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Why Leaders Need To Be Great Salespeople To Succeed

Whether it’s a CEO, a coach or someone else whose job it is to motivate others, a great leader is at heart a good salesperson.

That’s because if an organization’s leadership isn’t constantly persuading the rest of the team to buy into an idea or a philosophy, the team is likely to splinter, with everyone moving in his or her own direction.

And just barking orders doesn’t always get the job done.

“Leaders don’t always have formal authority or positional power to compel people to do what they want done,” says Paul B. Thornton, who conducts leadership training programs and is author of Precise Leaders Get Results. “In many situations, they need to persuade, convince, and sell people on their ideas.”

Thornton says to successfully influence others, leaders must understand what those people are thinking and then tap into whatever their strongest emotion is at that time.      

Ultimately, he says, it’s a matter of appealing to people’s heads, hearts and hands. Here’s how that works:

• The Head – This is an appeal to the intellect. Leaders can persuade people through rational arguments including market research, customer surveys and case studies. They also should highlight the business benefits of ideas and how they will help employees. In some situations, Thornton says, it helps to explain the consequences of not changing. What’s at stake? What will people lose out on?

• The Heart – This is an appeal to emotions. People change their behavior when doing so makes them feel better, Thornton says. The leader should connect to their need for status, order, honor, security and purpose. Engage their hearts by making employees feel they are part of something big and special. 

• The Hands – This is persuasion through direct involvement. Give employees something to experience viscerally, the way salespeople let someone take a car for a test drive or offer a taste test. “Demonstrations help people experience the value and benefits of a particular idea or innovation,” Thornton says. “Direct experience can alter how a person thinks and feels about a new initiative.”

Having the right mix of facts, emotional appeals and involvement helps sell ideas and proposals, Thornton says. Once that’s done, he says, the leader needs to close the deal by asking for people’s commitment to whatever is proposed.

“In some cases you may need to start small,” Thornton says. “Get people to commit to taking some baby steps.”


Paul Thornton, author of Precise Leaders Get Results, is an author, trainer, speaker and professor of Business Administration at Springfield Technical Community College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has designed and conducted management and leadership programs for UMASS Medical School, Kuwait Oil Corporation, and United Technologies, providing leadership training for over 10,000 supervisors and managers. Thornton’s books include: Leadership-Off the Wall, Be the Leader, Make the Difference, and Leadership: Best Advice I Ever Got. He has also written articles that have appeared in USA Today, Management Review and Leadership Excellence.

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