Leading and selling

All leadership involves a kind of lying. Attack and we’ll prevail over our enemies. Work hard on this product and we’ll succeed. Join our growing community. When the leader says these things, success does not yet exist. The act of leading produces an image of success and of a path to it. The many enthusiastic acts of following create the success. If too few people follow, or follow in a very half-hearted manner, there will be defeat, failure, or no community.

Selling is not like this. To sell is to convince someone of the value of a thing that you have, so that you can exchange it favorably. You have to have the thing, and it has to deliver the value readily by itself. Great selling acknowledges this. Buy a Mac, it can do these things out of the box. The cardinal sin of selling is to sell things that don’t deliver the value that is claimed. Drink Coke and you’ll feel happy. Really? That could only be honest selling for drugs. Otherwise it’s very uninspiring leadership. If you’re active and outgoing, do fun things with others, and also drink Coke, you’ll feel happiness.

If you worked at a startup company you’ve probably done some leading disguised as selling. You’ve probably sold some services that you barely knew how to fulfil, or a piece of software that didn’t quite exist. That can be OK. You, the founder, principal engineer, etc. are not just selling. You’re asking the customer to sponsor your leadership, so that you can deliver them great value. If the customer understands the relationship, and you have the authority to lead your organization to deliver, you’re doing good. If much later you hire a VP of sales who tries to do the same, they’re misleading the customer. They’re expected to sell things that are real, and they’re not in a position to lead to create new things. In fact at the point that you hire professional sales you signal to your customers, rightly or wrongly, that you’ve moved from the visionary partner stage to the mature supplier stage.

There’s still leading for a mature company to do, but it happens at a level distinct from sales. Buy our service and it’ll keep getting better (otherwise we’ll run out of money and it’ll wither). You have to lead with the brand or the product line but sell real products to individual customers. Great companies get this right. Small companies and open source projects tend to be good at the leading part but often fail at having finished products to sell, free or otherwise. Large industrial companies often produce a steady stream of products but fail to inspire or lead.

Managers in a firm decide on risk and as such are either leading or selling within the organization. For a new venture, the honest thing is to lead. Leaders are asking the organization to sponsor the costly activity, and if there is buy-in, competent execution, good foresight, etc. then success is merely likely. Success is not assured, so it cannot be honestly sold. Someone who takes over a running business unit or department is selling. The company has a thing of value, and has to transfer some of this value to consumers in exchange for money. The blue-chip manager is therefore selling to the investors and other stakeholders the ability to convert this value to revenue. The two management mandates are radically different, and different people generally need to be appointed on either side of the transition.

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