At end of an executive overview of a sales training program I delivered a few years ago for a major Canadian power utility, I asked the executives to share the most important idea they felt they'd received from the overview.
As I went around the room, each shared the principle or skill he or she had found to be most valuable. When I reached the CEO, however, his response was startling.
"I'm the CEO and you said I should be the best salesperson in the company because I have to sell everyone and that scares the hell out of me."
His comments shed light on a phenomenon in business that is more common today than most people realize.
As CEOs become more and more removed from the daily operations of their companies, they also become disconnected from the source of their companies' livelihood - sales and the process used to generate them.
"A CEO in a fast-growing company might not be able to disappear, if the CEO wants to keep the company on a high growth curve," says James L. Horton in his essay, "CEO Visibility in a Post-Bubble World."
"This CEO is the lead salesperson for the firm," Horton says. "(He or she) needs to generate capital for a company to sustain growth and position the firm against competitors."
In essence, a CEO can never stop being a salesperson - the best one in the company, in fact - in order to sustain profitability and secure future profits. However, it is also the CEO who sets the example for the rest of the company by focusing on what is most important.
If profitability is most important, then selling must be the CEO's focus. Since selling is the key to generating profits, the CEO must be actively engaged in it. The CEO, in the end, is the person who leads everyone by selling them - from employees to clients to stockholders.
"Successful CEOs have vision but vision alone is not enough," says Anneli Driessen, CEO coach and author of the book "Ultimate Success: 7 Secrets to Spiritually-Based Leadership." "The simplest definition of a CEO or leader is someone whom other people follow.
In fact, CEOs must attract followers. They need to demonstrate personal magnetism and the ability to lead while generating enthusiasm."
While many CEOs have used their selling skills to build their companies into successful businesses, not every CEO is or has been a salesperson. In fact, as with my aforementioned client, some may have little or no experience with selling at all and, as a result, may face a crisis.
As difficult as it is for a person in this position of power and responsibility to admit, choosing to acknowledge what he or she does not know opens the door to acquiring the knowledge to become an effective salesperson. Just like anyone new to the company's sales department, the CEO may need training in the company's sales process as well.
How can a CEO be "plugged in" to his or her company without being intimately acquainted with how its most important objective - achieving, sustaining and increasing profitability - is accomplished?
To be an effective leader, every CEO must be able to answer these questions:
- What is our company's specific sales methodology?
- What is the process?
- Is there a common language?
- Are our sales forecasts accurate?
- Is the process being used companywide, not just within the sales team?
- Does it produce the results we are looking for?
- Does it need to be reviewed, changed or replaced?
Beyond gaining an understanding of how the company's profits are generated, learning an effective sales method will allow a CEO to better understand the needs, motives and desires of his or her prospects and customers.
While standardized research is valuable, even the best research cannot match the effectiveness of a sales process in which each individual prospect or client, through open-ended questioning, is encouraged to talk about his or her specific needs.
When given this opportunity to identify what they're looking for, what their needs are, what their budget is and when they will be ready to buy, prospects and clients will yield better and more accurate information than research could ever provide.
A CEO who is not actively participating in the sales process risks not only losing touch with the company and its critical functions but also with the company's prospects and clients whose needs can never fully be met without first identifying and understanding what they are.
"The CEO ... is indeed the ultimate salesperson of the organization. Sales must be a part of the designation (and) description of your CEO. It helps vest the 'S' word with the dignity it demands and deserves," says Harish Bijoor, in his article "Everyone's a Salesman," from the online publication Business Line.
Today's CEO may be crucial to the bottom line of his or her company but he or she also brings to selling what no other individual can - the weight of the top leadership position. A salesperson is not "just a salesperson" when he or she is the CEO. When the CEO is the top salesperson in the company, selling becomes what it actually is - the most valuable function of the company; one that's fully embraced and utilized by the company's MVP.
"CEOs are innovators with a tremendous drive to succeed," says Driessen. "They are experts in their industries but also have a more global perspective. They are the ones who generally pose the critical questions. They want to learn with a nearly insatiable hunger everything about anything that affects their company."
By bringing their expertise, unique talent and drive to selling, CEOs can secure their positions as top salespeople and effective leaders.
By learning and utilizing an effective sales process, CEOs can lead by example, directly affect revenue growth and ensure a secure financial future for the company, its employees and its shareholders.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.