Guest author Alan Luce is Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners (SCP), a consulting firm that provides strategic support and services to help today’s direct selling companies thrive.
Alan is a US DSA Hall of Famer, and member of the DSEF’s Circle of Honor. He’s served in executive roles at Tupperware, PartyLite, DK Family Learning and other companies, and has been a part of launching more than 30 direct selling companies over his career.
Guest post by Alan Luce
Winning Back the Trust
In times of change, companies often find themselves at odds or even in an adversarial struggle for dominance with their field sales leaders. There are many reasons why these divisions occur, including declining sales, changes of ownership (especially when the founder (s) sell out or retire), and rising competition from other gig/part-time income opportunities.
These divisions lead to a lack of trust and belief on the part of the field sales leaders, and will obstruct, if not outright sabotage, any efforts to reverse or correct the situation that fueled the divisions in the first place. How does the company management team rebuild that trust and regain a productive working partnership with the field sales leaders? The answers lie in effectively employing the following tactics: Accountability, analysis, transparency, moral suasion and, most important of all, recognizing that your top field leaders are your partners, not your direct reports in a traditional corporate hierarchy. Let me say that again: Partners, not employees who report to top management!
#1 = Accountability and Equality
Top managers are often reluctant to accept any responsibility for service breakdowns, product quality, declining sales or failing to adapt to a changing market environment. Perhaps this reluctance is driven by the “never admit mistakes” positions that being a public company often dictates how public companies communicate with shareholders and investors. Direct selling companies, whether public or private, are different. The sales and distribution of our products to end-user customers is done almost entirely through our independent sales force. And the top leaders of that sales force are powerful figures that have risen to the top or our compensation plans and have been promoted, recognized and publicized as exceptional leaders who all the independent sellers should strive to emulate. It has been the company that has put them on the podium and sung their praises. They are not the equivalent of a wholesaler’s retail outlet. Direct selling field leaders see themselves as of equal importance to the success of the business as the corporate leadership. The relationship is more like that of partners in the enterprise.
Company management must recognize and respect that the field leaders see themselves as equal to, not subservient to, the top company management. One of the surest ways to begin to reestablish trust with the field leaders is to call out and accept responsibility for any failures or mistakes the company has made. This includes failure to anticipate changes in the market environment. It is important that the corporate team accept a share of responsibility for the current toxic atmosphere with the field leaders. Any conversation between equals will go better when both parties accept their share of responsibility for the situation. Generally, if the corporate team starts off by holding themselves accountable, it opens the door for the field to accept responsibility for their part of the problems.
#2 = Analysis & Transparency
It is important that the company conducts a full and complete analysis of the company performance, the impact of market place changes and whether the competitive climate for customers and prospective independent sellers has changed. This is one area where the company has a significant advantage over the field leaders in terms of business analysts, whether in house or engaged third party experts. Once this analysis is completed and conclusions are reached, it is very important that the analysis behind each conclusion is fully shared with the field leaders. They want to feel that they are helping formulate the strategies and tactics to overcome the issues revealed by the analysis. They want to be participants in the discussions and decisions, not simply an audience. The more they feel dictated to, the less trust and belief the field leaders will have.
#3 = Moral Suasion
Effective leadership of independent field leaders is more a matter of moral suasion than corporate authority. This is often the hardest thing for corporate leaders who do not come from a direct selling background to come to understand. You cannot order the field leaders to follow your recommendations. You must persuade them to accept your recommendation or point of view. Any time company management falls back on any type of “I’m the boss and you will do as I say!” or any other type of expression of company authority over the field leaders, the company has lost the argument and fostered the distrust you are trying to overcome.
Using persuasion and reasonableness with ideas supported by the analysis takes time, patience and persistence. Many corporate top managers are not used to having to persuade rather than order. If you want to overcome distrust and once again foster the confidence and belief of senior field leaders, then you must take the time to use persuasion and reasonableness to win their agreement, cooperation and support. After all, the field leaders are the ones who must execute the strategy. It is important that each side recognize the skills that the other side brings. The company has better analysis and research resources and capability. The field leaders have better field implementation skills. Without the field leaders’ full and enthusiastic agreement and active support, no strategy will work!
The one thing you do not want to do is promise that a particular new program is going to solve the issue. It is better that you position all new programs as a potential help that will only be proven out as effective when implemented with excellence by the company and the field sales leaders. When facing big challenges, especially changes in the market environment, it often requires trying several different program approaches to find the one or the combination of programs that works.
#4 = Recognizing the Partnership Status of Top Field Leaders
“Leadership authority” is granted by the partners, not conferred by some higher authority.
There is no question that the company has more actual power than any individual or group of top field leaders. But power is not authority! Having power is not the same as being recognized as the “leader.” In a partnership, the reality is that not all partners are actually equal when it comes to leadership of the group. Some partners grant the authority to lead to another partner because of that partner’s skills, persuasiveness and ability to build consensus among the group. In direct selling, smart company executives use their leadership, communication and persuasion skills to convince their field leader partners to grant them the authority to lead the combined and company/ field organization.
The company management team and the top field leaders are co-dependent on each other.
Direct selling companies have a unique symbiotic relationship with the independent field and field leaders. Neither side can exist without the full and complete support of the other. When direct selling companies are really clicking, it is because the company and field leaders are aligned with full belief in the dependability and support of each side. When companies are in decline, the misalignment of the field leaders with company directions and decisions is often at the core of the problems.
Take the time to develop a partnership mentality with your top field leaders. Win their confidence and belief in your leadership. Your ability to lead your field partners depends entirely on their willing grant of leadership authority to you. That grant of authority to you is well worth developing and never taken for granted!