Welcome to the Unstoppable CEO podcast. I’m your host, Steve Gordon, and I’ve got to tell you, today I’m super excited about this interview. I’m talking with Deb Calvert, and she is the author of Discover Questions, Get You Connected, which was named by HubSpot as one of the top 20 most highly rated sales books of all time, which is amazing.
She’s the co-author of Stop Selling and Start Leading, and she’s the founder of the Sales Expert Channel, which is a really popular destination for folks who are looking to get all kinds of resources to improve your sales. She’s a keynote speaker, a certified sales and executive coach, and has been named one of the 65 most influential women in business.
Deb Calvert, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO.
Thank you so much, Steve. I’m really, really honored to be here with you today.
I’m looking forward to this conversation. You’ve done some really interesting things, and you’ve got a unique take on sales, and on leadership, and the two, I think, are really intertwined, and so I’m looking forward to diving in.
Before we do all of that, I would love it if you’d give everybody a little bit of background so they kind of know how you got to this stage of your career, and what turned you into this amazing sales and leadership expert?
So the backstory. Well, once upon a time, before my happily ever after … once upon a time, I worked for 16 years at the Kansas City Star Newspaper. It was owned by a large parent company that had newspapers in 31 markets, and they saw some things that I was doing around sales, sales training, leadership development, and they invited me to come and do it across all the newspapers at corporate.
So I packed up and moved west, and spent 15 years in California, but only the first years with Knight Ridder, because although they were a large Fortune 500 company, and I had incredible opportunities while I was there, they sold, and when they sold, I did not want to move again. I’d just gotten the family established.
So I went into business for myself. It’s the same story that probably so many of your listeners find themselves … what next, and you take that road untraveled. So I have been doing this now for 13 years, and this is People First Productivity Solutions, my business.
We work in leadership development, sales productivity, and team effectiveness. What those three have in common is that ultimately it’s about getting people connected, and that’s the work that I do.
I love how you put it that way, because that really, to me, is the essence of sales, and it’s also fundamental in leadership as well. I just love that take on this whole process. So many people look at selling as something you do to someone, and I just fundamentally see it differently, and so I think we’re going to have a good time today.
With that is sort of the backdrop for all of this. I’d love for you to share with us a little bit about what you’ve done over the years to really persevere, to stay unstoppable as you’ve built your business, and gone through all the different changes that you’ve been through.
Taking “Detours” on the Road to Success
It’s all about how you look at things. I think there’s a visual here that describes what’s helped me to be unstoppable at those times when I easily could’ve stopped. I have a visual that I put in my head, when I get to a place where the sign says ‘road closed’, I remind myself that means there’s at least one detour.
The road’s closed, maybe it’s going to take me longer, maybe I’ll have to go someplace less familiar, maybe the way is going to be a little more treacherous, maybe I’ll have to get out of the vehicle and pick a different vehicle, or even walk to where I want to go. But if I want to go there, there is a detour, there is a way there; it’s just not the way I thought it was going to be.
Sometimes, Steve, you know the other thing that occasionally happens is that I do realize it’s not worth the trip. I don’t get there very easily, and I don’t get there very often, but sometimes when I am forced to think about the detour, I realize that’s not where I really wanted to go anyway, and so I have to be very honest with myself to figure out if it’s the hard work that I’m afraid of, or if it was actually the wrong destination that I had in mind.
I think that’s probably one of the most important things that’s been said in this podcast, and we’ve done 112 interviews. It’s so easy to get caught up in the … I’ve set the goal, and I have to achieve the goal, and quitting is for losers mindset. Sometimes, we just push, and push, and push, and never stop and take the time to reflect.
You’re right. I think sometimes it’s the difference between, “Am I just afraid of all the hard work that’s ahead?” And fearing that, or, “Did I just pick a bad road?” As you’ve had to make those decisions in the past, what are some of the ways that you think about it?
How do you know when you’re not just caving under the pressure of a tough workload, and actually making a conscious decision that, “No, this is not the path for me. I’m going a different way.”
