Lead the Way

There are traits all leaders have in common, and you can be one, whether you’re at the bottom rung of the ladder right now or at the top of your game. It doesn’t take a fancy title. It just takes the right stuff. Here are tips for becoming the one people follow.

All successful leaders were once young, inexperienced and lacking in knowledge. But as inspirational author Anthony J. D’Angelo points out, “You don’t have to hold a position in order to be a leader.”

No matter what level you’re at in your career, taking a leadership stance is important to stand out from the pack. Here leaders who’ve “been there, done that” explain what qualities helped them move ahead and what they look for when hiring future leaders. Even veteran reps can learn from their advice.

Develop a Presence Beyond Your Company

Danette Gossett came from an entrepreneurial family and was naturally ambitious in her early career. She worked to develop leadership skills not only in her job, but by joining numerous organizations, such as chambers of commerce, university and economic development groups, and chapters of national organizations. She chaired committees, served on boards of directors and attended the self-development classes offered by the organizations.

“They all give great leadership information that I was hungry for, so I went to as many meetings as possible to learn,” says Gossett, who founded Gossett Marketing (asi/212200) 21 years ago. “Those opportunities have really given me a chance to not only watch how other people do it, but to hone my own skills.” At the start of her career, it was helpful to learn best practices for seemingly basic business skills such as setting an agenda, running a meeting, managing follow-up and speaking to a group.

“Get involved within the industry as well as outside of the industry,” she says. “Get yourself out there. Push yourself, personally and professionally, to grow.”

Another way to gain credibility and push your boundaries is by writing for a blog or trade journal or speaking publicly at an industry conference. “It demonstrates leadership – a person who is eager to take on the challenge and who has ideas to share,” says Marlene Caroselli, author of dozens of business books including The Language of Leadership.

Caroselli says not a lot of new employees seek those opportunities, so it’s a good way to “get your name out there.” Those activities look great on a resume, help with networking and let your boss recognize your talent. Not to mention, they help position you as an expert with clients and prospects. The one caveat is to clear writing or public speaking with management first. If you are the management, encourage your employees to engage in these activities, which can boost the company’s bottom line as a result.

“Bosses are much more likely to give a leadership project to someone who has demonstrated those kinds of skills – not only the ability to come up with good ideas, but to communicate those ideas in different forums,” says Caroselli.

Go Above the Call of Duty

One former college professor who now consults on how to improve corporate culture, communication and sales says her best advice on standing out is something some don’t want to hear. “You need to work harder and smarter,” says LynnMarie (Lindy) Earl, founder and CEO of Earl Marketing and author of Business Tips for Life.

Employees work hard at InkHead Promotional Products (asi/231159). They must in order to handle the thousands of Web visits, hundreds of phone calls and live chats the company receives each day in addition to face-to-face sales calls.

InkHead instills high standards with all employees behaving according to the tenants in the bestselling book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It begins with “Be impeccable with your word” and ends with “Always do your best.”

“We let them do it in their way with their own personality – but that’s the sales doctrine,” says Jim Franklyn, VP of sales and marketing/partner at InkHead.

Gossett advises being more knowledgeable than the next person by learning how specialty items can be used effectively, going on field trips and watching industry webinars. “Homework is key,” she says. Learn industry terminology and understand the entire process since leaders can’t just “grab a couple catalogs and head to a sales meeting.”

Also, Gossett’s first boss taught her to be prepared for meetings by knowing the answers to every question clients might ask, even unlikely ones. “That really helped me gain confidence because I went in prepared,” she says. Of course the questions clients could ask change with each client, and the markets and demographics will change too. Leaders take initiative and use tools available for learning everything they can about their clients and their clients’ target audiences.

When another sales pro, Nicole McNamee, business development manager at Boundless Network (asi/143717), was admitted to an exclusive undergraduate class where CEOs spoke to the students, she learned an unexpected leadership trait. “The one thing that I gleaned from all of these leaders is that they’re healthy and they take care of themselves – many of them had run marathons.”

That inspired McNamee to stop smoking and try marathons herself. While training for her first, she joined a team with community leaders, a great networking opportunity with people who also had big personal goals. The experience taught her that if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t successfully run a company or be a great sales rep.

