For the sales enablement team, becoming a strategic business adviser starts with the decision to align.
The buzz in the room was palpable. On a steamy, 80-degree day in early November, more than 100 sales enablement practitioners and partners gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the Association for Talent Development's SELL conference. The premise was simple: Bring people together to hyperfocus on the two strategic levers of leadership and learning, doing so within the context of building and elevating a high-functioning sales enablement practice. Not only was this event a first for ATD, but by all accounts, it was a first for the rapidly growing sales enablement profession. Up until SELL, sales enablement practitioners had the choice of attending megaconferences or participating in various informal ad hoc events. Thus, SELL attendees brought their collective appetite for having serious conversations about gaps, challenges, and opportunities.
Participants engaged eagerly with one another, and as the 1.5-day event unfolded, one theme continued to dominate the dialogue: the critical importance of alignment. Throughout the conference, ATD polled attendees to better understand the current state of sales enablement at their companies as well as specific focus areas. When asked about the greatest gap within sales enablement heading into 2019, the top answers were telling.
A combined 57 percent had both leadership development and C-suite partnership on their minds. Sales enablement professionals realize that they sit at the intersection of process, data, learning, and platform. They understand the significance of those insights to the business as a whole. However, sales enablement practitioners also recognize that if they can't package that knowledge and use it to influence the business, they risk the C-suite viewing them as more of a transactional support function. Conversely, if they can harness this information and articulate it against the backdrop of the business strategy, they stand to elevate the status of sales enablement within their companies.
Combining the answers to the poll question with some of the anecdotal conversations provides further clarity. Several sales enablement professionals admitted during breakout session discussions that they were not certain that they fully understood what sales leadership is prioritizing or why. For that reason, they were unsure whether their own priorities were aligned with that of their closest stakeholders, creating potential risk to the sales enablement function and to the business as a whole. The gravity of this disconnect is obvious.
With limited resources, particularly time and budget, the sales enablement team cannot afford to be wrong about the relevancy of the work it produces. At a basic level of understanding, most people know that alignment matters. However, when given permission to examine and confront the reasons behind why lack of alignment occurs, it often boils down to the same core issue: One or both parties are not intentional about fully defining why something is a priority and then defending or formally adjusting those stated priorities over time as other things encroach.
Relationships outpace performance
During her session on obtaining stakeholder support, Amy Borsetti, head of North American sales for LinkedIn Learning, delineated between building performance currency and relationship currency, noting the importance of both.
"Growing your performance currency is crucial. Getting quick wins and overdelivering is a must, but it's your relationship currency that will move people, drive loyalty, and extend your reach," she explained. Within the individual conversations that ensued, a small group of SELL participants shared that they often retreat into the safety and comfort of performing over prioritizing relationships. When that happens, people drift from one another, and silos begin to form.
Lack of alignment becomes a byproduct, and more time apart stratifies it as a company norm. Yet, if high-quality work and quick wins continue coming in, this phenomenon tends to be overlooked. For those who naturally gravitate toward performance currency, there's a general belief that great work speaks for itself. While at times that is true, overreliance on performance has diminishing returns. Borsetti pointed out that yesterday's high performance becomes today's new expectation.
At a certain level, people begin competing against themselves, and, when they fall short, there inevitably is a withdrawal of performance currency. In a worse-case scenario, when sales enablement professionals deliver a great performance but their work product is not fully aligned with business needs, it can potentially produce a double negative—both a reduction in performance currency and a cloud of irrelevance.
By contrast, when sales enablement professionals take a more balanced approach and become intentional about building relationships, they strategically invest their time in exchange for more sustainable currency. When moving down the path of being a business adviser to the C-suite, starting closer to home with sales leadership is one of the most effective ways to get serious about alignment and accrue relationship equity. The objective is rather straightforward. It is about ensuring that each party understands the other's needs and that there is a demonstrated plan to maximize areas of overlap and close any gaps that have surfaced.
Once sales leadership and the sales enablement team establish alignment, it becomes important to maintain this valuable relationship currency by committing to sustaining it. On this subject, SELL speaker Ed Wallace defined what he calls, worthy intent, which is about keeping the other person's best interests at the core of the business relationship. Both parties continue to believe that the other understands and serves its interests.
When there is tighter alignment between sales leadership and sales enablement professionals, there is an opportunity to be purposeful about ensuring that the sales enablement team's contributions are more widely relevant to the business. This involves becoming conversationally intelligent about strategic elements such as the company's competitive space, how it makes money, and where it loses money. Knowing these core factors empowers the sales enablement team to align efforts and tell a story about how the function indispensably contributes to the business's overall performance.
