Letting Form Triumph Over Substance

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One of my favorite authors/thinkers is John Gardner. About 35 years ago, a mentor introduced me to his work about 35 years ago. One of his most profound books is entitled Excellence, Can We Be Equal An Excellent Too. I reread the book at least once a year. There is one phrase in the book that I’m obsessed with, “Do not let form triumph over substance.

Too often, I see sales people, sales managers going through the motions. They are doing the things they think sales people or sales managers should be doing, without understanding the purpose, why they are doing these things, why or if they are even important or the right things to do.

Too often, we have a picture of doing things: “We have to do pipeline and reviews because that’s what sales people/managers do,” “We have to do this many prospecting emails and calls, because that’s what we are supposed to do,” “We have to use the CRM system because my manager tells me to—but when you talk to the manager, the manager doesn’t know why,” and on and on.

Recently, I had a conversation with a manager. He was outlining things he wanted to do in the Sales Kickoff Meeting. I asked him, “Why are you doing those? Why are they important to what you want to achieve? How will they contribute to the ability of the team to achieve their goals?” He paused, then said, “Well we’ve just always done that, I thought that’s what we should be doing….”

As we talked about it, it turned out those things hadn’t produced results in the past, but out of “form,” he and the management team were doing more of the same.

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The problem is, focusing on the “form,” we can get mindless, robotic behaviors, doing the things we’ve always done, because we’ve always done them, or we have some image in our minds of what sales managers/sales people should be doing.

Too often, we stop looking at the substance of what we are doing—Why should we be doing these things? Are they the right things to do? Should we be doing different things, or doing things differently?

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Those of you who are Simon Sinek fans will recognize this as a variant of “Start With Why.”

But this is a critical concept, not just in tactical sales execution, but as we look at what we do over the long term. We are wasting our time, our customers’ time, and our people’s time just be doing things because we have always done things this way.

We have to constantly examine why we are doing these things–getting to the underlying substance.

In each interaction with customers we should think:

  • Why is this important to this customer now?
  • Why am I choosing to do these specific things for this customer or this situation?
  • Is this the most effective way to do this? Could I have a greater impact by changing my approach?
  • Does this create the most value for the customer in this interaction?

As managers, we need to think of these same types of issues with our people/teams:

  • Why is it important for them to do doing these things right now?
  • Does this help them improve their performance, producing the outcomes we expect?
  • Is this the most effective/impactful thing for them to be doing?
  • Does this help them grow, professionally?
  • Why is this important to them? What’s in it for them (to often we focus on our own needs)?
  • What should we be changing about what we do and why?
  • How can I be most helpful to each person on my team right now?
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Our customers, our companies, our markets, our competition is dominated by change/turbulence. We will not thrive if we let “form triumph over substance.”

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