That’s a big question. For me, what’s made that a lot easier is the opportunities I’ve had working in the leadership development space. I’ve discovered so much about myself. One of the forefathers of leadership development, a guy named Walter Bennis, he said, “To know yourself as a leader is to know yourself.”
I think that’s very true. So I’ve done a lot of reflection on what are my values, what are the things that are non-negotiable that matter to me most of all, more than anything else, and first and foremost, everything else has to fit. If it doesn’t fit my core values, then it’s not for me.
Sometimes we forget, and I do occasionally find myself a little bit astray, and it’s interesting how those road blocks come up as a reminder to you. So you’ve got to pay attention to them. They’re not always negatives, but that’s my assessment. My assessment toolkit is made up of my values.
And then there’s one other piece to that. I want to give credit to my co-authors on Stop Selling Start Leading, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, because this is their well-researched definition after 30 plus years in the domain of leadership development. This definition nails the answer to your question.
The definition is that leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. Of course, any leadership begins with self-leadership, so do I want to mobilize myself? Do I actually want to struggle for that something that I see in the future? That, in alignment with my values, helps me answer a lot of questions.
It seems as though, to me, and I keep coming back around to this word again and again and again, the fundamental idea is discernment. How are you able to perceive what maybe isn’t an obvious answer, but how can you understand yourself, and understand the circumstances around you, and make sense of them?
I know early on in my career, there wasn’t a lot of discernment going on. There was a lot of action and motion, and a whole lot of activity happening, but there was very little thoughtfulness and discernment, and that’s something that, I guess, with age we tend to gain.
I work with so many business owners who suffer and struggle for lack of discernment, because they’re constantly in motion, but they’re never thoughtful about where they’re really trying to go.
Yeah, I see that a lot too. I think I’ve been guilty of that. I get excited. What’s the newest, latest, greatest, shiny? That’s the place where you have to … if you don’t have it worked out, if you don’t know what really matters most to you, and if you don’t know what your destination is, then you can take on way too much, and dilute your effectiveness in anything that you’re doing.
It becomes this internal compass. For me, it’s my value system. Does this match where I want to go? Does this match the difference that I want to make? Not just some difference that I could make, but the true difference at the very core of everything. Does this serve that purpose, or does it distract me from that purpose?
Does this advance me to my goals, or does it suddenly expand the goals out there so much that they are really either unattainable or everybody else is doing them anyway, so what’s the point? If I know what’s the difference I really want to make, what are my values, and I’ve got that all worked out in my own leadership philosophy, then I have my core.
I have my compass, and it’s much easier to know what to say yes to, and what to say no to. I realize this is not probably as practical and tactical an answer as your guests would like for it to be, but this is what works for me, and I think it’s a profound experience to be able to get that deeply in touch with what matters.
You’re right. It’s not necessarily a practical and tactical … you can go do this, and have these answers, but the important answers usually aren’t discoverable through something so simple. Or, I shouldn’t say that. Something so easy. I do think getting through this process is simple, but I don’t think it’s necessarily always easy, because it requires asking yourself some difficult questions, and that’s not necessarily a complicated thing, but getting to that point of really true honesty, as you look at these issues, and I think we run into them all the time in business.
Things often don’t work. My background is a combination of engineering and marketing, and in engineering, things are fairly predictable. You can reduce most things to an equation. When I moved into marketing, I quickly discovered things were really, really different, and the fundamental difference is we’re dealing with humans and not inanimate things that you’re creating.
In business, and particularly in the marketing work we do, I started listening to experts who would say, “8 out of 10 campaigns fail.” We run into this failure again and again and again, and trying to make sense of that, and determine, “Okay, did this fail because I’m heading in the wrong direction towards the wrong thing, or did this fail because that’s part of the nature of the game?”
I think that’s really difficult to discern. But again, I think it’s fundamental to the role of building a business.
I agree, and the word discernment, just so that no one might misunderstand, I think that it’s very, very important to be discerning, and at the same time, you can’t let that lead to any analysis paralysis. More often than not, it’s not going to be a right answer and a wrong answer, a good choice and a bad choice.
