocking, right? While sales may require a fair bit of confidence, there are times when that behavior becomes detrimental to the team. Somewhere in the middle of team and individual lies the ideal salesperson. So how do you rein someone in without clipping their wings?

In this case, the young man had been in the field for about two years. Over this time, he took suggestions well, demonstrated a strong work ethic and a general will to win. His effort was reflected by the steady increase in monthly revenue generation. He had climbed his way to the No. 2 slot on the depth chart, but his behavior changed. He was missing training sessions, not showing up at the office every morning and failing to communicate with his manager. Furthermore, the way he communicated his frustration to the inside sales and material handling team members bordered on abusive. He appeared to be drifting further away from the company and the manager feared that a blow up was inevitable.

Although I had some thoughts on how I would handle this scenario, I decided to tap into the wisdom of my peers. I dug through my LinkedIn contacts and posed the scenario to several sales managers, company presidents, and a couple of sales management consultants. I love social media for this purpose. I was rewarded with some very sound suggestions from my friends and colleagues. In this column, I will share their thoughts in the hopes of giving you some tools to deal with that sales ego.

The Analogy
A couple of my friends suggested the use of analogies when trying to work with the individual. Often, they don’t consciously know that they are causing such a wake of destruction with their words. The key idea here is to try to help them visualize the importance of teamwork. One colleague likes to use the scenario of an actor on a stage. While the actor might be the most visible part of the production, they would be totally ineffective without the team members who control lighting, sound and set production. Try acting in the dark and see how the audience responds.

Another friend shared the scenario of the football team. The quarterback may be the most recognized player, but they share the field with 10 teammates. How effective would that quarterback be without an offensive line? Without skilled players like backs and receivers, the quarterback would have to scramble around hoping not to get crushed by a defensive back with a whole lot of momentum. The team allows the quarterback to shine. If you can relate this analogy to the inside sales personnel, material handling team and even your credit management, you might be able to draw the rogue salesperson back into the fold.

The Mentor
One of my friends had a slightly different way to approach this situation. He suggested the manager should start with praise first. Recognize the rapid rise in revenue and commend him for the things that make him successful. Tell the recipient that you are excited about the progress and can see that he has a bright future ahead. People tend to be more open to constructive feedback when the conversation starts in a positive manner. He also suggested the discussion of how team members allow him to be successful. No one goes at it alone. The use of analogies might be very useful here.

The next step was a little out of the box. He suggested that the manager send this junior salesperson to work with a seasoned professional in another organization. This is where companies can leverage their relationships with other owners and managers in the same vertical market. Obviously, this might require that the person travel and spend some time away from their home geography, but it may give them a new perspective. It may even be possible to have this person spend time with a professional in a totally unrelated vertical market. The veteran can mentor him on how attitude plays into his role as a leader. Even if he has no aspirations of management, salespeople have to develop strong leadership qualities. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto.

The Heart to Heart
The owner of a business I have been coaching for several years suggested that this might be more of a heart issue versus a head issue. His approach is to sit down with the individual and work on the ego and conceit issues. By sharing his personal experience around the downfalls of ego, he helps the employee to see that humility is not a negative trait, rather, it is the ability to remain teachable. He encourages the person to think about helping others in the organization become successful. Great long-term producers that can couple results with humility are a tremendous asset.

The Assessment
And now for something completely different. One of the best sales management trainers I have run across is a gentleman named Dave Kahle, who has been training and coaching for many decades. Kahle brought a different approach to the problem by suggesting a 360-degree assessment for the individual. The young man needed to hear how his behavior has affected everyone around him. This approach would be relatively inexpensive, have more power than the sit-down discussion and take a lot less of the manager’s time, Kahle suggested.

As I pondered Dave’s suggestion, I reflected back on a 360-degree assessment I took early in my career. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the process, it boils down to inviting other members of your organization to weigh in on how they feel about you. You are opening yourself up to the good, the bad and the ugly. Generally, you ask for feedback from your superiors, your peers, your direct reports and even others you interact with on a regular basis. Each of them is invited to fill out an anonymous questionnaire. The surveys are sent to the assessment company and an evaluation is produced. As I recall, some of the things were known to me; but a few of the comments pointed out some glaring weaknesses that would ultimately derail my ability to be an effective leader.

In order to not single this person out, Dave suggested that the company consider doing assessments on all the sales staff. I might also suggest that managers should consider taking the assessment. Let’s get all the cards on the table. If everyone in the organization develops a sense of how their behavior affects the team, the company will be far better positioned to pull together when the going gets tough.

Dealing with the natural confidence of highly successful salespeople can be an extreme exercise in patience. Companies want to foster the competitive nature of the individual, but not to the detriment of the team chemistry. In this highly competitive world of recruiting and retention, the last thing businesses need is a prima donna drive off the supporting cast. Teams win. Shooting stars have a bright, short-lived existence. I truly appreciate the assist by my LinkedIn community. If you need help dealing with your problem child, I am just an email away.

About the Author
Jason Bader is the managing partner of The Distribution Team, a firm that specializes in helping distributors become more profitable through strategic planning and operating efficiencies. The first 20 years of his career were spent working as a distribution executive. Today, he is a regular speaker at industry events and spends much of his time coaching individual distribution companies. For more information, call (503) 282-2333 or contact him by e-mail at Jason@Distributionteam.com. Also, visit The Distribution Team’s website at www.thedistributionteam.com.