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When Performing Gets in the Way of Improving

Do you find yourself (or your team) working hard but not improving much? You may be spending too much time in the ‘Performance Zone’.

I came across this rather interesting TedTalk the other day. In it, Eduardo Briceño explores the reasons behind the very common stagnation in personal and professional growth that we all encounter at some point in our lives.

In the presentation, Briceño wonders why, despite years of hard work in our particular areas of expertise, do we often end up plateauing. This, he assures, is due to the fact that we’re too preoccupied with performing in our workplace to ever take time to learn and improve.  

He goes on to present two important zones for progress:

The Performance Zone:

The goal in the ‘Performance Zone’ is to do something the very best we possibly can, executing on the things we’ve already mastered. In this zone, we aim to always excel, leaving very little room for trial & error. In the performance zone, there can be no mistakes.


The Learning Zone:

Our goal in the ‘Learning Zone’ is to improve so we concentrate all our efforts on working on the things we’ve not yet mastered, evaluating progress and learning new skills that will help us get better at that particular skill. Mistakes are accepted as something to expect and learn from.

The most effective people in any domain go through life deliberately alternating between the two zones.

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‘The ‘Performance Zone’ maximizes our immediate performance, while the ‘Learning Zone’ maximizes our growth and our future performance’ says Briceño. ‘The reason many of us don't improve much despite our hard work is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the Performance Zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.’

This concept instantly made me think about the kind of performance pressures we face in the realms of sales, no matter our experience level or clout.  

In this cut-throat industry, the stakes are frequently too high for us to experiment and make mistakes – after all, mistakes in sales are often terminal, leading to a lost deal or a soured opportunity. Internally, mistakes are not seen in a good light either. ‘Experiment’ with the boundaries of won/lost more than once and you will quickly be shown the door…

But, I can’t help but wonder if this is the reason behind the high attrition the field suffers from. Is our obsession with performance hindering our potential to develop a more successful workforce?

‘In the companies I consult with, I often see flawless execution cultures which leaders foster to encourage great work’ says Briceño ‘but that leads employees to stay within what they know and not try new things, so companies struggle to innovate and improve, and eventually they fall behind.’

And we see this with our all the time. Typically, sales teams are led by very experienced but very busy sales leaders who have to oversee the progress of a fairly substantial team. The pace is fast and there’s very little thinking-space to explore new avenues to closed revenue.

For ease of use, these sales leaders work out a particular winning formula to closing deals and they work hard to get their team to follow it. They offer on-boarding so reps can be trained around this modus operandi, after which, the reps are given the necessary tools and targets and told to get on with it. At the end of each quarter, the reps will sit down with the manager to talk about their trials and triumphs before starting all over again. Rinse and repeat across the entire organisation.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

  1. It’s fully performance driven and one dimensional. The rep will only be graded around a unique KPI – closed deals.
  2. It offers no breathing space for either the sales rep or manager to explore new routes to success.
  3. The process is passive, meaning that the rep and manager will only be able to reflect on lost opportunities once it’s too late to do anything about it.
  4. It’s one size fits all. Insisting reps follow only one particular ‘winning formula’ is keeping you from learning from your guys out in the field (who get to see everything from the frontline)
  5. It leaves no time for reps or managers to explore in the ‘Learning Zone’

According to Briceño ‘The best salespeople will, at least once a week, do activities with the goal of improvement. They read to extend their knowledge, consult with colleagues or domain experts, try out new strategies, solicit feedback and reflect.’ And it is this deliberate practice that can turn your core sales team into the high-achievers who will consciously improve your sales process and spike your revenue.


How Sales Managers Can Foster Success

As sales leaders, it is our responsibility to build a safety net for our reps. A safe haven where our team can learn, experiment and make mistakes without the usual pressures of meeting targets. By allowing your reps to alternate between these two very important zones, you’ll quickly create an innovative workforce that constantly grows in skillset and, in turn, enhances your sales process.

This approach can have surprising benefits for your business:

- Innovate around your sales process:

Taking time to analyse your processes will give insight into what works and what doesn’t for your business. Soon, you’ll start uncovering areas of repeated success, giving you solid proof that the guidance you’re giving your reps is actually working towards meeting the right targets.

- Learn from your top performers:

Giving your reps time to explore and experiment will bring about surprising discoveries. Your reps are at the frontline of your sales process, nobody knows what resonates better with customers than they do. Take time to talk through their own personal experiences and determine what lessons the rest of the team can learn from.

- Craft a very personalised approach to coaching:

Break down abilities into component skills, being clear about what subskill each rep is working to improve. Sales leaders should be coaches, offering support and feedback so their reps can work on improving certain areas. 


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How to Create a Learning Zone in your Workplace

1. Invest in performance insight tools:

The first step towards improvement is correctly pinpointing troubled areas. Help your reps improve on their own particular weak-points by investing in behavioural insight. Apps like SuMo can track reps’ activities within Salesforce, instantly highlighting areas of friction, allowing you to see where your reps need to be coached.

2. Make training easily available:

To quote Richard Branson ‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.’ Your business’ biggest asset is its team, so treat them accordingly. Nurture their skillset so they grow with you and allow them to lead you by giving them the reins to choose the way in which they prefer to be taught.

3. Manage by Leading KPIs, rather than Lagging:

Most businesses manage their teams around one, huge, all-encompassing KPI – closed revenue. However, this type of lagging KPI makes coaching very difficult as it only indicates what has happened in the past, the final output of our efforts. Breaking this huge target into smaller, more defined steps (Leading KPIs like increased call-time, lengthier meeting notes, etc.) will showcase the exact activities necessary to accomplish your final target.

Taking valuable selling-time away from your busy reps may be a daunting thought at first but it’s a sacrifice that will show its true worth in the long run. Don’t be afraid to dabble in the Learning Zone as a manager either. The buyer is evolving at ever-increasing pace and the only way to keep up with the new demands is by exploring and developing as the challenges arise…

Discover more about Leading KPIs in this free white paper.

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