Mike is a leadership expert who has worked with a number of prominent companies to improve what’s at the core of their retention, management, and performance strategies – culture. With a long-term vision and generosity to start-ups (including mine), Mike is a stand-up and stand-out individual.
I enjoyed Mike’s “6 Pillars of Culture” so much we co-created an image for it, which is used in the book. It’s a cracking checklist of how to ensure corporate success, and it’s detailed below.
You can Mike’s full biography here
Jamie: Mike, what have you found most fulfilling about your career in sales thus far?
Mike: I think the greatest satisfaction that anyone gets from sales is that you have to love interacting with a customer, whoever that customer is. I sold books door-to-door with Southwestern, like lots of people we know. The customer was just behind those all doors. It’s the Chief Executives now, talking about their organizational culture. What’s exciting is being able to speak to a customer, being able to help them understand a better way, and then getting the satisfaction of them buying into that.
Jamie: What do you think are the biggest differences between selling a book to someone at their doorstep and selling to a CEO?
I’ve been running a consultancy business for the last 15 years and sometimes rue the day that I chose to sell consulting, rather than a nice tangible product. Back in the days of selling books you have a product, and you sold the product, and someone could see it, someone could turn the pages and look at it, whereas, effectively, I’m selling an idea. It’s a big difference, and I’m also selling my reputation. That is a big difference between a CEO sale because the CEO’s ultimately buying me.
Jamie: Would you recommend that any salespeople should go into consultancy?
Mike: I wouldn’t say every salesperson. No, definitely no. You’ve got to be very confident in your capability and ability to be able to do that. I would say there’s quite a lot of salespeople who are cut out to sell a product, whatever it is. I think there’s a certain quality that you need, so it’s not for everyone.
Jamie: What additional skills they needed to sell an intangible product like consultancy?
Mike: You’ve got to sell a dream. What we sell is change. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be talking to anyone if I didn’t think that there were some aspects of their business that needed to change. I talk about people, the way they’re led, the way they’re managed, the culture of the business, and so, if the CEO thinks everything in his world or her world is perfect, then, I’d got no place being involved. I’ll be talking to them about improvement, change, and all that stuff. It’s selling a dream. Saying, “If you work with me for six months or twelve months, we can orchestrate change.” It’s always that long, it’s never a week.
Jamie: We’ve talked about the challenges previously in selling a programme which lasts twelve to sixteen months and then delivering it. Can you compare that to the one-off product sale that you were talking about earlier?
Mike: The first part of our sale is the one-off product. We will talk about the potential dream beyond, but very few people will make a decision on a six, twelve, or an eighteen-month product unless they have such a strong recommendation or referral which is very personal to them. “You’ve got to work with Mike under every circumstance, forget the number, just sign” – which is highly unlikely they will ever get to that state. So, usually, they need to say, “Okay, give me a stepping stone which I can buy.” It’s a relatively easy buy, relatively low risk.
For consultancy, it’s ideal because it gives you data, and as every consultant knows they love data because data usually reveals problems and things that need sorting.
Jamie: What do you think is your biggest strength as a salesperson that allows you to do this?
Mike: Personally, I think it’s just authenticity. I think that’s the most important skill. I mean it’s not even a skill – you either have that, or you don’t. Whoever I talk to, they’ll get what they get from me and, some people will buy that, and like that, and some people won’t, and that’s fine. I think every human being is very good at reading and sniffing bullshit. I’ve tried to avoid that altogether.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges in consultancy?
Mike: What we’re talking about is changing behaviour. I think when I don’t win a piece of business, it’s rare that people wouldn’t say, “Yes, Mike, I can see the value of that.” I don’t think anyone doesn’t see the value of what I’m talking about. I think sometimes, people just look at it and say, “That’s just too difficult.” We could spend that twenty or thirty or forty grand on, let’s say, on product development. Or we could spend twenty grand or thirty grand on management development. Some people might say, well, “Frankly, you know what, I know we need to do that for the long-term strength of our business, but I’d rather think short-term. I’d rather think it’s easier for me to do that than it is, that’s just difficult. You know what, I don’t want to talk difficult, and I don’t want to do difficult things. I’d rather do the easy stuff.” That’s my hardest thing, when someone says ‘no,’ because they look at me and go, “Yes. That’s a tough one.”
Jamie: Do you feel like a lot of businesses then undervalue culture?
Without a shadow of a doubt. They don’t either understand or value it. They don’t understand its importance, and they will always take a short-term view. They make easy decisions rather than taking the right route, which is to invest in that culture and their leadership. You need to get that right for businesses to work beautifully.
It’s a painful process, as a few of my clients can currently attest.
Jamie: What sort of traits or similarities have you seen in those businesses that are willing to invest in that culture?
