Confessions of a Fired CSO

Brian Williams, PhD

Management consultants wear many hats – advisor, change agent, devil’s advocate. Sometimes we find ourselves in the role of therapist. I sat down for coffee last week with Tom, a recently fired Chief Sales Officer (CSO). Over the course of the hour, Tom shared many confessions about his recent failure. Time and distance have a way of bringing personal insight.

A frequently cited statistic notes the average tenure of a CSO is less than 24 months. Yet, this can be a misleading data-point. In our work, we see many CSO who are thriving, leading transformations and driving growth. These leaders survive beyond the two-year mark and build solid track-records of success. Others struggle, too often the victim of self-inflicted wounds. And this was very much the case with Tom, the fired CSO.

Our casual chat quickly evolved into a post-mortem on his troubled tenure. With Tom’s permission, I summarize four important learnings:

1. Don’t over-think – I often share with clients my view that the best strategy is movement. By taking one step forward, we gain new information. With new information, we adjust our plans and continue forward progress. A misstep every so often is better than being stuck in status quo, waiting on the “perfect” plan.
 
Tom confessed that he wasted his entire first year attempting to design the perfect sales transformation. A sharp thinker with an MBA from a top school, Tom obsessed over Gannt charts. He endlessly tweaked his implementation timeline and sequencing. All the while, sales results continued to deteriorate. He lost the confidence of senior leadership and the field during all this planning. Originally hired as a catalyst for change, Tom came to be seen as “all-talk” and academic.
 
A word of advice to any new CSO: Don’t wait on the perfect plan. Balance big-picture thinking with quick wins. There will always be unknowns as you move forward. The best way to surface and address hidden issues is to take action.
 
2. You can’t always be the nice guy – Like many outsiders hired for a top job, Tom inherited his management team. These individuals weren’t necessarily “bad” people. They were in their roles because – at one point – they were considered top performers.
 
But times had changed. Sales results were trending down, and Tom was hired to shake things up. Like it or not, there is one ugly truth of organizational change: Those who built the current state are ill-equipped to lead the move to the future state. Tom was slow to make hard personnel decisions. Time dragged on. The incumbents didn’t undermine Tom outright. But their lingering presence sent mixed messages and sowed doubt about his plan.
 
New CSOs should quickly assess their team with healthy skepticism. Are these folks capable of fresh thinking and new ideas? Can they help you dismantle something they themselves created? Respect institutional knowledge, but move rapidly to put the right people in the right seats.
 
3. Maximize time in the field – Corporate headquarters can be a comfortable retreat. Wood-paneled boardrooms, hushed hallways leading to private offices, corporate staff at your call. Pretty soon, a new CSO’s calendar is filled with meeting after meeting. Involvement in one enterprise task force quickly leads to more steering committees and so on.
 
A critical responsibility of the CSO is being the voice of the customer. New CSOs are hired to bring a different view and to drive the sales team in a new direction. They must be “anti-corporate” in their thinking. And the best way to ensure this happens is by spending time in the field.
 
Tom now understood that he spent far too much time in his corporate office. His calendar was jammed with things that certainly seemed important – often at the request of the CEO. But these things represented major opportunity costs. Tom lost precious time by not learning the reality on the ground. During his first 9 months, Tom visited only a handful of branch locations, field reps and customers. Once Tom started to prioritize field time, his view of the issues completely changed. But by then, it was too late.
 
4. Don’t go it alone – There’s often no shortage of voices coming to new CSOs with ideas and suggestions. It’s easy to get lost in conflicting data and perspectives. The challenge is filtering through the clutter, discerning fact from fiction.
 
Tom told me he felt whipsawed. He alternated between the isolation of his own “gut” thinking and the deafening echo-chamber of his legacy team. He failed to build trusted relationships with functional leaders in IT, HR, and Marketing. And, despite his past successful experiences, he resisted engaging an outside consultant. He feared hiring a consulting firm would make him look weak. When he finally decided it was time to bring in external support, budgets had tightened. His request was denied.
 
Newly hired CSOs have a window of opportunity to build functional partnerships. They should also proactively request budget for the support they will need to execute their plans. One successful CSO we know has two demands before accepting a new position. The first is a consulting budget to fund a complete salesforce assessment. This project establishes the objective fact-base for building the new sales strategy. Second, he demands enough budget to bring the CRM system up to par. Tom now accepts that he wasted the early leverage he had during his honeymoon period.
 

It’s a raw irony of life that we learn the most from our failures. New CSOs can choose to not be another depressing tenure statistic. It all starts with a few early, smart decisions.

Contact us to hear more lessons learned from successful new CSOs. For those sales leaders in need of a coffee-fueled therapy session, the first cup is always on us.

 

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.