The Great Fail…


Success and failure go hand and glove – whether you like it or not. Even the best fail. Even they keep score of both their successes and their failures.

There is another video from Michael/Nike which goes on to say:

Maybe I made you think my highlights started at the free throw line, and not at the gym…Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God given gift, and not something I worked for every single day of my life…Maybe I made you think that every shot I took was a game winner.’

It’s really easy to look at successful people and to quickly assume they don’t fail – that they have the Midas touch. As a result of being viewed as successful, when they do fail – it is an anomaly. That success is their ‘normal’. The reality is, despite the hours of practice, coaching and visualisation, the best fail. And sometimes often.

As Winston Churchill put it:

Success is going from failure to failure without a loss in enthusiasm

The difference is they don’t make excuses because they fear failure, they simply accept that it is a possible outcome. The biggest difference is what they do to maximise their chances of success and learn from when the don’t. What you often don’t see them doing. We see our sporting stars on the court or field – but seldom do we see the hours they spend in the gym, watching their own games, watching their competition play, practising…we only see the outcome of it.

As Michael Jordan put it – it is very easy to assume successful people are naturally talented rather than worked hard. To paraphrase this in ‘excuse language’ – why should I bother trying as I am not as talented as they are?

In sales, a successful sales person is often viewed as ‘natural’, ‘lucky’ and similar adjectives. But is this about them or about the other person providing excuses as to why they aren’t successful or even trying?

So how do the successful become and stay successful? It isn’t luck or natural talent. Successful people aren’t consistently successful without hard work, self reflection, adaptation, support and growth. Whether in sports or professionally. Michael Jordan has 10 rules for his success which can be equally applied to our professional lives….

  • Rule #1: Keep Working Hard
  • Rule #2: Ignite the Fire
  • Rule #3: Be Different
  • Rule #4: Fail Your Way to Success
  • Rule #5: Have High Expectations
  • Rule #6: Be Positive
  • Rule #7: Be Who You Were Born To Be
  • Rule #8: Have a Vision
  • Rule #9: Stop Making Excuses
  • Rule #10: PRACTICE!

Quite frankly, we could close there as they are a pretty robust set of rules….but what does this mean in action for someone in sales who wants to succeed? How can you put these in to action on a daily basis?

Success starts with practice, not with closure

Like sport and many things in life, success in sales is measured by the outcome, not the input. But also like sport, success in sales comes from what you’ve done up to that point. Many sales people despise practice (does the word ‘role play’ or ‘video’ break you out in cold sweats?). Why is this? More than likely because it is uncomfortable – that we are forced to realise that we have flaws to work on. Because we are judged – by others, and often, and more importantly, ourselves. Well guess what, whether you practice or not, you are being judged anyway…by your client. Do you want them to be the first and only judge of your performance? We’ve all seen those cringe worthy auditions on American Idol of the ‘shower singers’ – don’t be that person with your clients (of course, I exaggerate for effect…I hope).

Natural talent is realised (and maximised) by hard work

Yes, arguably certain personality types and innate skills make selling easier. But none make success a certainty. The old saying goes:

Maybe on the school yard, the child who a ‘natural sprinter’ was able to win without trying – in the work place this is no longer a workable strategy. Regardless of your ‘talent’, there is always someone out their working hard to win your clients and using every ounce of their discretionary effort to deliver them superior outcomes.

This is where having a growth mindset comes in – the belief that abilities and intelligence can continually be developed

The talent/skill you have today isn’t enough for tomorrow. It isn’t fixed or finite – it is fluid. If you don’t use it – you get left behind. It is realised and can be grown through hard work and practice.

Remember, you practice as you play – so work hard with both.

(Re)Assessing yourself

It is almost impossible to find a professional athlete that doesn’t have a coach, often more than one. Same goes in most CXO positions. Why? It forces constant assessment and reassessment of yourself. It also externalises it and means is needs be to faced. Athletes dissect each performance – good and bad. They watch video footage, assess statistics. All of this is focused on honing their strengths and minimising/eliminating their weaknesses. Again, using a growth mindset, even if your skills are good – they can always be better.

