In rugby, the player with the ball can’t see his support — he can only hear them. And rugby, it turns out, can be a lot like business.
The words rang out in a rapid, loud, staccato, and even for a first-time observer of rugby, the meaning was instantly obvious.
The ball carrier, who was wrapped up by a defender and about to crash to the ground, turned to his left and tossed the ball to the safety of his teammate. The new ball carrier accelerated like a jackrabbit until he, too, was hit.
“With you! With you!”
A third player came up from behind, received the ball and took off at top speed. A few seconds later, the call came, the ball was again passed laterally and a fourth player took the ball into the end zone for a score.
The hard-hitting but elegant ballet repeated itself for the rest of the match until the home team prevailed. What became apparent early on was that every player — regardless of size, speed or function — was ready to receive the ball and move it down the field.
In rugby, since the ball only can be passed sideways or backward, the player running the ball forward can’t see his support. The “with you” is the only way he knows they are there, and he has to TRUST.
This is done almost effortlessly in sports. Why is it so much harder in business?
In companies, conflicts among sales, finance and operations (production) have become so commonplace they’re almost cliché. This problem has been fodder for the Dilbert comic strip for years.
The finance team thinks the sales team isn’t working hard enough or is spending too much to secure revenue. The operations team thinks the sales team is making undeliverable product promises or impossible delivery schedules. The sales team thinks the finance team’s projections are unreasonable and the operations team is not flexible or customer-friendly enough.
All three are fighting over the ball and scoring is difficult.
Where does fixing the problem start? You. Us. Sales.
Stephen Covey wrote, famously, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Because we are on the front line taking arrows every day, salespeople tend to be defensive when critiqued by our team members. We perceive them to be ungrateful for the efforts we’re making. This makes it hard to hear what they are saying, and oftentimes we don’t respond well. Relationships spiral downward.
What they may really be saying is “With you!” That might be better translated as, “I can help you carry the ball to profitability, but I might be blocked by something.”
Take some time to sit down with your counterparts in finance and/or operations and understand their roles and responsibilities. How are THEY obligated to the CEO? Be clear in your questions and ask specifically about constraints under which they are operating. How does it impact them when you or your team overspends or undersells?
Avoid trying to defend yourself or your department at this point — just inventory all the ways your activities impact other teams. Let them offer recommendations and get it all out on the table. You will find that everyone wants to score for the team, but they are trying to do it from their positions.
In subsequent meetings, outline how the sales team needs to be supported — you’ll find the other departments much more receptive.
Let’s not be dreamers. The conflict will not magically dissipate in one meeting. What will happen is that a channel of communication will open. It will uncover a network of support behind the sales team so strong that, if you get tackled, you have a teammate nearby to handle the ball.
Patrick Morin is a partner at BrightHammer, a team of experts that work directly with company leaders nationwide to develop and implement sales strategy, deliver targeted sales training and effect sales-oriented culture changes. Email him here, follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.