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How To Redefine Sales Management Using Empathy

by | 0 Comments | January 25, 2017

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

If there is one person you call on in Silicon Valley to learn how to build a winning sales team it is likely Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP. I recently interviewed McDermott for a series on purpose-driven CEOs for Fast Company where he shared his approach to leadership and how he produced outstanding sales results early in his career by using an unorthodox sales management approach.

At 24, McDermott was given the unusual opportunity: managing an 18-member sales team for Xerox. It was the job that established him as a high-potential talent, in large part because of the remarkable performance of his team, which he says he led like their father, despite his age.

Rather than use competition to drive results, which is the norm in sales, McDermott used empathy. “If we could just finally put all this collective passion together for the common good, not just the team but everybody on the team, we would be the best. It turns out, it worked every time.”

Here are three ways McDermott flipped the script on sales management using empathy:

1) Make Sales Goals Personal

It has been well documented that money alone isn’t a great motivator. What McDermott found was that you could make it far more compelling when you have your sales team share what they need the money for in their lives. Paying student debt. Helping a parent. Getting the car they always wanted. Making a downpayment on a home they want to buy. This made it real and the idea of success and failure more personal and connected to intrinsic motivation vs extrinsic motivation.

Do you know the impact of commissions on the hopes and dreams of your team members?

2) Build Empathy on the Team

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He went one step further and had all the members of his sales team write the reason they needed to hit this quota and get their commission on a big board in the office. The board listed the names of each team member and something they really wanted and/or needed in their lives that they were counting on the commission to be able to afford. This made everyone root for them in a way in which they wouldn’t if it was just about money.

How do you encourage your team to share their hopes and dreams with their colleagues?

3) Make Team Success Goal #1

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McDermott had what he calls a “formula” that had each team member dedicate 80% of their time to achieving their personal goals but leave 20% of their time to help people on the team who were falling behind. When someone fell behind, “all 18 of us went into that territory and helped them out.” Knowing the implications of failure for a team member, written up on the board, inspired them to ensure that they succeeded. “We don’t leave anybody behind on this team.”

How do you structure your team’s time and goals to ensure everyone succeeds?

To learn more about purpose-driven CEOs and how they are transforming work and leadership, explore Imperative’s series with Fast Company.

Learn the Intrinsic Motivations for Your Team

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The Imperative Team Purpose Profile is based the largest experiment on intrinsic motivation and teams in history. I worked over a dozen years with nearly 2,000 cross-functional teams as the President of the Taproot Foundation where I uncovered what makes teams profoundly motivated and high performing – even when you can’t pay or promote them. Use Imperative’s platform to bring empathy and sustained breakthrough results to your sales organization.


Aaron Hurst is an Ashoka Fellow, award-winning entrepreneur and globally recognized leader in fields of purpose at work and social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation which he led for a dozen years. Aaron is the author of the Purpose Economy and has written for or been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg TV and Fast Company.

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