Mike: People like coming to work. We’ve all worked for places where we really quite actually enjoy working. That is incredibly bound to the leadership within that business. We respect the leaders, we like them, and we think that they’re leading us in the right way, pointing the business in the right direction, and providing us with good opportunities. There’s a healthy atmosphere that everyone’s here to do well. Not “coach yourself.” I mean, we’ve always worked in those types of businesses. I’ve worked in two, or maybe three of those types of businesses. I’ve also worked in other types of businesses, well, that’s painful.
We’ve got our six pillars of culture – one is people feeling trusted, and empowered to do their job. We’ve all heard of micromanagement. Micromanagement is when we are capable of doing our jobs, but the management just doesn’t trust us and is constantly looking over our shoulder and constantly questioning what we’re doing and all that kind of stuff. Very quickly, that gets very tiresome to the point where we’ve had enough, and we’d look for another job.
Trust and empowerment is the first one. The second one is a quality leadership team that is united, that think in the same way, and they point in the same direction and are very approachable and open. The third one is a customer-obsessed business. They’re absolutely obsessed with their customers. How do we keep them? How do we take care of them? How do we never lose them? They decide based on customer requirements rather than their own.
The fourth one is very much around professional and personal development. It’s how we are going to help every single individual in this business, be better at their jobs over the next six and twelve months. Whether that’s encouragement, kicking, whatever it might be. The fifth is communication—brilliant communication from top-down, from allowing people to communicate up the chain whether they’re not happy. Then the final one is what we call a “growth attitude,” which is that there’s a sense that we’re all in this together. We’re trying to get better as a company. We’re trying to provide better products, and we’re trying to be better at what we do. We’re doing that consistently over time. So those six things, if a business demonstrates those qualities, then they are on top of their business. I’m lucky enough to have worked with few, but it’s rare.
Jamie: If you are on the outside and looking in, what are some quick data points that you would use to assess whether that strong culture is in place?
Mike: Quantitative data is great because it’s quick. It gets you stats, and it gets you numbers. Then you’re having to assess through conversation. Unfortunately, at that point it becomes a bit of a lottery as to who you talk to I guess, you’ll speak to someone who is just written a horrific review on your company because they hate their manager. Or, conversely, I could speak to someone who’s totally loving where they are. It’s a bit of a lottery at that point. My perspective will be massively clouded about that business.
Sometimes, I walk into an office – I think I’m quite intuitive, I’m not a genius or anything like that, but you walk into an office and sense the atmosphere. I can think visually of the last two offices I had been in the last couple of months, where one thinks, “Oh my God, wow. It’s so great here.” I’m sure the quantitative stats then back that up. Without quantitative stats, it becomes quite hard; you then have to chat to people quietly to get a sensible perspective.
Jamie: What do you think makes salespeople really highly-valued in an organization?
Mike: It’s the one role in the company that had such a massive impact on growth, obviously. If someone is a top-performing salesperson, they very quickly become an absolutely indispensable, making the assumption they’re not complete assholes. Because unfortunately as we know, several extraordinarily good salespeople are by default, also, extraordinarily assholes too.
I mean, we’ve all worked with complete assholes. But they’re brilliant. They’re almost always their top performers. Salespeople are so valuable, but the biggest mistake that some businesses make is that they promote them to a manager. What a huge mistake that sometimes is. Look after them, promote them, pay them more, do whatever – but don’t let them go into management because statistically, they have almost no chance of being a good manager. Stats would put bad that up massively; around twenty percent usually make decent managers.
They have an eighty percent chance of failing as a manager. So, let them just be good at what they’re good at and discourage them from going into management.
Jamie: How would you recommend organizations best compensate their salespeople?
Mike: Having run my business now for the last fifteen years and working for Southwestern – I’ve been on commission-only sales for well over half my life. So, yes, twenty-one years of my life, I’ve been literally on, “If I don’t get off my ass and do something, I don’t make anything.”
My natural instinct in answer to that question is to give them a massive bonus opportunity or commission opportunity. As we know, sometimes salespeople don’t like that. Which is weird; it’s bizarre. Absolutely bizarre, that some of these guys who are great salespeople would prefer to have a big old fat basic salary. Whereas you’d think the top sales guys would just love to have a huge accelerator bonus structure.
Jamie: Talking more generally, what advice would you give for aspiring salespeople?
Mike: For me, there are three or four key elements of being a good salesperson. It’s not all about your skill. First and foremost, attitude. The salespeople that don’t have the right attitude will struggle and fail. What I mean by that is, understand that you will have a bad week, you’ll have a bad month, and you’ll potentially have a bad quarter. Great sales guys that realize that they can ride through that if they’re consistent and they have a good attitude.
If I come to work with a similar good attitude every day, then okay, I might have some bad situations, but I’ll look for the positive. It will get better; it always gets better. Then consistency and organization are the other, which is about your habits; being able to rely on those work habits when things are hard and say, “Okay, I’ll just work my way through this.”
