Transforming culture and routines - lessons from the frontline


Motivation is a very personal thing and it can differ. Succes is defined in the same way, very personal. I learned a lot about coping with different motivators and success definitions when I was a Sales Director managing a team of direct and indirect reports across the world. Main challenges I needed to cope with in my role were:

  • my direct reports were all women and I had been promoted from within
  • my indirect reports were mainly independent trainers with seemingly competing interests
  • I had no clue what Sales Directors were supposed to do.

To add to this the timing of my new career step was not ideal either as there was a big global economic downturn going and our business model was not fit to cope with the new situation.. The team preferred to work from “lists” and “piles”, meaning that in the morning when they started there preferably was a list and a small amount of work sitting at the left of their desk - and in the afternoon they had migrated this small pile to the right of their desk and ticked the boxes on the list.There was a tendency to mistrust others as they might want to be after our business and territory.

I started analyzing the situation in the team. Their days at the office, their beliefs, their connections to the work, their level of engagement. How they communicated and how they defined their contribution to the strategy of the organisation. I found Ego’s, Distrust, Jalousy, Insecurity, Uncertainty and Anxiety - as the main emotional part of the picture.

"The results were acute and immense."

In order to transform effectively I took steps to create focus and alignment, change the attitude from being negative to being positive and thinking entrepreneurial instead of risk averse. The results were acute and immense. Within one year we doubled our revenue and client base - we established a positive image within our network and the team felt empowered and motivated, with production levels increasing 100%.

Looking in hindsight what I intuitively did to make this happen can be summarized in 9 steps. The steps I took were the following:

Step 1: Align Focus

I defined 2 focus areas where I said I would rate all their activities against: Professionalism and Accessibility. I kept it simple in order to create focus.

Step 2: Secure Buy in

Everyday I checked in with the team members how they were doing and how they felt. A quick chat and personal attention, letting them know that I care and help solve problems - help them think, prioritize, vent, etcetera.

Step 3: Structure Communication

I started having weekly meetings on activities and happenings - every Monday morning - with a quick round where all could tell about their experiences and achievements of the week before. The meetings were open to direct and indirect reports. Apart from the weekly meetings I set up 1/1 sessions if needed.

Step 4: Manage Priorities and Share Responsibilities

During the weekly meetings my part of the input was the sales forecast, production overview and strategy of the organization. This helped the team to prioritize and stay engaged with the business - feel part of something bigger than just the office. It also made clear that we needed to focus on commercial activities and that this was a responsibility for all - direct and indirect reports, regardless of function or job role.

Step 5: Use Personal Strengths

Learning about the personal capabilities and hobbies helps uncover useful information about strengths and ambitions. It appeared that in my team there was a lot of knowledge about making websites and newsletters. I immediately assigned responsibilities to the team members to exploit these talents!

Step 6: Deal with Contra (counter) productive behavior

Contra productive behavior can have many shapes. I came across a variety of behaviors ranging from jealousy and direct attack to insecurity and defensiveness. One example stands out with regards to productivity: I discovered that one of my team members spent half a day looking for an email in order to show that “It was not her fault”. I decided to question this time investment in order to discuss proactive problem solving behaviour instead of reactive defensiveness. This appeared to be the start of a complete turn around in her perception - the knowledge that it was not interesting to me where the mistake originated but instead the focus needed to be on solving the problem immediately. Then later, we could look for the root cause, without blaming anybody or finger pointing and rearrange processes if needed. For her this was so liberating and stimulating that she became my best and most productive, proactive team members taking on any task with great responsibility and entrepreneurial spirit.

Step 7: Never, never, never give up - Keep motivating

During the first part of the year we were having a hard time - our main client moved Headquarters to another country and my contactperson left.. We needed to focus on commercial activities and develop a healthy pipeline. For the team as well as for the trainers this was hard as they had been focussing for years on “Implementing” and “Production” - and now they had to do a lot of work where there was no direct revenue to see. That felt like a waste of time to them. Therefore I searched the internet for some “motivational quotes” and affirmations. We printed some of them and stuck them on the wall for us to see constantly. Our favorites:

  • “Never, never, never give up” - Churchill
  • “If you are no part of the solution you are part of the problem” - Einstein

Step 8: Celebrate success

Positive responses from clients, anekdotes, quotes, targets achieved, positive feelings - we celebrated everything: tangibles and non-tangible results.

Step 9: Move Forward

Keep perspective going. You are never there - even not when you just arrived.

If you want to win as an organization you need to let your People play the Game: Engage, Empower, Perform, Enjoy together in order to establish best results and performance.

About the author

Marja van Soest Activates People and Business partnering with her clients as Executive Consultant, Master Trainer and Coach in Sales, Service and Leadership. Parallel to her business career Marja is a sports trainer specializing in In and Outdoor Cycling. Combining her passion for sports, groups, individual and organizational performance Marja developed the 4 Motivation Keys Activation Model: Engage, Empower, Perform, Enjoy empowering leaders to build a culture of Trust.

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