The Decision That Defines The Future: Lead, or Follow?
Rick Loy is a sales strategist and training specialist with more than 20 years of experience as a Senior Executive in direct selling. As an Associate with Strategic Choice Partners, Rick helps companies update their sales efforts in a way that works in today’s direct selling climate while also taking into account the quickly moving landscape from a regulatory perspective.
The Decision That Defines The Future: Lead, or Follow?
Company employees terminated because a few Distributors don’t like them. Marketing initiatives undermined and ineffective because a key Distributor would prefer a different approach. Highest level executives attempting to deal with weighty issues impacting everyone in the business, but having to give time to rumors, accusations and the activity of the “shadow government”. Sadly, these examples and more are realities in far too many companies. And, the result over time is often a fatigued company team, a field force divided and / or confused as to whom they should follow. Generally, there is a common root where these things are present: The failure of company leadership to lead.
The most consequential choice some companies face today is the decision to re-establish a healthy structure regarding the roles/responsibilities of company leadership juxtaposed with the roles and responsibilities of field leadership. Simply stated, will the company lead with vision and strength, or abdicate it’s responsibly to lead and take a subordinate role in deference to the field?
For what may have been well-intentioned thinking, some companies have ceded functional control of the business to the field leadership. In some cases the balance of “power” is so skewed toward the field that the corporation is severely limited in its ability to lead, steward and effect necessary change for the long-term wellbeing of the company. Some of this imbalance is driven by corporate fear of upsetting those in the field, and some is driven by the reality that company leadership doesn’t have sufficient experience to lead a direct-sales business. Then, some of that fear is amplified when executive leadership or ownership chooses to undermine corporate members b y yielding to or placating strong veteran field voices. When the corporation is afraid to challenge and lead the field, the vacuum will be filled by field leaders every time.
For the sake of clarity, here are working definitions for this topic:
The Field: The Distributors/Consultants/IBO’s, etc, representing the company in the marketplace
The Company: The owners, Board Members, CEO, President, Executive leadership and all company employees
This decision to truly lead is sobering for the company because tough questions have to be answered with absolute honesty and tremendous courage. Those questions include – but are not limited to…
- Which group is for all intents and purposes “calling the shots”?
- Who has practical ownership of the company messaging to the public?
- Who has practical ownership of field training?
- How does any of that impact short-term company decisions/efforts?
- How does it impact long-term sustainability for both groups?
- Isn’t the Distributor “king / queen”?
- Isn’t the corporation fully responsible for any / everything?
- What does the current regulatory environment suggest relative to these matters?
- What impact would change in these matters have on the field, company momentum and thus on revenue?
- How would a company approach resetting the table on these matters?
- Can a respectful and productive partnership be established between the two groups?
This issue is real, but often unspoken. Addressing it is a multi-dimensional challenge, likely to evoke fear / angst for all parties. The conversation is clearly not comfortable, yet the future of a company may rest on the will of ownership / corporate leadership to lead definitively while authentically valuing the insight, creativity and experience of its field leadership.
The company must genuinely respect the unique, essential role the field plays every hour of every day in the business. This is so obvious that it would seem unnecessary to mention… but just to refresh the thought: Good people work functionally as volunteers, using discretionary time, placing their reputations on the line, learning new skills and internally generating the will and energy to persist. That is their primary role. They must be celebrated and sincerely honored regularly. The company needs them, and they need the company. The common ground upon which both corporate and field stand can be rich and fertile for a creative, joyful and productive partnership. Yet, that’s not always the reality.
In his book, “Leadership Is An Art”, Max Depree gives a starting point for addressing the current situation: “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality”. Reality encompasses what is actually happening, versus what we may want to believe. What is reality today, versus what once was? How much distance is there between the public presentations of harmony and the private realities of conflict? How did this happen? And, perhaps the most important reality question: will the company own the challenges and move with integrity to correct the course, or allow the unspoken to remain unspoken, continuing down a path that will quietly undermine the best efforts of both the company and the field?
It’s a complicated and difficult situation that’s rarely addressed in the corporate offices. Yet, wisdom demands an honest look at these matters. So, back to Max Depree’s book, “Leadership Is An Art”, “the first responsibility of the leader is to define reality”.
Which leader is the focus of that statement? The CEO? The top Distributor?