One good habit is to ask for help, and not have an ego which is so massive that you’ll say, “No, I can do it by myself.” Well, sometimes you might need someone to watch you do it. Because you might have got yourself into a bad habit that you may not realize you’re doing. I mean, you might hear someone say, “Did you realize that this is what you’re saying in your close?” Something like that. Skills are obviously the key, and those are developed over time.
Interestingly, the one skill that’s unbearably avoided most, which is the most important is prospecting. It is unbearably the one which is given least time and actually, that is the one which keeps a healthy pipeline of business. Someone needs to discipline in the organization to invest enough time in their prospecting, it would cover a multitude of sales. Because basically, if you got a bulging pipeline, however, bad a salesperson you are as far as your skills are concerned, you’ll have enough in your pipeline to see you through. Prospecting, of all the skills of being a salesperson, is the one I would get a new salesperson to focus on.
The last one is knowledge. Know your stuff, whatever that stuff is; the product, our competitors, and the market. Know those three things like the back of your hand. Prospects will say, “This person’s worth talking to because he actually knows his stuff.” Whereas too many salespeople often tend to look for shortcuts to build their knowledge base, and that can turn out disastrous.
Jamie: When you look at your sales carer again, what would you do differently?
Mike: I wouldn’t spend as much time at Southwestern. I spent almost five years there. Unfortunately, my father passed away on the very last day in my third summer. He ran his own retail business, and he was an entrepreneur. I knew he would’ve encouraged me to stay in sales but also expand my horizons into other businesses as well as Southwestern. I think I wouldn’t have invested as much time with Southwestern, but that’s just a small thing probably.
Jamie: Did that speak to your belief that salespeople should have diversity of experience?
Mike: Yes, especially during the early stages of their career. Personally, I went to Yellow Pages (the company), and I was there for two and a half years, which was fine. Good training. I thought the sales training was pretty thorough, but the management training wasn’t nearly as good. I then went to a Swedish-owned business. It was a bit more haphazard and not structured – classic SME. I found that quite hard because I came from experiencing a massive structure; massive processes at both Southwestern and Yellow Pages and then suddenly you had to invent your own processes. It’s not as good.
I think one thing that I did miss, which I think we all could with, do is finding a good mentor. I think that was my father for me. Honestly, when he passed away, that was a big blow. For me, I think, that would be my biggest advice: if you’re lucky enough to have a wise head you can talk to, who you can get advice from without any agenda; appreciate what an asset that is. I would’ve worked harder to seek out a good mentor.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you did not make a sale, and it hurt a bit, and you really learned something from it?
Mike: I think back to 2011. In my business, we had developed a software, an application which was designed automate and improve the way which businesses did their annual reviews, and also do their monthly one-to-one catch-ups. It was a lot of investment on my side – £250k to £300k on developing this software – over a two or three-year period. I made the mistake that of not identifying the right decision-making process. I think that’s the biggest potential mistake of every salesperson, is not properly identifying the right decision-making process.
We targeted HR, which was, in hindsight, the most foolish thing we could have ever done.
Multiple times we thought that the sale was in the bag. Because of the fact that we were being sponsored by the HR team, rather than the CEO or Directors, the sale failed. We would get to the close, just to be told that the Directors don’t want to do it. They want to invest in something else. It’s all about the decision-making authority. Identifying exactly who all the real players were – I made those mistakes. There were multiple painful experiences.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time where you succeeded in making a huge sale that other people might not have made, and it showed off some of the skills and the knowledge you have acquired throughout your career?
Mike: Well, my biggest client, over the last, through the lifetime of my business, is Mergermarket – now Acuris.
One particular year, in 2011, my business did about a £120k worth of business with what was Mergermarket then. That was based on a trusting relationship with the CEO, and a clearly identified need within the business. In that case, it was around the whole group of senior managers needing to be lifted in terms of their ability, knowledge, and understanding of what good management looks like. I was London-based, I was American-based, I was Hong Kong-based; going to all of those offices and training the management team in what good looks like, and coaching them on a one-to-one basis. That was all based on a trust that you develop with the most senior people in the business.
That year accounted for about a quarter of our business, that massive project. We did about £450,000 over the last twelve years. Anyway, Mergermarket has not done so badly as a business.
Jamie: What advice would you give to salespeople to get to elevate their game to the CEO or the decision-maker level?
Mike: For me it’s clear, going back to what I said, you’ve got to know your shit because you’ll get found out, big time. One of the traits of salespeople is that they can be quite lazy. It can be the path of least resistance sometimes. I’m not saying by any chance that all salespeople are like that, but I’ve worked with many who will do as little as possible to generate the money they need or want. If you are like that, you’ll get found out straight away at board level because they’ll ask you some questions which you might not normally be asked by a Head of HR.
If you just don’t know what you’re talking about, then they’ll see straight through that and say, “I’m wasting my time.” So that whole concept of Challenger – that’s predicated on the fact that you know your stuff, because if you don’t know your stuff, how can you be a Challenger salesperson? Because if you start challenging the CEO, then you better be good.