Step Back to Leap Forward: Why Leaders Need to Pause Often to Take Stock


Published on: August 2019

Written by: Kevin Cuthbert

The sales organization in a large technology company had a big problem. Their high turnover was killing their momentum. They were constantly in the mode of finding and developing new salespeople and getting them up to speed, only to have them depart. This was derailing both morale and sales performance.

The head of the sales function realized that this was a leadership problem and chose to invest significantly in developing greater sales management and leadership in order to turn the business around. Specifically, they embarked on an executive coaching program for their top sales leaders across the organization as a key part of their retention program. By their own calculations, this investment yielded a 900% return.

Getting out of the weeds

One of the sales leaders I coached was hard driving and detail-oriented, always deep in his own day to day activities or in those of his team. It was challenging to get him to step back from planning the next meeting or dissecting the last one to pause and take stock of his own behaviors, and the broader picture for growing the business. He was intrigued by the opportunity coaching gave him to have a sounding board to help him reflect on the bigger picture.

A key part of our work together was to help him learn to build in time for reflection, and how to use that time effectively to slow down and explore. To break the pattern of his day to day churn, we started to work on some visualization exercises. One day, he was startled to report an epiphany that he had while in the midst of one of these exercises – that by the way lasted all of 5 minutes. He said to me, “this is going to sound so strange, but at one point in the exercise you asked me to open this box, and in this box, there was this idea. I saw clearly that there is a pretty big opportunity within our existing customer base that we have been totally missing.”  He went on to say that while this opportunity wasn’t big by the company’s standards, it represented $50 million in untapped revenue. He added, “this has been in front of me 7 times in the last few months and I totally missed it!” He was dismayed and surprised that he had missed something that in hindsight was so obvious and valuable, by being stuck in the weeds.

Finding opportunity by looking with more curious eyes

Through this experience, the sales leader was able to step back and look at his situation with a different perspective. And when he did, he uncovered this opportunity that had been right in front of him all along. He learned that while he thought his job as a sales leader was to double down on running the day to day business and managing his team, in fact he couldn’t do his job without stepping back on a systematic basis.

Looking at the fray with a more curious set of eyes ended up being huge for him, and the company. He stepped in to run this new line of business, which contributed $50M in new revenue, and filled a new need in the market for the company. His view on the role of coaching changed too, as he saw the nature of the impact of small behavior changes, and the outside perspective to uncover them and help make them real.

Here are three ways to incorporate stepping back into how you lead your team and your organization.

  1. Remember the Latin phrase: Festina Lente, which translates as “make haste slowly.” Create time for yourself regularly to think more creatively about your most pressing business challenges or opportunities. Embrace the mind shift that this is a business priority, not an exercise in time management. Build time for reflection, insight, into your calendar with the same weight as other meetings. The sales leader found that once this became a discipline, it was easier to seek out the reflection, rather than letting it fall by the wayside in the daily swirl.
  2. Use the opportunity to get help from others to create time for yourself. Give some of your best and brightest the chance to do more. Delegating tasks or responsibilities to your direct reports not only makes time for you, but also provides opportunities for them to grow, do more and have more impact on the business. Make your administrator your partner in crime to help guard and protect that creative time.
  3. Seek a sounding board or an outside perspective to help carve out the time and maximize its effectiveness. Many leaders find it hard to step up and away from the day to day, and it can be challenging to turn your mind to more free-ranging thinking if that is not a behavioral strong point. You may need to try something totally different to create new habits and establish new priorities for your time and for how you operate as a leader.

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