I was in way over my head.
I was exactly 30 years old, and had about 160 people working for me. Of course, at the time, I didn't have the maturity to really understand what that actually meant. But, there I was. Hiring. Firing. I was just doing my best to hold on. And doing my best to hide how terrified and incapable I felt. It was a daily struggle to maintain an air of "I know best." At the time, that's what I thought leadership was all about.
Today, it's almost amusing how little I understood about leadership.
The company was growing like a meat-eating teenager. I was in charge of growing our sales group west of the Mississippi.
California. Texas. The Pacific Northwest. Chicago.
I made a point of spending time with our best sales performers. On some level, I understood I needed to learn from them.
I eventually made my way to visit Michael Tiller in Omaha. Michael was classic Midwesterner. Humble. Unassuming. A modest, yet professional dresser. Always on time.
I really connected with him. We'd talk about our families, sports, and really anything else. I enjoyed our early morning breakfasts--Michael insisted on a 6:00 A.M start time--and diner lunches.
We stuck to a pretty rigid schedule. Michael had sales presentation slots at 9:00, 11:00 and 2:00. Around those presentation slots, we canvassed. We'd make outbound calls from 3:00 to 4:30. Then we'd spend some time downloading the day's activity-complete paperwork, do some follow up calls and emails, and tie up loose ends.
We'd spend about an hour preparing for the next day. We'd usually fit in a single draft beer. Budweiser. Or "Bud-Heavy" as Michael called it. I was always impressed with how much Michael could pull together while the "boss" was in town.
Michael was also quite comfortable in front of prospects. He closed a lot of business. He was consistently in the top 10 nationwide.
On one snowy afternoon in west Omaha, we arrived for an appointment with a hotel group. This was Michael's first appointment with the decision makers. I was expecting a real grilling.
But, instead, I rode shotgun to what looked like a casual conversation. Michael asked some questions. It didn't feel at all like a presentation. It didn't at all resemble the training program I was putting new sales reps through.
At the end, Michael simply asked, "Well, should we get you going?"
In the three seconds between that question and the response, I think I sweat through my shirt. Michael was calm.
And then, the answer: "Of course, let's do it."
In the car afterwards, I was jacked. Michael was calm. I think I must have audibly said something like, "How did that happen?" At our next stop after I had settled, my thoughts moved from adrenalin rush to real bewilderment.
I turned to Michael and asked, "Michael, what just happened back there? That's a huge account. You're going to make a ton of money on that deal. And, it was so calm. No presentation. And you're not even excited right now?"
The next two minutes changed my professional life. And, if I'm honest, they changed my personal life, too. Here's what he told me:
"Matt, that might have looked like nothing to you. But what you didn't see was how many times I've done that appointment in my head, in front of a mirror, or just to myself in a coffee shop. You didn't see how many times I've practiced. Or how many times I've been unable to close that type of deal. How many times I've blown it. All of those experiences, all of those failures, I brought that all with me today. And that's exactly what I had to go through in order to 'effortlessly' close that one today."
He could tell my light bulb was lit. Finally. He continued:
"That's really what my entire system is all about. My three appointment slots per day. The 6:00 A.M. start time. This isn't just for you. It's how I operate. It's my system. It's simple. And it works. So I stick to it. I'm consistent. And that's it. But I didn't just start doing it yesterday. It's been a process. A farmer doesn't show up in a field one day and all of a sudden crops show up. He follows a process that shows almost no progress from day to day. But he knows that if he sticks to it, if he doesn't cut any corners, the full moon in September signals the harvest. The corn will be ready. And that's really it. Now, let's go get a Bud-Heavy."
And that's the greatest sales lesson I ever learned.