6 Sales Leadership Lessons I Learned From John Wooden


John Wooden, also known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” was the coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team. There he won a record 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period. While I have known about John Wooden as a legendary coach for most of my life, I was unaware of his teachings on work and life until fairly recently.

Over Thanksgiving break six years ago, I watched his TED talk and was moved by his message. I then went on Amazon and bought every book I could find about coach Wooden. It was my 10th year as a sales leader, but I quickly recognized from Wooden that I had a long way to go. As he said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Studying Wooden has forever changed me as a sales leader.

Below are the top six lessons he has taught me:

1. Redefine success.

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

Early in my career, I attended a management training course where I was told my job as a sales manager was to “get my B’s to perform like A’s, my C’s to perform like B’s, and to manage out my D’s.” I tried this for 10 years and found out it does not work. In all of his years at UCLA, John Wooden only had two superstars in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, but he still managed to win 10 NCAA titles. How did he do it? He did it by not trying to get all his players to play like Abdul-Jabbar. It would have been foolish to attempt this because they didn’t all have his skills, mentality, and size.

For some reason, sales managers are constantly trying to get all their reps to emulate the #1 rep. It doesn’t work. Wooden figured out how to have a winning season for 40 out of 41 years. It didn’t matter what team or what players he coached, they won. If Wooden were a sales manager, it wouldn’t matter what company he worked for, what products he sold, or what the economic conditions were, he would crush his quota.

2. Bring out the best work.

“Each member of your team has a potential for greatness; the leader’s job is to help them achieve it.”

Have you ever won a big deal and everyone is high-fiving you but you don’t feel that great about it because you know it was yours to win? Conversely, have you ever won a small deal that no one seems to notice but you know you did exceptional work and the win feels incredible? This is John Wooden’s definition of success at work. We feel the best about our work when we do our best work.

When you accept this definition of success, you are better prepared to overcome all the ups and downs of a career in sales. Getting every individual on your team to perform at their peak is the #1 job of the sales leader. Quotas are important, pipe generation is important, but getting each member of your team to perform at their peak will produce better results than focusing on the numbers alone.

3. Compete only against yourself.

“Stop looking at the scoreboard to see how you’re doing compared to everyone else.  Put your head down and focus on doing the little things well every day and let the results take care of themselves. If you do this for a reasonable period of time, you’ll be absolutely amazed at how far you’ve come.”

Sales reps waste unnecessary energy focusing on things that are out of their control: their quota, another rep’s territory, a competitor, etc. This takes away from delivering results. “Oh if I had her territory,” “if I had that account,” “my quota is impossible.” These are all things I have heard again and again, and they have a negative impact on performance. Our job as sales leaders is to focus each individual on doing the work and letting the results come.

4. Details matter.

“There are no big things, only an accumulation of many little things. Remove enough rivets and the wing falls off.”  

We live in a world today where the customers have never been better informed. (To learn more on this, I recommend reading CEB’s The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer.) Today’s sales reps have to be more detail-oriented than ever, because the customer knows a great deal about you before you arrive. Sales reps and sales managers who don’t manage their business in a sales force automation (SFA) tool are a dying breed. You can no longer rely on your relationships alone because you’ll be beat by a better-prepared, better-researched, and more informed competitor.

At Salesforce, we don’t have to bother checking login rates of our customer relationship management (CRM) solution, because our reps and managers know they can’t do their jobs without the level of detail the tool gives them. We drink our own champagne. John Wooden said, “Discipline yourself and others won’t need to.” Rather than being a micromanager, I try to create an environment where everyone focuses on the details, because the details matter.

5. Emotion is your enemy.

“Intensity makes you stronger. Emotionalism makes you weaker.”

Salespeople have their own emotions to fight, they don’t need an emotional leader. A sales leader needs to be consistent, and emotionalism destroys consistency. I try to be consistent in my demeanor, my expectations of my team, and so on. Emotional sales leaders tend to have shifting priorities or flavor-of-the-month management styles, which do not lead to high levels of performance. There are wins and losses and ups and downs in this career, and it is the job of the sales leader to keeps things balanced.

6. Care.

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

As a sales leader, you have to genuinely care about the success of each individual on the team. The team’s success becomes your success, not the other way around. I am sincerely interested in getting to know each person on my team.

We feel the best about our work when we do our best work. When you accept this definition of success, you are better prepared to overcome the ups and downs of a career in sales. ”

Mark Wayland | SVP, Commercial Sales, Salesforce (Formerly)
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