Be an Influencer

“The leaders are not necessarily the people with the titles – the leaders are the ones everyone is following,” says Earl. She tells employees to notice where everybody congregates, whose office is full, or who people frequently choose to talk with. A true influencer has the ability to influence colleagues “up, down and across.” Watch these influencers so you’re aware of the traits you want to emulate as well as the traits you need to do away with.

Influencers are also the people who are proactive. “Don’t ask what needs to be done, just do it,” says Earl.

Leaders create win-win situations, keeping long-term relationships in mind, so all can be successful. One sales pro says past bosses taught him that leaders get their ego out of the way and remove roadblocks for their team.

“If you want people to respect you, you need to be willing to jump in and roll up your sleeves if there’s a project and show people that you’re willing to help out yourself,” says Kirby Hasseman, owner of Hasseman Marketing & Communication (asi/221824).

“Leadership is persuasion,” says Caroselli. “If the sales associate is truly committed to the organization, then he or she will be looking for ways to improve the status quo – maintaining the status quo is not leadership.”

Caroselli says the true visionary can see a “new and improved future” and has the ability to perfect processes. She cautions it’s wise to proceed with good ideas in a non-threatening way. “You need to get buy-in from coworkers and most especially from those higher up in the organization,” she says.

“Benchmarking, which is a carry-over from the quality movement, might be a good way to convince others of the viability of leadership idea,” says Caroselli, referring to the process of comparing your business processes to best practices from other companies.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the organization,” says Caroselli. “You can find a way to expedite, improve, enhance, simplify – and that’s where leadership is born.”

Hone Your Communication Skills

“Perception is reality,” says Gossett. “Unfortunately, if you come off as the person hiding in the corner and are not projecting confidence and understanding of your topic, then people are not necessarily going to take you seriously or give you business.”

Gossett points out leaders don’t talk gloomy. Even when business was tough during the economic downturn, when people asked how business was doing, she projected a positive attitude by emphasizing current projects that were keeping her busy.

At Lego, where Franklyn became the youngest regional manager in the history of the company, he learned a communication tool he’s used through the years. Called the “curbside conference,” a sales representative and manager discuss how a sales call was executed and its outcome. From start to finish, both the good and bad points of the call are reviewed.

“The last question that’s asked is, if you were going to do that call again tomorrow would you do anything differently?” says Franklyn, who adds it’s important to remain open to hearing how you can improve.

Communication can be a challenge today because technology and multitasking interfere with focusing.

“When you’re in a meeting, give 100% to that meeting,” says Earl. “Don’t have your cellphone out. Don’t think of what emails you have to send. Focus on the meeting. Pay attention. Look people in the eye. You will stand out because you’re going to remember what was said.”

Earl points out that being a good communicator includes paying attention to everyone, even boring talkers, letting others finish and being able to express a clear direction. Good communication also extends beyond the verbal.

“Handwritten thank-you notes are a lost art,” says McNamee. She thinks that a personal touch, done in a creative and fun way, helps leaders be remembered.

Hasseman has noticed people follow leaders who communicate positive themes and try to lift others up.

“Humor is a fantastic tool – I think people work best when they’re happy and having fun and working toward a common goal,” he says.

What Bosses Want

Gossett interviewed a number of people from the industry and some from outside before she finally found a new hire who had “that spark.”

“That’s one of the big things that I look for – someone who has some self confidence, that is outgoing, knows how to ask questions, that can be presentable and understands what that means,” says Gossett.

“One of the first things we look for is instinct – we call it the X factor,” says Franklyn. He says while companies think they can mold employees, there are certain natural traits which leaders need to have: “Do they think quickly on their feet? Are they confident but not cocky? Are they fearless? Are they goal oriented? And, this is huge for us, are they a team player?”

Franklyn says top-level performers, meaning the 6% to 7% of the people who sell $1 million or more a year, all have instinct in common. That translates into knowing which prospects should get a call-back every month, every quarter, or every year. If bosses find that type of skill in a new employee, he says, “do whatever you need to do to keep them.”

Franklyn wants people who can be “hybrid sales professionals in the 21st century” who can sell both online and in the field. He says he’s the leader he is today because great mentors invested time in his development – so he encourages others to “step up and be selfless” and help new leaders.

One pro sums up the generous and positive spirit of leaders who foster the talents of all team members: “A friend of mine once told me to spread praise around like confetti and I really agree with that,” says McNamee.