“We need to get our sales floor some kind of win,” the Chief Revenue Officer said hopefully. It was our last sales leadership team meeting of 2020, and she was focused on their pandemic-afflicted lead flow, still down approximately 25 percent from a year earlier.
Fewer leads meant fewer conversations with prospective clients. Fewer conversations meant fewer closed deals. And fewer closed deals meant lower earnings for salespeople, decreased morale, and an increasing risk of losing high performers to other firms.
Although I understood her point, I disagreed with her focus on the next win.
The economic drivers decreasing lead flow and the ability to solve for more leads weren’t factors she and her sales leadership team could control (this isn’t usually the case, but for this particular business, it was). But her rationale wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, “waiting and wanting” is a common orientation for human beings in general—and for leaders in particular.
We tend to focus on what we think or hope is just over the horizon: the next big deal, a second date, our first million dollar quarter, or whatever other thing or result we want. Here’s the problem: this “wanting focus” occurs at the expense of appreciating what we already possess, of acting on what we can control right now, and of countless other performance and morale crushing maladies.
Today, we’ll dig into the very real costs of “waiting for the next win” and outline three strategies to avoid this all-too-common trap for well-intentioned leaders.
The Costs of Waiting for the Win
We’re programmed to believe it’s optimistic to look forward to the next win. And optimism is good, right? Not so fast! Like all things, optimism can be beneficial in moderation, but unbridled optimism in the face of contrary evidence demoralizes us, particularly the up-down-up-down emotional whiplash from hope to disappointment cycled over time. So, no, optimism doesn’t serve us as universally or as often as we think.
Well how about pessimism, then? Clearly, a pessimistic perspective won’t keep you and your team focused and motivated. There’s often whiplash here as well: the oscillation from pessimism to an occasional advancement, which creates hope, back to pessimism over time. (As an aside, there is a place for pessimism in leadership—but I’ll save that for an article on humility and sound decision-making).
So, if both optimism and pessimism are off the table as governing principles for your primary outlook, what’s left?
Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking American military officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent eight gruesome years in the “Hanoi Hilton,” and was tortured over twenty times. Yet, by his own account, he emerged from the prison camp stronger than he went in. After he returned home, he explained how he survived and why both optimists and pessimists were the first ones to die in the camp: the pessimists had no hope, and the optimists died of broken hearts—both gave up as their visions of safe release were perennially dashed.
Admiral Stockdale took a different tack to survive. He held onto two concepts: an awareness of the brutal reality of his situation, balanced with the knowledge that when he eventually emerged from the camp and regained his freedom, the experience would make him stronger. Author and business thinker Jim Collins shared his story and named this powerful mental model the Stockdale Paradox in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.
Optimism and pessimism tend to produce costly oscillating emotional ups and downs of hopes and disappointments. The emotional whiplash of those peaks and valleys can be exhausting, and even deadly as Admiral Stockdale recounted.
Meanwhile, Stockdale was a realist. Realism may not always be pleasant, but it’s more consistent and predictable over time, making it a far better option for leaders than the ever-oscillating emotional whiplash of optimism or pessimism.
Now let’s explore this from your team’s perspective. Employees in organizations that seesaw between optimism and pessimism find themselves feeling as if they’re blindfolded on a rollercoaster ride that never seems to end—all while waiting for some future positive event. And yet, they’re expected to come to work motivated each day and perform.
Worse, as a leader, you can be blind their pain. Your focus on the future win actually prevents you from grasping the reality of how your team feels right now. And that prevents you from doing a crucial part of your job: understanding and caring for your team, both individually and collectively. When that doesn’t happen as it should, you face a whole host of consequences, including decreased morale, lower engagement, and increased flight risk.
Plus, you cannot possibly be the leader you aspire to be while your team is on the ride of their lives (and not the good kind!). Waiting for the win subtly erodes the time that should be invested in people and relationships—ultimately at everyone’s expense.
According to plenty of research—and perhaps also your own experience—the leader you believe you are today is the one directing the unconscious forces that affect all of your decisions: your thoughts, habits, and beliefs. For example, your ideal self may be a business superhero or a respected CEO building a revolutionary company, and yet there are days when you can’t fix a simple problem or feel more like an amateur than a fearless leader. Experiences like these cast serious doubt on the notion that you have it all together, leaving you with the sense that everything could be falling apart.
We all have moments that remind us of the duality of how we envision ourselves versus where we feel we are in the present:
At its core, this disparity is an issue of integrity, or wholeness. We aim to be one way, and yet feel another. Because we operate in a culture in which many of us have been conditioned to conceal our very human insecurities—our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and uncertainties—the dissonance is inevitable.
