As a CEO, I have to communicate effectively with many different people. I need to make sure buyers know about and believe in my company and my company's product, I need to make sure my employees feel confident and supported and I need to capture the attention of the rest of the industry. In other words, I have to do a LOT of selling. Most chief executives today tend to come from either finance or operations backgrounds. In Silicon Valley, engineering and product backgrounds are also common. CEOs that cut their teeth as salespeople are more rare, but when they come up, they tend to make spectacular leaders.
Anne Mulcahy was the CEO of Xerox between 2001 and 2009 and is widely credited with steering the corporation on a path to recovery. In 2008, she was named CEO of the year by Chief Executive Magazine. Twenty years earlier, she was a field sales rep.
Leading a company well requires a very specific set of skills--many of which are integral to any sales career. Here are the top five skills that salespeople can tap into to hone their leadership abilities and take on leadership roles.
- Integrity: Integrity isn't always the first trait popularly associated with salespeople, but it's the most important trait that belongs to the good ones. The very best salespeople are the ones that buyers know they can trust, without fail. For CEOs, that integrity is even more critical. If a CEO does something unethical or dishonest and it's exposed, the entire company is under threat. High-profile executive scandals imperil opportunities for future funding and partnerships, and can cause stock value to plummet. Even if the CEO is stripped of his or her title, the company continues to suffer damage. Just like salespeople with bad reputations ruin future sales prospects, executives with bad reputations become a detriment to their businesses. Both must prove their value by consistently acting honorably.
- Trustworthiness: The second part of this dynamic is the ability to establish trust. It isn't enough to simply refrain from bad behavior if your customers don't know and appreciate it. Trust isn't granted-it has to be won. Salespeople learn early on how to win the trust of their customers. One thing that I do in absolutely every deal is deliberately put myself at a disadvantage so that my customers know I put their interest first. Sometimes that means admitting a weakness so that when I point out the strengths of my solution, those assertions have more value. The ability to earn people's trust is an essential aspect of the CEO's job as well. If you want people to follow you and to trust in your company, you need to be perceived as someone who deserves that faith.
- Strategic thinking: In sales and in business as a whole, numbers mean everything and figuring out how to reach them requires a very specialized type of thinking. Salespeople are always evaluating. How can I approach this deal differently? What are the obstacles in my way? How can I find a way around those obstacles and maintain momentum? These are more or less the same questions I ask myself about my business every day as a CEO. How can we grow faster? How can we increase revenue? How can we make this company even greater? Being able to sit down and map out a long-term plan and to deal with challenges that arise is one of the most important parts of leadership, and it's also something I see executed by my sales teams every day.
- Conviction: You can't inspire confidence in your business if you don't believe in it, and you certainly can't successfully sell a product you're not invested in. Confidence is contagious. When I meet with new employees at my company, whether they are in sales, marketing, or customer support--I make sure they really understand what's great about our product. I need them to really believe what they say, because customers know the difference. As a CEO, I rely on my confidence to inspire my audience, to stand behind my decisions and to keep myself going.
- Drive: In leadership, like in sales, it's easy to feel worn down. Keeping a company moving requires constant attention and limitless energy. If you want to be successful, you have to be willing to push constantly; that's why Steve Jobs--probably the most famous CEO in the modern business world--made "stay hungry" his key message to aspiring entrepreneurs. Sales is the same way. Complacent salespeople will never really be successful, and the most ambitious ones--those chasing the most deals and setting the highest goals--always end up shooting to the top.
When you start a career in sales, it can feel like you're spending your whole life chasing--chasing leads, chasing deals, chasing quotas. But the skills you learn through that chase set you up for a future of successful leadership.