There’s going to be a lot of shades of nuance within that, and so they’re just different choices. Whatever one you make, to be able to commit to that because you were discerning as best you could be, and to remain nimble enough to respond, and to be noticing the small wins along the way so that you can adjust, I think that has a lot to do with it, too.
Absolutely, I think that’s an excellent point. I want to take a quick break. I want to come back, when we come back, I want to focus on the work that you’re doing in sales. I think that’ll be hugely beneficial for everybody listening. Everybody, stay tuned. We’re going to be right back with more from Deb Calvert.
Hey everyone, it’s Steve Gordon. Welcome back. I’m talking with Deb Calvert, and Deb, we left off, and wanted to head down the path of sales. You’ve written a really highly acclaimed book on sales called Discover Questions, and another one called Stop Selling and Start Leading.
The Nobility of Sales
I know that sales is an area that for our listeners, often they struggle with. The folks who tend to listen to our podcast are people who are in business because they love doing what they do, and then somewhere along the way, they discovered that part of that meant having to go and attract clients, and sell.
Most of the time, they’re folks that aren’t natural sales people, if there is such a thing. Given all that you’ve done around the study of sales, where would you start helping someone like that begin to improve what they’re doing?
My passion is around changing the way that people view selling. It’s not icky, it’s not all those ugly stereotypes that you see in the movies. Sales is truly noble work, and I like to frame it this way. I work with a lot of non-profits, and with schools, who their development teams are looking to get alumni donations, things that are not exactly sales, but are highly influential, because you’re asking someone to do something.
I do think that everybody who is a business owner, whether they know it or not, like it or not, they’ve got some selling that they have to do. So I like to reframe it this way. The word sell, it just means to persuade or to cause to be accepted; that’s the dictionary definition.
The old English word that it came from was sellan, and that meant to give, furnish or supply something that is needed, and I think that’s a really critical piece that we should not ever lose. It’s something needed. The word buy means to acquire by possession or exchange, and that original old English word meant to accept an offer of something needed.
The intersection of buying and selling is all about the need, and if you have a product or a service that you offer, and you’re meeting the need of someone else, then wow. That’s a beautiful thing, to be able to meet that person at that very simple place, and to be able to meet that need.
When the sellers I coach, and the people in organizations that aren’t truly selling, but something like it, when I talk to them about need, and when I see them shift their mindset to meeting the need, it changes everything. It strips out all those stereotypes, and all those habits that people think they need to … those fakey things they have to do to be in the role of seller, and those are all the things that actually take away from the simple intersection where there’s a need.
I love that you’ve gone back to the original old English definitions of those words, and I hadn’t heard those, and I hadn’t gone and researched it, and I’m kicking myself now for not having done that, because I think you learn a lot in that process.
I completely agree that this idea of selling, really, this profession of selling, which I think if you own a business, you’re in it, whether you want to describe yourself that way or not. It is a noble calling, and it’s a difficult calling, because you’re having to overcome all of the resistance and fear that may be in the mind of the person that you’re trying to help.
And still show them that there’s a better future, whether it’s through your product or some other solution, that there’s a better future, and overcome all of those blocks for them. I love the way you reframed that. When we look at accomplishing that, and I know you wrote a book on Discover Questions.
How to Find Out What Buyers Really Need
What are some of the ways we start off, from a questioning standpoint? How do we begin to uncover that need, and uncover the information that we need to connect what we’re doing with the need of the buyer?
The questions are important, but let me say this. Both books have, behind them, a lot of research with buyers, which is not quite the same as research with sales organizations. These are buyer based, evidence based bodies of work, and what buyers say, and they said it with Discover Questions six years ago, they said it two years ago with Stop Selling and Start Leading, consistently what they say is, “I want to be heard, I want to be understood, and I want to know that somebody’s got my best interests in mind.”
Knowing that first, and then asking the questions about what is it that they need, building that nascent trust right at the very beginning when there’s a natural tendency of buyers to resist trusting a seller, but overcoming that by asking quality questions that show your true interest, that’s what it’s about.
It’s not, “Hey, what can I sell you today?” It’s, “What’s your need today?” And whatever your question sounds like around that, person to person, that’s how you break the ice, and enter in the trust.