This is a sales leaders job – to help your team review and refine themselves. You should be at meetings observing, preparing, briefing – working across all facets of your teams skill base to help them improve, grow and be more successful. As a sales person, you need to be hungry for this feedback to improve. This is Jordan’s Rule #5 in action – have high expectations of yourself.

Most importantly, you and your team need to have a feedback culture. Where it is asked for, readily received and acted on – internally and externally.

Reviewing your competitors

Much the same as looking inward – you need to look outward. Professional athletes and teams spend valuable time on assessing their competitors – so should you in sales. Knowing where they are strong and weak relative to you is important. Strategies need to adapt based on the environment you are operating in. Your competitor may have particular product/services strengths in areas you don’t, or relationships you are yet to form – you can’t ignore this. Do you know your competitors? As a sales person, do you know the other sales person as, being individual, they will sell uniquely to you and, as a result, will get different reactions and outcomes. Do you know who you’re selling against? Do you spend anytime here?

Having the right equipment

As good as your skill level is, some things can be limited by the tools you have at your disposal. In sales, do you have the right relationships, support, collateral and other facets required to help you succeed? Do you know who to call when you don’t have the answer for the client? Do you know what to do when something goes wrong? Do you have access to the right information at the right time and in the right format? Do you have the right team in behind you, fully engaged, to deliver the promises you’re making?

Do you use them consistently? Do you prepare the same for every meeting? Or follow up? Is your pre-game ritual the same each time? Successful sales people can be automatons in this regard – sticklers to routine in an almost superstitious manner. Watch Djokovic pre-serve bouncing the ball, or Nadal with his towel. Quirks yes, but they remove distraction and focus them on what is coming next. They are getting everything in alignment. What do you do? Or is it seat of pants and hope for the best?

I’ve used the quote before from Abraham Lincoln, but if you’ve got 6 hours to cut down a tree, ensure you spend 4 of it sharpening the axe. Are your tools sharp?

Visualise the Outcome

The big question – why are you sitting in front of that client/prospect? Why? What is the outcome you have in your minds eye? Here is where we diverge dramatically from the sporting analogy as, unlike sport, the person sitting opposite you isn’t the competition. They aren’t someone you conquer. So, next question, do you believe your outcome is the same as that of your client/prospect? Should it be? Successful people are very good at visualising the outcome they expect to get and clarifying that of their clients. Again, getting everything in alignment.

The reality is you need to know why you are in front of the client – short, medium and long. Sure, the short term solution may be to ‘fix the problem they have’. The medium term solution may be ‘ensure they are happy and loyal’ – but what is your long term purpose? Why do you want this client/prospect? Not knowing this means you are doomed to completing transactions/deals.

Enjoy the game

Successful sales people enjoy what they do. Personally, I struggle with the concept people are in sales, hating it. It makes no sense. If you don’t like it, how can excel at it. How can your clients can superior outcomes? Why would you bother improving yourself at something you don’t like?

Passion is undoubtedly linked to success in the long term.

First Learn To Fail

Out of all of this comes the key aspect of Jordan’s ten rules – in order to succeed, first you must learn to fail (and learn from it). As you stretch yourself, failure is inevitable, you can’t stop it – but you also can’t let it stop you. In fact, it is a barometer of effort (provided you’re not repeatedly failing at the same thing). As Jordan is quoted:

Sure, you can limit failure by not stretching yourself outside what you know or not even giving it a go. But whilst you might not fail at what you didn’t try – haven’t you already failed by not even trying? Growth comes from being outside our comfort zone.

The Great fail. Often. With alarming regularity actually. But they never use it is an excuse? Are you?

I started with video on Jordan and it seems fitting to end with on:


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