Ben Zoldan in Stories | June 14, 2016 | No Comments

Dinner at the Firehouse

Twenty years ago, when I was a sales rep, my #1 stress was my sales manager.

I hated everything I had to do for him. I especially hated our weekly team meetings. We’d start the week off by getting interrogated about our pipelines, our forecasts, our activity, and our “commits.” It was more than a waste of time; it was de-motivating. It would suck the life out of us. And the worse thing looking back was that everyone lied to each other in those meetings. But we had to do it. And I could tell that even my manager hated his own meetings.

I swore that when I was promoted to sales management, I would never do this.
But as soon as I was promoted to management, I didn’t know what else to do, so I did the same thing. Looking back, it was like that experience being a kid, feeling, “I’m never going to be as crazy as my parents when I grow up”, but then waking up one day, realizing I’ve become the very thing I disdained.

My weekly Sales Meetings were like bad sales calls. I’d call my reps in, and interrogate them the same way I’d been interrogated when I was a rep: “What do you have this week?” “The forecast?” “Pipeline?” Not surprisingly, I didn’t get straight answers either. The sales reps were just like I was: their #1 goal was to get me off their backs. Being open & authentic wasn’t an option.

There was zero safety and permission given for transparent and honest communication. It’s little wonder why I never really connected with my reps the way I could connect with my customers. But I didn’t know a better way.

A Lesson from the NFL

There was a rare, beautiful moment in the NFL this week. If you haven’t caught New York Giants’ Head Coach, Tom Coughlin’s retirement press conference, spend a few minutes listening to him reflect. If you don’t have time to watch the entire conference, just watch from the 12:00 minute mark to the 14:00 minute mark: Tom Coughlin Retirement Press Conferernce.

And if you are really short on time, here is the particular part I wanted to share:

“What has become extremely important to me as I’ve grown in this position is relationships. Relationships have become the primary objective in my career. I still have a hard time when former players, guys who we battled together, they’ve been corrected, I’ve been mad at them, they’ve been mad at me, so on and so forth, after a year or two, sometimes not even that long, they walk up to me and say, I love you, coach. When that first happened to me, I didn’t know how to respond. I was like, Whoa, wait a minute. This is a big old tough-guy business. We’re not supposed to be able to say that and do that.

 I can tell you right now it has become the source of drive for me, is that when our players, whether they’re in their career, after their career, when they come back to me and they say, Coach, I love you. They follow that up by saying they’ve become better men, better husbands, better fathers, better friends because of their experience having been a New York Giant.”

But there are deeper layers to this story that we can draw from. Here is the back story on Coughlin:

Before he was hired as the head coach of the NY Giants, he spent 30 years as a journeyman coach, bouncing around from team to team in various roles. In 2004, he becomes the head coach of the NY Giants. He came from an extreme military style background, regimented, dictatorship, managed his players as if he was in the military. He gets the head coach job in NY when he was 60 years old.

He worked under the legendary Bill Parcells, but admits that early on, he didn’t understand Parcells’ style – especially how Parcells would become tight with his players. He hated how Parcells would give special treatment to some players, and not to others. He thought teams should be run exactly like the military: coaches shouldn’t be close with the players, and treat everyone the same. Coughlin was “that” coach.

In a documentary about Coach Coughlin a few years ago, Michael Strahan, the Giants best player, shared his experience with Coughlin. Strahan talks about his first season with Coughlin – actually in the preseason of that first year, Strahan storms into Coughlin’s office and tells him it would be his last year with the team. He would leave after the season and become a free agent. And then Strahan tells him, “You are losing this team.”

But Coughlin ignores Strahan. Keeps going about his business his way. So, the team starts the season off underachieving, and the NY media is calling for the Giants to fire Coughlin. The players start a revolt in the locker room; total disarray. About a third of the way into the season, Coughlin confesses he pulls Strahan behind closed doors to have a heart-to-heart. And because the team was pretty much “done” Coughlin pleads for help from Strahan; not by choice, but for survival. And then something clicks for Coughlin.

At the age of 62, Coughlin shares how he experiences a break down. He talks about how he decides to rewire himself, relearn, learn to be personal with his players, get to know who they are personally, and what makes them tick. He learns to be more flexible, unlearns his military, dictatorship style. He learns to be more like Bill Parcells. He re-wires himself in every way… at the age of 62!

And he describes this “change” as this constant struggle for him; how fighting his own tendencies is ongoing. He talks about this transformation he goes through not as if it was “turning on a light switch”, but more as a practice, an ongoing work-in-progress. And it wasn’t easy for him.

But on the other end of this awareness, he begins by enlisting open and honest peer-to-coach communication, fosters peer-to-peer communication, which is totally antithetical to his previous philosophy. He talked about being able to see his players different, and the way he reflects in his press conference is evidence.

As we know, the Giants go onto to win 2 Super Bowls. But in his retirement press conference, he doesn’t talk about the wins or the rings, its about love and and the relationships with his players. He talks about a deep and lasting culture that comes from player-to-player connection, and player-to-coach connection. A culture of safety and love; something not synonymous with the NFL.

You Can’t Teach Old Dog’s New Tricks.

But I often hear from leaders, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Coughlin does it at 62. Before I co-founded Storyleaders a half a dozen years ago, I felt I needed to learn more about people, how we communicate and respond to each other. I found myself immersed in the neurosciences. It was an exhilarating period for me. I was exploring groundbreaking science that provided answers previously off limits in my profession: the business of Sales Training.

A lot of what I was learning began to inform me that, in fact, there is a better way; a different way. I now share what I’ve learned in my workshops; how our internal systems work, where connection, inspiration and trust come from.

Neuroplasticity; how our brains are in a constant state of re-wiring throughout our entire lives. And for me, this may be the most important piece of the neuroscience – dispelling the myth that people don’t change. We are hard wired to change; its been wildly misunderstood. So, here is a lesson that will serve sales managers well; something that eluded me when I was a sales manager.

Dinner At The Firehouse

A profession that really understands connection and relationships are Firefighters. They have long understood the value of peer-to-peer sharing, connection and institutionalized culture building. Every night, in firehouses across the country, firefighters take part in a tradition where they share stories about their day. But it’s more than just a social ritual; it’s a means by which firefighters learn from one another’s successes and failures and builds institutional memory within their departments.

Dinner is about providing everyone the safety and permission to openly share their stories, where everyone has a chance to share their mistakes and their achievements.

The goal – to make sure every single member of the firehouse has the same level of skill, but also that the group achieves connection and a common purpose. And it comes from real storytelling.

Sales Managers: what if, for starters, sales meetings felt more like the tradition of Dinner at the Firehouse vs. the typical sales meeting?

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