The new habit
While, conceptually, alignment is an outcome, the act of aligning also can be considered a behavior. With consistent practice, a sales enablement leader or contributor can develop the act of aligning into a regular habit. This habit is displayed through a series of planned conversations and activities designed to create unifying goals and priorities among two or more groups.
At SELL, several participants cited lack of time or too many priorities as a reason why pursuing alignment is episodic or neglected altogether. At the same time, there were genuine epiphanies related to missed opportunities when this happens. These range from recognizing that aligning on priorities may in fact reduce the volume of priorities to the realization that focusing on the right things creates the credibility and status of business advisers that sales enablement craves. As key influencers within the company, sales enablement professionals are well-positioned to be conversation catalysts and model the very leadership behaviors that they strive to create in high potentials.
Although it may take some time and practice for the alignment habit to mature, it is possible to engineer it at first, through some deliberate planning and action designed to seek understanding. Further, data from SELL polling reveal that 56 percent of respondents agree that new ways to drive learning remain top of mind around the sales enablement watercooler. What's fascinating is that this topic persists as a continuous theme year over year, making it ripe for discovery and understanding around the sales force's needs. Is the sales enablement team delivering the right content at the right time in the way that salespeople want to consume it? That question alone is fertile ground.
SELL participants also agreed that technology continues to be a priority focus, though individually some feel there is a technology saturation within their organizations and, thus, they are planning to focus on driving greater adoption and use of those platforms and services that they have already invested in. For the 82 percent of practitioners who stated that technology is their focus in 2019 and the 46 percent who said it will comprise the majority of their annual budgets, the topic of technology and how it will be deployed to address business needs is timely. Everyone involved from the sales team to the implementation team should be able to recognize and articulate the why behind each technology solution and how it is going to affect the business in a positive way.
When seeking alignment, asking open-ended questions related to priority and impact leads to clarity and establishing the right set of actions. In a moment of coaching during a SELL boot camp workshop during which participant teams worked on creating a plan to schedule and facilitate an alignment meeting with sales leadership, participants floated one rather risky approach. In one of the debrief sessions, the initial thought process was to carefully craft a set of leading dialogue questions during which sales enablement professionals would guide the conversation with their counterparts in sales leadership down a path toward a predetermined destination. Although that approach can be helpful in some business situations—particularly throughout the sales process when reps have conducted thorough discovery, have presented recommendations that are tightly linked to needs, and are confidently closing—this technique is not best when pursuing alignment. This type of artificial dialogue may result in temporary buy-in from sales to the way ideas are framed, but how likely will that buy-in translate into a commitment that has real staying power?
By contrast, genuinely seeking alignment often feels like a blank canvas at first. Each question that's asked about priority and impact represents a new swath of paint on the canvas until the picture comes into view. While staring at a blank canvas can be intimidating at first, particularly if the sales enablement team has legitimate concerns around sales piling on more responsibility or facing potential consequences of being unaligned for too long, it also can be liberating.
Coming together and creating real alignment also empowers action. Both parties walk away from the conversation knowing what matters to the other regarding learning, technology, recruiting, leadership development, and any number of other critical success measures.
Becoming a strategic adviser
The sales enablement team creates a harmonious blend of performance and leadership currency when the decision is made to align the group's priorities to sales leadership's needs and take action against them. This effort also helps to build valuable trust between both groups. Capitalizing on this positive momentum, sales enablement leaders can broaden the circle of alignment to include less obvious, yet important stakeholders.
This may include team members from groups such as finance, HR, IT, or key external partners. Sales enablement professionals can initiate these interactions by evangelizing the story of how they came together to acknowledge and act upon the sales team's needs and by sharing the qualitative and quantitative results that followed. As they continue the alignment campaign throughout the rest of the company—collecting perspectives, data, needs, and priorities—the sales enablement team can use this information to craft an intelligent narrative around how it is partnering with key people or groups within the organization to pursue opportunities and address gaps.
When those roads lead to engaging the C-suite, sales enablement leaders can link those efforts to the business' core, strategic elements (company's competitive space, how it makes money, and where it loses money). Over time, these disciplined efforts will surely raise sales enablement's profile and visibility from a support function into a mission-critical role within the company, cementing business adviser status and a coveted seat at the table. That reality is attainable, and it starts with the decision to get serious about alignment.