If you’re leading, you’re selling

Norman Hall - The last FullerBrush man

Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human argues that we’re all in sales now. His thesis is structured around the wonderful story of Norman Hall, the last Fuller Brush Man, still plying his trade around downtown San Francisco at the age of 75. Pink argues that while the brush salesman is a thing of the past, nowadays the rest of us spend around 41% of our time moving others; persuading people to part with something they have, in exchange for something we want.

Now, we all know that 57% of statistics are false, right? But one area where Pink is bang on the money is leadership communication. Now more than ever, one of a leader’s most important jobs is to move people. If you want to get technical, that can mean moving audiences along a change curve. If you don’t, it simply means shifting people’s ideas. (Think about the last time you went into a meeting with a particular point of view. Reflect on whether your position changed in the course of the meeting. Ask yourself what the other person said or did to make you shift, or move, your position).

All organisations find internal communication notoriously difficult. But one of the things we have learned is that getting leaders and line managers to play their part is crucial. If you’re in HR, it really, really, pays, not only for you to think about how you can involve your senior people in your communication exercise, but also to encourage them to think about what they need to do to move your employees; to persuade them of the arguments for change. And before you tell me that your senior folks don’t want to sully their hands with a pay communication, remind yourself – and them –‐ what proportion of your organisation’s budget the pay bill represents. Then start thinking how to get them involved. Your leaders may be in sales, but the chances are they don’t like it. Pink’s word cloud shows a range from responses to the word ‘sales’ that go from ‘pushy’ and ‘necessary’ to ‘slimy’. Certainly when I ask the leaders I coach what they think about sales, their bodies clench like a Venus Flytrap snagging a spider. If you’re an HR business partner, and you want to persuade your senior people to endorse a change (such as a new pay scheme), chances are you’ll face opposition on a number of fronts. Leaders may not want to ‘sell’ the programme – and may not have the skills to do so. They may want neither to expose their ignorance to the troops (“remind me what median means, again?”) nor to burn the midnight oil swotting up the details of the very lovely plan that you’ve designed. And even when you’ve finally persuaded them that of the benefits of having them involved, one of their first responses may be that a priority is for you to ‘spin’ it right.

Which gets to the heart of what Pink is about. We may all be in sales now, but that doesn’t mean that we all have to be polished. On the contrary, great leaders, such as those Jim Collins describes in Good to Great are often described as quiet, humble, modest and understated. These are tough economic times. But the skills that kept Norman Hall in business through countless recessions: interest, empathy, listening –‐ and the capacity not to spin the benefits of his products, but to convey them in his own words –‐ are as relevant today as when Norman Hall first sealed the deal on a green and white KitchenBrush 300 in 1971.