Story by Donna S. Highfill
Note – following is an actual case that our President, Donna S. Highfill, experienced. The names have been changed to protect, well, us . . . just in case somebody doesn’t appreciate being identified by name..
Here’s a story I like to tell – one where leaders stepped out of the office to actually lead. Like George Patton, who always led his men into battle, these executives marched in front of their troops rather than from a big office on a high numbered floor. It started on a nice fall day, with a phone call from a client who needed me to develop a sales presentation for a financial institution that had been experiencing flat earnings for almost three years. They wanted a performance lift, and seemed to be willing to do what it took to make that happen.
A few weeks later I walked into the stereotypical board room – including a nice mahogany table surrounded by leather chairs, chairs filled with lots of silver-haired white males sitting around it. Wait, there was the obligatory female from Communications. Everyone stopped talking as I entered, looking up and providing that fake smile that says “God, another freakin’ consultant.” I smiled back, with my hesitant smile that said “Hey, give me a chance.”
I stood before them with as much presence as I could muster, even though the table reached my waist because I’m only 5’31/2” (Please add that 1/2, it’s very important on the Insurance weight charts that are based on height). I took a deep breath, and presented the sales strategy that I believed would get their stalled sales moving. It followed my change structure of moving the heart first with communications and vision, moving the mind with strong information and training, and moving the feet with tools that would help each leader and employee move forward once the training was completed.
Thrilled that everyone had stayed engaged and asked appropriate questions, I wrapped up the presentation. I felt good about it. A week later the CEO asked me to jump on the Corporate Jet and visit each Regional President to get their commitment. I made the trip, and except for one potato salad incident had a very prosperous experience. A box-lunch arrived without the necessary utensils, so the CEO mentioned that we just improvise with what we had. Well, I thought he meant the fingers God gave us, so I started the unlikely task of neatly eating potato salad with my fingers. Just as a blob of the stuff dropped on my lap, I looked up to see that the CEO had fashioned a spoon out of the container’s plastic top. That’s why he was CEO.
Everyone was on board, and life seemed good. I was going to be a change-agent with a company that actually wanted to do what I recommended!
Fast forward a month. I had worked with the Training Director and Head of Retail to work out the strategic details of our training roll-out which would start with the coaching session. I had stressed that even the top 10% of leaders should go through the training before we rolled it out to the rest of the company’s leadership. The CEO jumped on board, and we were ready to share the information with the leaders. I had prepared for one final run-through with the CEO, discussing some possible leader objections. Everything was right on course, and I was still on cloud nine, when the CEO showed enough integrity to make my job really, really uncomfortable. Before I could “shock” the leaders with the news that they would have to sit through the training, the CEO took it one step further.
He met with several of us and said – “If we are truly leaders then we should do more than go through this training. I want each of my top executives to train this information.”
My immediate thought was “Dear God, these guys are not going to be able to train!” My second thought was “This sales initiative is getting ready to become really unpopular.” Then I met with the Training Director and Retail Head, and we looked at each other . . . and smiled. What better way to get instant engagement from the field than to have their Regional leaders presenting it? We determined how many classes each leader would have to facilitate. At the end of the roll-out, every top leader was paired with a trainer and taught at least five, full-day coaching sessions. And they all did it – including the CEO!
By the way, being one of the trainers with which a leader was partnered, they did an amazing job. And at the train-the-trainer the CEO had more yellow post-its in his leader guide than anybody else in the room. He was a true leader.
I’ve never had a sales initiative kick off with so much power and immediate impact. Nobody tried to back out of the training. No local leaders provided a lame kick-off and left before the session started. Everybody was involved, everybody believed the message because it was coming from their leader’s leader. And boy was I wrong about the leaders not being able to facilitate. They were awesome. And enthusiastic. To that CEO – thank you for having the strength and integrity to really lead by example – it was an honor to serve you.
P.S. We went on to have over 4.5 years of steady sales growth.