Sales Leadership in Crisis: Pathways for Driving Deep Change

Matt Marino

VP of Sales at Global Payments

Learning Objectives

Sales leaders of resilient organizations are masters of not only reacting to adversity but also using headwinds to adapt and come out stronger. This session will provide a model for how to develop and guide successful change within your team. It will show what actions successful leaders take when facing headwinds to develop skills and mobilize change inside their company.

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding the three problematic inertias within your team/company

  • Role of sales leaders to overcome that inertia

  • Abandon a defensive stance and embrace a mindset of winning

"Just because things worked last year or last quarter does not mean it will make you successful today. Arrogance and close mindedness is an absolute killer."

Matt Marino

VP of Sales at Global Payments


Hello, and welcome. My name is Matt Marino, VP of Sales at Global Payments. I hope you’re enjoying the conference so far, and nice to be here virtually with all of you. Thanks for joining. I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area, completely remote with a geographically dispersed team. Global payments is a publicly traded company with 24,000 employees. As our company name implies, we really just help businesses all around the world more easily process payments. I’m a Revenue Leader, but I’m also a former Engineer and Operator. I’m really passionate about organizational change and renewal, what growth looks like both in good times as well as bad. Like you, this past year has not been easy.

This session is all about the crisis sales leaders face, and how to drive deep change within your own organization. Over the next 15 minutes or so, we’ll dive into the adversity that sales leaders and their companies face, and what to do about it, how to thrive when facing headwinds, and best mobilize change. We’re first going to talk about the situation, then the challenges and inertia that unfortunately, come with success. Then, wrap up with what we, as sales leaders, should do about it.

By now, you’re tired of having every conversation somehow turned back to COVID, tired of hearing the word unprecedented, ready to put 2020 behind you, so let’s do so. As far as last year, I likely can’t speak to anything you haven’t already heard before. What’s more interesting, though, is what we should be doing now. What to do in this situation? What do the best companies and sales teams do in down markets? To get there, we need to look back, and learn from from prior recessions. For this, I turned to the research of Ron J. Galati from Harvard Business School. I highly encourage all of you to follow him read his work—fabulous educator and scholar.

He and his team did an extensive study of 4700 public companies over the past three major recessions in 1980, 1990, and 2000. His first observation was, in each of these recessions, even in the one we’re kind of going through right now, there was a call for resilient leadership. Many leaders, in fact, I’m guessing all of you would say that you’re resilient. Perhaps this is just a problematic buzzword, but resilient and resiliency is passive, it’s playing defense. What’s missing is proactive attitudes. How you’re going to come out of this stronger? How you’re going to grow from it?

Of the past three recessions, 70% of the companies did not survive, which is a pretty big number. These are large, publicly traded companies, 70% of those failed, did not survive. Of those that did survive, 80% had diminished growth rates for 3 years after the crisis, and another 40% had diminished sales for at least 3 years after the crisis. Clearly not a good story, even for those businesses that did survive, but 9% came out stronger. 9% came out stronger in sales, profits, or growth trajectory. We got to ask ourselves, “What are those 9% doing?” also, “What are the 91% doing?”

The punchline here, as said best by Winston Churchill is “to never waste a good crisis.” In a crisis, the competition is focused on cutting costs. They’re defensive. They’re very reactive to the situation. They’re dealing with all sorts of different morale issues. In a crisis, it really allows you, as a leader, to hit the reset button within your own organization, within your company. People are amenable to kind of letting go of prior judgment, kind of letting go of long held beliefs, think outside the box, and are really open to collaborating in new and often novel ways. The issue here is why doesn’t that happen? Why do most companies and sales teams end up behaving like the left column and less like the one on the right?

