Today’s post is by Jeff Seeley, CEO of sales and leadership training company Carew International. He is a frequent keynote speaker, columnist, and blogger. Find him online or connect with him on LinkedIn.
Conventional wisdom tells us that, with a positive attitude, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. But what if we’ve been misled?
What if ignoring the bad and focusing only on the good is actually preventing us from reaching our full potential?
Sales Leadership Lessons from the “Stockdale Paradox”
This concept was presented as a primary lesson in the famous business book Good to Great by Jim Collins, in which he discusses the Stockdale Paradox, a concept named after James Stockdale, a Navy admiral and POW during the Vietnam War.
As a POW at Hoa Lo (the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” of Vietnam POW camps), Stockdale lived to recount his story of the many difficulties he endured. He recalled how he and his comrades were constantly in survival mode – every person mentally and physically battling to stay alive.
Surprisingly, the first to die, he said, were the optimists. Talk about a challenge to conventional wisdom! According to Stockdale, it’s because the optimists always had their minds set on arbitrary deadlines, such as “We’ll be out of here by Christmas…” and then, “We’ll be out of here by Easter,” rather than mentally planning for surviving the reality at hand. When release deadlines came and went, they lost all hope and died of broken hearts.
What did Stockdale do differently to make it home seven years later? He was both hopeful and realistic. He told himself he would be in prison for at least five years and set his expectations accordingly. He balanced the hope he had, of returning home, with the cold, hard reality that he was unlikely to get home anytime soon – hence, the Stockdale Paradox. In other words, he hoped for the best while taking a long-term approach to plan and prepare for the tough years ahead.
Facing Uncertainty in Tough Times
The Stockdale Paradox is applicable to careers in the sales field. A profession in sales can be brutal, and the current uncertainty only makes it more difficult. Universally, as the economy starts to reopen, we are unsure as to what lies ahead. Customers are concerned about their companies and, even more importantly, about themselves and their day-to-day lives.
We are all experiencing the personal deflation that accompanies rejection from a customer – and have felt the pain and helplessness that comes after working tirelessly to pursue a deal only to learn we’ve lost to unexpected events. In such a situation, the optimists will respond by saying, “That’s okay. I’ll get the next deal I’m after.”
As we learned from the Stockdale Paradox, although a hopeful mindset is necessary in tough situations, simply hoping for the best won’t win the next deal. Something is missing – the optimists lack a sense of reality and perhaps a plausible plan for overcoming challenges.
Sales professionals should always be able to articulate how they intend to win the deal and help their customers. Optimism without a realistic assessment and specific plan to address challenges will not close the deal. Just as it was for Stockdale in the POW camp, long-term planning for reality is the difference between optimists and realists in sales situations. It was clear Stockdale had an objective to go home, and he had a survival strategy to actually make it happen. Likewise, in these chaotic times, we have to balance our short-term optimism with a long-term strategy to address the challenges that lie ahead.
Balance Optimism with Realism to Thrive Long Term
When it comes to leading a team of sales professionals, optimism without realism can be detrimental to the business. Blind optimism will result in misled and inflated sales projections; and, without long-term, realistic planning to support our sales professionals’ goals, they will continually underperform.
As sales leaders, does this mean we should stop inspiring our sales teams to be optimistic? No. Using the Stockdale Paradox, we should use a healthy dose of realism to augment the optimism we cultivate on our sales teams – whether this realism takes the form of account strategy review, long-term planning sessions, or selling skill development for your team. Assessing your strategy is necessary for sales leaders to uncover vulnerabilities in strategy or skill gaps that repeatedly hinder your sales team.
By balancing both optimism and realism, you are preparing your sales team to reach its full potential.
To learn more about Carew International and sales skill development, visit us at https://carew.com/sales-training-programs/.