I think this approach, in my mind, it dramatically simplifies the process of selling.
That’s the idea, yes.
You begin to focus on what the need is, and ask questions, and discover really what not only the surface need, but the root need might be, and I’ve always felt like it’s just following a path. Contrary to a lot of the sales techniques that are taught, where it’s often highly scripted, and very seller focused in terms of meeting the seller goals rather than buyer focused.
To me, this is a significantly simpler path to take. As you’re installing this into the organizations where you teach this, what are some of the things that people say after they begin to experience it? Because it has to be a new approach, in a lot of ways, to what they’ve been taught before.
Absolutely. There’s this term out there, sales enablement. It’s quite fashionable right now. You enable your sellers with the right training, the right tools, the right techniques, the right software. You enable them to make more sales.
What I often find when I go into an organization is that people have been enabled beyond their capacity to handle any more enablement.
They are, and they don’t know what to do with it; it’s confusing. It does force, even if it’s not the intention, it does force some of the false stereotypes, the behaviors that buyers don’t like in sellers, because they are over scripted and whatnot.
I aim not to enable sellers, but to ennoble them. The word ennoble, it means to make worthy or important, and so when I am training a group of sellers, or out in the field coaching sellers, I can physically observe, I can observe their physical characteristics.
In an audience, it’s almost like a wave at a stadium, when I’m giving a talk, for example. I can see people begin to sit up straighter, throw their shoulders back a little bit more, and you can just see the pride. It feels good to do that kind of work that I’m talking about. You can see it just emanating from them.
And then when we go out in the field, and people have this permission to step into the relationship with the buyer, not as a stereotypical seller, but as a leader. Someone who’s going to inspire the buyer, someone who’s going to come alongside to meet that need, who’s going to do the work of meeting the need, and yeah, sure, make a sale, and get the commission, but through meeting the need.
It’s a confidence booster unlike anything else I’ve seen in selling, when a seller really gets to the point where they feel that they can believe that, and it’s okay.
I think a lot of times, that idea of confidence is one of the things that holds people back. Because often with the training techniques that are out there, they’re not confident that they can execute that approach. It doesn’t feel natural or authentic to them.
They say, “I don’t want to call back again, I don’t want to seem pushy.”
“Well, does this person need what you have to offer them?”
“Yeah, they really do.”
“Okay, why would you withhold that from them, in that case?”
To me, that’s the perfect question to put it back into perspective. I always like to frame it in the medical analogy, that if you’re a doctor seeing a patient that had a serious illness that you could fix, would you stop trying to convince them to go fill the prescription that would cure them, or would you continue to argue your case?
Most people would continue to argue the case on into the future, because it would be important, and it would be immoral to do otherwise.
How Incentives Sabotage Sales Success
One of the fundamental flaws in selling is that we rely so much on extrinsic motivation. We put all that attention on the commission, the incentive, the goal, and extrinsic motivation is known to erode intrinsic motivation. Whereas I might be intrinsically motivated to help you, Steve, to meet the need that you have, the one that I can uniquely resolve for you, suddenly my intrinsic motivation gets compromised if I start thinking about how it’s going to benefit me to do all those things.
So I don’t.
All of these incentives that we’re putting in place are actually working against us?
In many ways, I believe so, and I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen very good sellers get to the top of the leaderboard, start making a lot of money, they start to get a lot of attention and a lot of focus on the commission, and then suddenly selling doesn’t feel good to them anymore.
The joy of it goes away.
How, as an organization, do you … if you’re leading a sales organization, or if you’re leading even a small business that’s got sales people, and you’re trying to grapple with these issues of how to compensate, and motivate the sales team, how do you approach it, and do it in a way that doesn’t erode that intrinsic motivation?
Whatever your role might be, if you are a sales manager or a business owner, if you have anybody who’s selling on your team, instead of thinking of them as a sales person, you think of them as a person who does the work of selling, and you don’t put them into a bucket that says hey, all sales people are money motivated, so I’ve got to keep throwing money at them.
