Undoubtedly, The Beatles were a successful band. But was there more than talent at work to help build their success? Malcolm Gladwell has written some of the best selling non-fiction books of the 21st century. They include ‘Blink’, ‘Tipping Point’ and more recently, ‘Outliers’, which examines some of the factors that contribute to personal success.
One of the interesting points which Gladwell highlights is that there are sometimes aspects beyond an individual’s control which play an important part in success. These can be environmental, cultural or historical. And a second point is that there are also actions which an individual can take to increase their chances of success – despite the circumstances they find themselves in.
As salespeople our success is measured openly every month – and if there are things we can do (or not do) to increase our chances of success, we’d be wise to do these things. This short article will see what we can learn from Gladwell’s book – and then provides some actions we can take to apply these insights in our sales world.
Before we look at what we can do – let’s quickly look at one of the examples Gladwell cited regarding external factors which impact success but which are beyond our control (or are they?).
Sales lessons from junior hockey players
Ice hockey is the national sport of Canada – and has strong junior competitions from a young age. Like many junior sports, the better players have an opportunity to play in regional competitions as well as local competitions. By their mid to late teens, players are beginning to emerge who will go on to play professionally. It would be reasonable to assume that a regional representative team of the best 16 year olds would have a spread of birthdays across the 12 months of the year. This was not the case for a recent set of teams examined. In fact – 70% were born in the first half of the year (January to June) – and the remainder in the second 6 months. This seems surprising – given that by sixteen, many boys would be of a similar skill level and physical maturity across their peer group.
Why has this happened? And what does it mean for success?
A Canadian psychologist – Roger Barnsley – first drew attention to this phenomenon of relative age in the mid 1980s. It’s not that boys of age 16 or 18 are particularly different in abilities – the reason is that boys of 9 and 10 are. The cut-off age for being selected for rep teams is January 1. So a boy turning 10 on that date would be competing for selection with other boys who are also turning 10 much later in that calendar year – and there is a physical difference between boys of this age. But – shouldn’t this even out by the later teen years? Theoretically, perhaps, but by then a type of self fulfilling prophesy has set in. The older boys when selected in the first rep sides receive better coaching, play more games, and play with and against better players. In this environment it’s understandable that they will continue to develop their skills – and be selected as 11 year olds, then 12 year olds and so on.
So – in this environment – success is skewed based on age, not talent. The lesson is that – if we want to ensure we get the best talent and give people an even opportunity to succeed – we need to ensure that artificial barriers are not placed in front of people. Often these barriers are hard to see form the inside and can be processes that have been developed over time. Rarely is the intent to skew talent development –after all, the coach of any elite team would want to see all potential stars be given the opportunity to shine.
Some lessons for sales managers:
- Ensure that all team members are given opportunities to display and develop their skills and abilities. Tailor development programs to suit individual experience and skill levels;
- Provide ample opportunity for all to work in environments where they can display their talent. All territories are not created equal – and not all product categories provide the same opportunities. Especially for newer team members – ensure opportunities are fair;
- Don’t judge performance too quickly. Expertise needs time to develop – many managers have unrealistic expectations of what salespeople (especially new salespeople) can achieve in short time frames. And early success can simply be due to blind luck – be wary of quick comparisons between peer groups.
Some lessons for salespeople:
- Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where the odds are against us – despite our best efforts. In the hockey example, some younger kids were doing their best, but their chances against taller, faster and more skilled players were simply not even. So – don’t be too hard on yourself by making unrealistic comparisons to more successful performers.
- However, don’t become a victim. Instead, look for ways to develop skills to become the equal of better performers. Work on product knowledge, communication skills and market understanding. Get a coach – and find a mentor.
- Be realistic about your products and your organisation. Whilst not making quick or emotional decisions, look to work with the best in the business – it makes a difference.
So – the environment can conspire against. And sometimes we can do things to help overcome these obstacles – and sometimes we can’t. But is there anything else we can do to help us be successful in our endeavours?
According to Gladwell there is.
As a general rule successful people have worked hard to make their job look easy. And it usually takes about 10,000 hours of effort to become a master practitioner. Gladwell looked at what separated peak performers from others – in the fields of music, sport and business – and whilst talent is a factor, a bigger factor for sustained success is doing the hard yards and developing skill.
Sales lessons from The Beatles
Overnight success in highly competitive artistic endeavours is rare. The suddenly ‘new’ actor has often spent many years doing support roles and practicing their skills before being selected for a major role. It’s rare for a chess master to emerge before having 10 years senior experience. Mozart wrote his best music later in his career.
