In business, everything begins with the sale.
To be sure, you have to have a product to sell – but if you can’t turn people into paying customers, employees, partners and investors, you will not have a business.
In many companies, a CEO must be the best at other skills besides selling – such as engineering, operations, or finance – but there are very few industries in which it would not help to have a CEO who is great at sales. Which raises a question – What does it take to be a successful sales CEO?
To answer that, I interviewed Mark Lewis, chairman and CEO of Formation Data Systems, who left EMC as executive vice president in 2012. Lewis knows how to boost sales and profits. From 1998 to 1999, he led Compaq’s Storage Software Business which grew from scratch to over $250 million in revenue during his tenure. From 2007 to 2010, he was president of EMC Documentum, turning it from a money-loser into a generator of record profit and cash flow.
Here are his five principles for sales CEO success.
1. Don’t let success or failure slow you down.
Success requires staying on the path without being distracted by the emotional highs and lows of success and failure.
As Lewis explained, “I view success (and failure) as very transitory states. Success to me requires daily effort and is not something that is achieved and then lasts forever. We all have successes and failures on an ongoing basis. My goal is simply to have the best win/loss record possible.”
2. Pick inspiring role models.
The role models you pick reveal your aspirations and they can help you overcome your doubts. Richard Branson and Elon Musk inspire Lewis because they “push the envelope so that there is a very real possibility of failure.”
As Lewis said, “One time I was listening to Elon Musk discussing the tough times at Tesla where he had invested so much that he had to borrow money to pay his rent. What really impressed me was when the interviewer said ‘Wow, to do that you must have been sure it was going to work’ and Elon replied ‘No, I was pretty sure it would fail.’”
These role models help Lewis push himself to go outside what makes him comfortable. "I feel good about my success. I am respected in my industry, doing the job I want to be doing and have great relationships with my wife and family,” he explained.
These positive feelings making it hard to take a risk. As he said, “What I continue to strive for is to be more willing to risk failure when I believe in something. I feel like having a family to support resets your risk tolerance a bit and I want to continue to try to move outside my comfort zone.”
3. Pick a job that values what inspires you.
Success comes from being better than others at activities that matter to an organization’s growth. In Lewis’s case, he learned that he was good at seeing the future and bringing people along with him to profit from that vision.
As he said, “One of the nicest things a person ever said to me was that she never met a person who could see around corners like I could. My passion is figuring out where things are going and making that turn happen. I feel most inspired when leading efforts that involve product innovation and running a growth business.”
4. Recruit a partner to do the necessary things you hate.
It is rare that one person can do all the critical jobs well. You should get help with the important work that you don’t like to do.
Lewis dislikes operations. As he said, “I will admit it; I am not an inside-operations guy. I can do it and it is a part of most jobs – but I hate it. There were times where I was in charge of streamlining. That is not where I want to be. To me operations is like driving a train with the path being set; I need a steering wheel.”
5. Allocate time for what matters for you and the business.
As a leader, you can’t delegate your calendar – otherwise you will end each day “exhausted from all of the hard work but dissatisfied with [your] accomplishments,” as Lewis said.
Each leader has to decide how to allocate her time in a way that creates a sense of accomplishment most days.
For Lewis, that means spending time with “customers, analysts, press, investors and team members across all functions. My job is insuring all the pieces come together.”
Most of this time falls into the broad category of selling. As he said, “I am CEO as well as CTO which means I spend 5 percent of my time designing, 5 percent managing and 90 percent selling to new employees, potential customers and potential investors.”