The problem is that the person you feel like you are today is the one dictating all your thoughts, habits, and beliefs—the unconscious forces behind all of your decisions and actions. That’s the person driving your bus. When you are unsure of yourself and your abilities, you’re more likely to head in the wrong direction, often with the wrong people on board (for more on this and what to do about it, check out my first book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done).
If you’re a leader who is waiting for the next win, you’re probably feeling unsure, ineffective, and/or nervous about your own capabilities. That means that those feelings are dictating your decisions and actions today. That’s hardly the foundation for strong leadership! Moreover, as I say all the time, there are no secrets in any organization—so rest assured your team senses and also shares your insecurities.
Although the costs are formidable, you can counteract your tendency to wait for the win, accomplish more, and improve your experience and efficiency—and that of your team.
Three Strategies to Avoid Waiting for the Win
Celebrate Your Team’s Bright Spots
I recently wrote about the importance of recognizing and learning from bright spots, significant wins, accomplishments, or advancements like fully implementing a new software package or exceeding a revenue target. Bright spot achievements are typically created by a handful of causal patterns–whether thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors—and provide insight into what worked. Noting them enables teams to “double down” on the productive patterns to build on their success.
With that in mind, let’s return to the client whose story I shared at the outset of this article. My client, as it turns out, had accomplished some incredible things throughout 2020, even as the pandemic raged. They retained all of their performing employees, launched a new product with tremendous upside, improved the sales team’s closing ratios (for the leads they had), made massive investments in technology upgrades to increase sales and take even better care of their customers, and more.
Although the sales leadership team “knew” all of these things, they deemphasized them and chose instead to focus obsessively on finding the next big win! As the conversation progressed during our quarterly meeting, they saw a clear opportunity to reframe their bright spots and use them even more proactively to celebrate the team’s significant (and these were certainly significant!) achievements.
You can—and should—do the same. Implement a bright spot ritual and be sure to share your bright spots liberally with your organization. They will also point you toward what you can control, particularly during uncertain times.
Act Today, Within Your Locus of Control
Locus of Control refers to your beliefs about what you can or can’t directly control or influence. When you feel helpless, you are surrendering to an external locus of control; that is, you don’t believe you have the capability to meaningfully change your circumstances. An internal locus of control, on the other hand, arises from the belief that it’s within your current power and ability to effect change, given the resources you have right now.
I’ve never seen a team that couldn’t find anything to do within their locus of control—even in dire circumstances.
In fact, my client searching for their next big win was already doing an excellent job advancing all sorts of things in the business by acting, consistently, within their locus of control. This is where so many of their bright spots came from! The problem they faced was that, while they were acting and accomplishing, their focus was fixed on what they didn’t want (the pressure to get the next big win), rather than on what they wanted (advancing the business as best they could to prepare for an eventual rebound in lead flow).
They were missing opportunities because, in the shadow of the giant, elusive future win, their many other accomplishments went largely unnoticed and undercapitalized.
Focus on What You Want
Your emotional state is reflective of your focus. For example, when you’re focused on what you want—like advancing the business to prepare for a rebound in lead flow—you tend to feel positive emotions, whereas when you’re focused on what you don’t want—such as the pressure associated with securing the next big win—you tend to feel negative emotions.
Focusing your attention also primes your brain’s reticular activating system to seek elements associated with that particular idea or thing. For example, if someone you know buys a red car, you’re likely to begin noticing red cars everywhere. What you choose to focus on grows in importance to you. It also influences your outcomes.
You can use the focus-emotion connection to your advantage. Whenever you feel a negative emotion like fear, shame, or anxiety, pause and ask yourself, “Where is my focus right now? Am I concentrating on what I want, or what I don’t want?”
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that whenever you experience a negative emotion, you’re focused on what you don’t want. And that’s clearly counterproductive for an achievement-oriented leader!
When you catch yourself feeling negative emotions, adjust your focus toward what you want. This emotional hack keeps you on track and more productive. It also makes you a more effective leader and coach for your team, as you share this technique and help them see how their own negative emotions can be used to guide themselves back on track.
For a deeper dive into how to capitalize on the hidden power of emotions, click here.
Actor Keanu Reeves once said: “The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.” This quote begs two simple, yet powerful questions: What are you paying attention to as a leader? And what are you willing to do about it?
It’s easy and tempting for well-intentioned leaders to focus on and wait for the win. But as we’ve explored, it’s a problematic premise that damages the organization and your credibility without you even realizing it.
Just like my client, you also miss opportunities to advance the business right now as you wait (and wait, and wait…) for tomorrow’s win to come.
Here’s a recap of the three strategies that will move you beyond waiting for the win:
“The simple act of paying attention can take you a long way.” –Keanu Reeves
Attention is the ultimate antidote to “waiting and wanting.” When you focus yourself and your team on these strategies, you’ll be on your way to more advancement and success—right now.
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