And The Beatles themselves attribute much of their later success to the years they spent playing hours on end in the clubs of Hamburg early in their career. The Beatles began as The Quarrymen, playing skiffle and fronted by John Lennon supported by some school friends. Over the next four years, the group played in and around Liverpool, and eventually morphed into The Beatles. By 1960, Lennon together with Paul McCartney and George Harrison were the core of the group. The band played mainly covers of popular songs – but the song writing partnership of Lennon-McCartney was beginning to develop. Over the next couple of years, Ringo Starr would become the fourth member of the group, replacing Pete Best behind the drums. The other regular member at this time – Stuart Sutcliffe – left the band in 1961.
By the end of 1960 the band was established in Liverpool, and started to look further afield. They were booked to play the first of what would become a series of residencies at a number of clubs in Hamburg over the next few years. The club area in Hamburg was also the red-light district – peopled with a colourful array of characters. The clubs provided free music – but expensive beer. Patrons expected entertainment – and lots of it.
The Beatles were later to say that this period in Hamburg was their ‘apprenticeship’, where they learned to play – and where they learned to work a crowd. It was common for the band to play 4 to 5 hours a night, seven days a week during their visits. According to Lennon:
“We had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing. There was nobody to copy from. We played what we liked best and the Germans liked it as long as it was loud.”
And their playing did improve – enough for them to be able to make their first recording. Toward the end of their time in Hamburg, their first hit – ‘Love Me Do’ – was recorded and released. And the rest – as they say – is history as The Beatles went on to become one of the most – if not the most – successful pop bands of the last 50 years. The point of this story is simple – it takes time and practice to become good at whatever we choose to do. Talent alone won’t translate into success.
Your 10,000 hours
As salespeople, sales managers and business people we need to practice and refine our craft. 10,000 hours is a lot of time to invest – so we need to invest wisely. It’s not much use doing the same thing over and over – we need to actively plan and develop our knowledge, skills and ability to perform at our best and achieve the results the we and our organisations are looking for.
Before you look to build a personal development plan, here are some key questions to answer to see if you are on track to become the master of your chosen vocation:
- Do you have short, medium and long term career goals?
- Is your current selling role serving your longer term career goals?
- Does your current employer offer a career path that is attractive to you?
- Do you have the knowledge, skills, abilities, resources and contacts to perform your current role at its peak?
- Do you have the knowledge, skills, abilities, resources and contacts to perform your (anticipated) future roles at their peak?
Ultimately, your success will be defined by you – not others.
If you don’t have a clear vision of what you want your career to look like – best to do a little soul searching and find out what’s important to you and what you want to achieve in your short journey through this life. These things can always change –and will often be impacted by circumstances beyond our control. However, if you don’t have a rough idea where you want to go in life and what you want to achieve, it’s very hard to plan your own development.
Assuming that you do have a plan – does your current position serve to reach your goals or not?
If not – back to the drawing board for you too. If your current role isn’t serving to achieve your personal goals – for any reason – reassess your situation. Again, don’t make quick decisions – but do look to find a role – either within your organisation or without – that does serve your longer goals. Do this as soon as practicable – given your own personal situation – but don’t procrastinate.
Assuming your current sales role does support your career goals, then you need to assess the gaps in your knowledge and skill set which you need to fill in order to achieve your goals. If they lie outside your sales role – plan and work to develop the knowledge you need, the contacts you need and the resources necessary to move forward. Then – continue to make small steps to achieve your goals. Be realistic and prepared to adapt.
And in relation to your sales role, begin your development plan by answering these questions:
- Is your product knowledge the best it could be?
- Is your knowledge of your own organisation strong enough to present it in its best light?
- Are you strongly connected with key influencers in your organisation?
- Is your industry and market knowledge the best it could be?
- Are you connected with key influencers in your industry and market?
- Do you have the general business knowledge to deliver value for your clients?
- Do you have the insight to view the world from your customer’s perspective – and from the perspective of their customer?
Answer these questions honestly, rate which are the most important to work on, then build a written development plan to bridge the gaps. Ensure you spend the next 10,000 hours learning things that will help build your success.
Discuss your plan with successful peers and managers you trust – and look for advisors to help you quickly fill the gaps. And get a good coach. It’s worth the investment.
Good luck on your success journey.
Find out more about Malcolm Gladwell and his books (including ‘Outliers’) here:
And if you’re interested in their early years and what the Beatles were up to during their time in Hamburg (including more quotes from John), you’ll find some good stories here:
Thanks for reading this post – Paul Sparks, Sales Effectiveness Australasia. “Taking you beyond sales training and keeping you informed about the latest ideas, trends, innovation, research & best practice in professional selling and sales management”
If you would like to connect with Paul Sparks please email paulsparks [at] saleseffectiveness.com.au