Recently an executive returned from a trip with a story about the salesman he visited. Now in his late 50s, the fellow had been a proven performer since early in his career, hitting his numbers and accumulating bonuses at a prodigious clip. His sales approach was direct to the point of being confrontational, which he justified by saying that most clients were secretly relieved to be told what they needed to buy. “And if they don’t go along with me, that just proves they weren’t ready in the first place,” he liked to quip.
A famous character in his company, to the point of being nicknamed The Hammer, his success was such that his techniques and tactics had long ago been codified and distributed to entry-level sales people. And yet, when our executive stopped by for a call, he was in for a surprise. The Hammer had traded in his trademark sport-coat and tie for a sweater, was hunkered over a computer terminal with an earnest young employee from tech support, and had removed from his office walls and shelves all the plaques and framed photos chronicling his successes.
What amazed the executive most, however, was that the salesman spent the first 10 minutes chatting. No hard sell. No push. No impatient checking of his watch. Spooked, the executive finally blurted out: “What’s happened? Where’s the old hard sell? Did the company ask you to change?”
The Hammer replied, with a touch of his old brusque manner. “I just got tired of being good. Started to wonder what it would take to be great. Decided to go for it.”
Is your success holding you back?
The fact is, The Hammer had hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, he’s one of the few who have the ability to make what may be the hardest call in business: The decision to change what you do best in order to do it even better.
There are reasons this is a rare occurrence, and many of them sound sensible. Few companies or managers have the patience to trade short-term wins for long-term gains. Proven results trump projected improvements. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is enshrined as a mantra in our culture. In most cases, this conventional wisdom will prevail; many times, it should prevail.
But not when you want to get to the next level, break out of a rut, or change the trajectory of a career or company. As a species that has succeeded by dint of our reliance of paradigms, we tend to grow over-reliant on old formulas, old ways.
Change, of course, drives us to abandon certain of our holdover habits. In the past century human beings have proved extraordinarily flexible, regularly defying predictions about our ability to adapt to technologies and trends such as the enfranchisement of women and minorities, labor laws regarding children, the shift from individual businesses to corporations and back again. But when it comes to individual change, the kind we implement within ourselves, the resistance is greater — not least because, for many, our habits seem to “be” us.
That’s why, if you’re having success with one way of doing things, you may unconsciously refuse to consider any other way. That’s why the ultimate personal courage — and confidence — is when you dare to stand back, make a self-assessment, and then, as The Hammer said, go for it.
If you wait, you may be too late
A few years back we were treated to the spectacle of the world’s best young golfer seemingly choosing to risk everything he’d achieved in an already legendary career in order to fix what wasn’t broken, People today have already forgotten that when Tiger Woods was at the top of his game he stopped and made significant swing changes because he was dissatisfied with certain aspects of his game. There was a predictable outcry: Here he’d just won the U.S. Open by 12 strokes and was contending in every tournament he entered. What business did he have dismantling his game and starting over? It was a flaw, a case of compulsive tinkering — something with which all too many golfers are acquainted.
Tiger took the heat. he waited out the second-guessers through a sophomore season that was called disappointing (although for any other golfer it would have been a solid success). And when his changes took effect, he dominated as never before.
The thing was, Tiger understood the mechanics of his swing and saw where his habits fell short. He could anticipate the day when his shortcomings would interfere with his ability. He also, evidently, grasped the crucial fact that if he waited for his flaws to come to the surface, it would be much more difficult to fix them on the fly.
That’s what we all have to do, because if we want to do our best, we have to accept that being good just isn’t good enough.
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