Clearly, it is the CEO and the company. The company is 100% responsible for everything. EVERYTHING. The company cannot abdicate that role, ever, for any reason. Yet, it happens often, and when it does there are short and long term consequences which impair everyone’s efforts to build a strong company. Here are a few of the possible unintended consequences…
- The CEO and executive leadership forfeit the ability to truly lead
- Over time the company loses the respect of dominant field leaders
- Field leaders are emboldened to “take more ground”, such as designing and disbursing training materials, philosophies, and business practices that may in fact undermine the companies’ values and place the company at regulatory risk
- In some cases field leaders operate independent of company policies, and may somewhat exclude the company from participation in field activity
- In some cases, dominant field leaders may be so empowered that they influence company personnel decisions
- The role of the company shifts from leadership to follow-ship
- Materials, training systems and selling systems will multiply, inevitably creating disunity of messaging in the field / marketplace, and perhaps even divisions between teams in the field
- Company employees / team members will realize over time that their value is diminished, and perhaps their potential contributions are irrelevant
- Over time, the weight of accommodations and exceptions made by the company for the sake of “keeping peace with the field” render the company hamstrung, and somewhat irrelevant
How many of these consequences would it take for a company to find itself struggling?
Many weighty questions necessarily flow from the assertion that the Company must retain the stewardship responsibility of guiding the ship:
- How would a reset of roles / responsibilities be engaged?
- Is true partnership possible?
- What current or long-term issues of trust and respect must be addressed between the two groups?
- Does the company team truly understand the nuances and realities of a Distributor’s day-to-day work? If not, why not?
- Is anyone in the company experientially acquainted with what the business looks like on the pavement – level?
- Do Distributors truly understand the challenges and pressures the Company faces in attempting to protect the business and the field, all while navigating those whose voices will resist the first sign of change?
- What is the typical “insider” talk about the company from the field?
- What’s the typical “insider” talk about the field from the company?
- Who “owns” company messaging and training? What changes have to occur?
- What are realistic expectations for success in a change of this nature?
- How would a company “make the case” with the field for a reset?
- Is it even worth it?
It’s absolutely worth it, and it’s not an option in an environment where regulatory agencies are scrutinizing the channel and those who administrate the channel in their companies.
If we suppose that these things just work themselves out over time, we err at our own peril. Nothing gets better by chance; it requires focused and consistent effort. Yet, where present, these matters are impacting everything right now, and will require courageous leadership from the company to guide everyone to a place of understanding, respect and forward action. Forward action will likely involve change the field may not prefer, but it must be embraced by all if the company is to thrive.
To be crystal-clear, this cannot be about “power-plays”, egos, demands, or any signal that one group is more important than the other. Those seeds are unprofessional, unprofitable and unsustainable. The target of resetting the business in this manner is to stabilize, secure, steward and diligently protect everyone’s best-interests. A very wise man frequently said this of the company role: “We are the privileged stewards the hopes and dreams of our people.” That stewardship demands corporate leadership. Sustainable growth requires consistent leadership: “An uncertain trumpet leaves the troops in limbo.”
Thoughts on a Path Forward
1 – This is a season of significant change in the industry, filled with massive opportunity. Companies can seize the open-door to reset their “reason for being” and method of operating with the field
2 – Field respect for the Company must be intentionally strengthened.
3 – Company respect for the Field must be intentionally strengthened.
4 – A Distributor Council, formed by the company with recommendations from the field and conducted with professionalism and mutual accountability, can be the key to starting the changes noted in #2 and #3 above. Over time it can help turn many of the dynamics between company and field toward a productive partnership. A forum of this nature can bring the “under the table” talk to the “top of the table”, and that’s where durable solutions are discovered.
Trust is the basis for forward progress here, and stipulating that all participants on the Council sign non-disclosure agreements not only elevates the privilege of being a Council member, but also creates mutual formal accountability.
The content for meetings must be collaborative, the environment must be safe for all viewpoints, and promise of action on anything must be fulfilled.
For more excellent insights on this approach, review the article below, authored by my colleague, Brett Duncan: “The Right Way to Handle Distributor Advisory Councils“.
Clearly, this is not a comprehensive list of potential actions. It doesn’t need to be. If the Company makes the decision to LEAD, the pathways are wide open, and ideas will be abundant.
Final Thoughts for Now
Change is always a process; it will be here. It begins with a decision, followed by determination and disciplined action. It will take time. It will include sober conversations, great hopes, deep concerns, reluctant / rebellious voices along with enthusiastic supporters. For the field, some may leave. For company leaders, it will likely require additional learning in how to lead effectively.
Everyone will be investing time and energy to create something new. It will be a lot of work to not only “take the reins” but continue to hold them with a steady hand.
Most heads and hearts will know this shift is the right thing to do.
Yet, be aware that all the “what it will take” items above are also the typical reasons some companies avoid it.
The esteemed General H. Norman Schwarzkopf often used what he termed as Rule 14: “When put in charge, take charge”. Many reading this have been placed in-charge… check your heart and motives, set your eyes on the target, and take charge of the opportunity to steward the hopes and dreams of your people.
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