Or, all sales people are greedy, so I’ve got to give more incentives if I want them to do more work. Knowing that the real science behind motivation for all people, and knowing that there are other reasons why people take a job. It’s not just about how much commission they can make, but what’s the greater purpose of the work? What is it that they set out to do?
What difference do they want to make? That’s a powerful question. What difference do you want to make, unlocks a lot for you about a person’s motivations. That’s what we should be speaking to when we ask people to do anything more or different.
And so maybe it’s not so much about laying out all of these incentives, and more about connecting with some of these other areas.
In a sales organization, I’ve coached a sales manager very recently that had a lucrative commission plan, they had a leaderboard so you could see exactly who was performing, and they had a big old incentive at the top for the one person who was going to be at the top of the leaderboard in that particular period. I think it was a quarter.
And that’s all the sales manager talked about. Meeting after meeting, one-to-one meetings, “Hey, you’re number two on the leaderboard,” and he just hammered it all the time, and with the best of intentions. But what he forgot is that there were other people on the team who were more motivated by being on the top than winning the incentive, and people on the team who were motivated by what were they going to do for their customers that was truly going to help their customers?
And some who were motivated by, “I hate contests. My name on the wall is really embarrassing to me, so I’m just going to check out of this one entirely, because it’s not worth the personal risk to me.” All kinds of positive and negative motivations that he was missing by focusing exclusively on the one that, for him, probably would’ve been the number one motivator.
He just forgot that other people are wired differently.
I can imagine there are people listening to this who either run a business or they manage a sales team, and they’re thinking, “That’s all great, but at the end of the day, I’ve still got to write payroll checks, and we have to sell a certain amount to be successful, and to have a growing, thriving business. At some point, we have to count the money.”
How do you grapple with these seemingly, at least, competing motivations, where you’ve got the financial goal of the business to grow, and then you’ve got all of these other intrinsic motivations, which may or may not exactly align with that. It’s one thing to say you’ve got people who are in it to do what’s best for the customer, and I completely believe in that, but if that sometimes is taken to a perverted extreme, it could mean that they’re actually sending customers away.
I’ve seen that happen, where somebody was really recommending a different solution. How do you reconcile that for the sales leader, who is trying to sort all of this out?
Build the Business by Building Up Your People First
It does have to be a shared vision, so having the right people who share in the vision, who understand the vision, and hopefully you have a vision so that people have that sense of belonging and commitment to something that’s a bigger purpose than their paycheck.
But as a business owner, I’m biased. My company is called People First Productivity Solutions, and it’s because I believe that the way you build the business is by building the people. You build people, as a leader, you build them by developing them, and sometimes you build them by encouraging them, pouring courage into them when the going gets tough.
Sometimes you build them by redirecting them, and helping them to see, “Here’s why we do things this way.” You also build them up by making sure you know them, and can motivate them, and help to reach them wherever they are, so that they see how their own personal interests can be realized by participating in the vision of what we’re trying to do around here.
That’s a different kind of leadership, perhaps, than command and control. It’s not about getting things done through your authority or position, instead of command and control, it’s heart and soul. At first, to make a shift there, it’s a little harder. Rules, and policies, and procedures and directives, those things are efficient.
But if you’ve got a lot of turnover, or if you’ve got people who are not fully engaged, and just sort of hanging out, and not doing as much as they could be if they applied additional discretionary effort, if you have any symptoms or signs of people not being completely committed, then the truth is it’s the emotional connection that you need.
You need them to have that. That’s the only place that additional discretionary effort comes from in a sustainable way.
I think we’re in an almost global shift from the old command and control structure throughout all of business. You’re seeing this show up in a lot of different places. It’s not necessarily a new thought. More and more the idea of a business being able to dictate to all of its employees, because the employees feared not having a job, and there were limitations in the economy there, or going away, and now people have tremendous numbers of options.
To get them engaged, I think you have to plug into all of this stuff. To me, it’s the smart way to run a business going forward, but I know a lot of people are grappling with it. I’ll be honest, I even do as well. I’m a child of the 80s, and got into the business mid-90s, and there was still a lot of command and control through all the early part of my career, and so making that shift requires different thinking, and I think that can be a challenge sometimes, and I know a lot of people try to work their way through it, and make it work economically as well.
I think these are important things. If I may, I’d like to put you on the spot. Is there a success story you can share with us, or somebody that’s taken these ideas, and really done well with them? Something that folks could relate to, so they can see how this might play out in their own world.
Absolutely. I’ll tell you the story, but I won’t name the name of the company. It’s a large, global agricultural company; they sell produce. I worked with them for a number of years on leadership development, leadership at every level for all their managers as they continue to grow globally, and they were expanding very, very rapidly, and they wanted to maintain their own core values and their vision within the company.
Their mission, they didn’t want to lose sight of that, and so that meant that leaders, as they were growing rapidly and bringing people in from outside, that means that people had to quickly understand, it meant they had to hire for those values, and embed them in people, and help them to see what they looked like in action.
And it meant that they had to be comfortable with trusting, and delegating, and getting people to be able to contribute at a high level. All of that requires leadership. Not an easy thing for a company that had been small enough at one time for everybody to be in one building, and now here they were, spread out across the world.
Their corporate headquarters had expanded into five buildings over not very much passage of time. The results were very impressive, and I’m talking about the financial results, the people results, the retention rates of their employees, their product quality, by almost any measure.
They had a phenomenal run, and then they made a shift, and for a fairly short period of time, they had a different CEO come in who was much more focused on process, and productivity and profit, and much less focused on people, and many, many things were changed.
You could read their reviews on Glassdoor, you could see biometrics of extreme turnover, low employee engagement scores, customer turnover that they had never experienced before, and a number of other factors. When they shifted away from their people first approach, things rapidly reverted to a place where they had never wanted to be in the first place.
More recently, they’ve made some changes as a result, and they’re going back to being who they set out to be in the first place, and it’s only been a few months since that dramatic second change happened, and already you can see that they’re getting back on track, because when you invest in people, they invest back in the company.
I think without a doubt, that’s true. I appreciate you sharing that on the spot there. I think it always helps having examples to help people really bring these things home, and understand how they fit. Before we wrap up, I know you’ve got some resources on your website, and I’d love for you to share with everyone where they can go, and connect with you if they want to learn more, and tell us a little bit about the resources that you have.
I do give a lot away. Over on the website People First PS, which stands for People First Productivity Solutions, People First PS, you’ll find a place where you can register for the Connect community, and you can choose if you want to be keeping up with the tools that we provide, and the blogs that we write about leadership effectiveness, or about sales productivity, or about team effectiveness, and we’ll send stuff to you.
Or you can go browse on the website. There’s a lot there to take advantage of, too. As Steve mentioned, I also founded something called the Sales Experts Channel. That’s a collection of over 150 global sales experts. We’ve got over 500 recordings, and videos, and webinars all free, and they’re all fabulous, too.
And they’re all indexed by topic, so if you’re looking for any topic that’s relevant to sales, to marketing, to owning a business, all sorts of content is there, and that’s thesalesexpertschannel.com.
Hey Steve, I also thought maybe we’d give your guests a chapter from Discover Questions, Get You Connected. Maybe the one about trust and building that quickly with buyers, if you’d like to do that? We could-
Yeah, that would be awesome. That’s really generous, thank you.
So that should get people started, and of course I’m on LinkedIn, and I like to connect, so let’s do it.
Awesome, and where should they go to get that free chapter?
I tell you what, let’s have people LinkIn with me, or email me. When you link in with me, shoot me a little message, and say, “Hey Deb, send me the book chapter.” I’ll do it. That way we have a true connection, too.
Perfect, and we will put a direct link to your LinkedIn profile in the show notes, so if anyone is looking for that, they can find it there, or I suppose, just search Deb Calvert on LinkedIn.
Perfect. Deb, thanks so much for investing some time with us today. This has been fantastic. We could probably go on, as I tell most of my guests. I could just sit here, and we could talk all day long, and I’d have a grand old time, but I know you have a busy schedule, and I have a busy schedule, so we won’t do that today, and our listeners would probably tire of it after a little while.
Thank you for being here, and really great to connect with you.
You, too, Steve. Thank you.