Alright, so it’s a serious question time. When you face adversity, what’s the biggest obstacle for growth? What’s the bottleneck for the 91%? Do we blame external factors or internal? I would say, 9 times out of 10, companies are going to blame external factors. They’re going to blame the macro market condition. They’re going to blame the competition. They’re going to blame what’s happening with regulators, and so on. But the devil is inside the organization, not outside. We never point to our own organization or leadership dysfunctions, and adversity reveals this, Adversity revealed and accelerates these hidden weaknesses within a firm. The finger pointing, navel gazing, shoulder shrugging, and just overall paralysis is what spells doom for sales team and any company. I get it—these behaviors are easy to do. It’s easy to say, “Let’s stop investing. Let’s keep to the status quo. Let’s hold the line. Stop exploring, and wait until things get better.” It comes naturally, and in some cases, feels logically to behave this way. Why is that?

This leads us to the tyranny of success. This feeling and behavior is directly linked to a problem that plagues successful teams. Now, most of you here are from successful teams, successful companies, and so forth. You’ve got to ask yourself, “What happens to successful businesses? Why do they fail? What happened to blockbuster Sears, Motorola, Nokia, Kodak, etc.?” Well, it’s not that they just have suicidal tendencies, but it starts with denial. It starts with a blanket denial of what’s going on around them with the changing environment, where the managers are ultimately focused on other things, and ultimately, leads to just an overconfidence and how loyal their customers are, and ultimately, a misunderstanding of what their customers need, the pain points they have, and just just a loss of connection to them. There’s more of a inward gaze instead of outward, and less of a objective understanding of what’s happening. All of this ultimately leads to a culture and a company that really struggles to change because they don’t see a need to. They feel that what they’ve done in the past is totally fine, and it’s what’s going to carry them forward. This inability to change is the kiss of death for any person, team, or company.

Let’s turn to the wisdom from over 2000 years ago, Aristotle was right when he said that, “Whom the gods want to destroy, they send 40 years of success.” Just because things worked last year or last quarter does not mean it will make you successful today. Arrogance and close mindedness is an absolute killer. A similar take from Peter Drucker, who many regard as the the Godfather of Modern Management Theory, said this, “The greatest danger in turbulent times is not the turbulence, but to act with yesterday’s logic.” Aristotle and Drucker may have been separated by a couple 1000 years, but they are ultimately saying the same thing—that the more success you’ve had, the harder it is to change. Within any successful company, there exists this inverse relationship, where on one hand, you want to keep exploiting what’s made you successful, and innovation, exploration, experimentation, those two are always going to be at odds with one another. On one hand, you can point to all the things that have resulted in your prior success, and on the other, you can’t because it’s unknown. It requires exploration requires risk, but just like a caveman leaving his cave for the first time, you won’t know what you’re missing, until curiosity, action, and change meet together.

This way of thinking plagues company, and it’s ultimately due to inertia. Inertia is very dangerous, and there are three types that I want to highlight here. We have strategic, organizational, and cultural inertia. Firstly, on strategic inertia. Strategic inertia has you just focused on what’s in front of you, your existing capabilities, and customers. If your company has been successful, your sales team has been success for a long time, this leads to pride and arrogance, which can blind folks from opportunities for growth and change.

Then, you’ve got organizational inertia. Like the longer teams have been together, the greater the politics, the greater the us versus them mentality, the desire for folks to build their own mini empires. Sure, every company is going to have silos. Silos exists in every company, big and small. You will never win by being able to break silos, but you can bridge them. I would say that the bridging silos is one of the most important jobs of any leader.

Last, cultural inertia. That impacts a business, again, it is cultural. The longer the team has been together, the less they’ll be willing to explore. You’ve all experienced this, right? I’m sure some of you have either worked for companies or have worked for companies where there are team members who have been there 10, 20, maybe even 30 years. Just think about how differently they act, behave, approach problems, approach clients, approach work differently from people who’ve been there a year or two. It’s why some of the best run organizations like Amazon, Google, Netflix, Apple, etc. don’t let folks stay in one particular role for more than a few years. They’re constantly fostering curiosity, learning, and change, and kind of rotating them out into other positions.

To wrap up this slide, the summary here is that when the environment situation changes, like a pandemic, managers typically increase commitment to the status quo. They do more of what has made them successful, they do more of what they do best, and they really resist change, but not the leaders of the 9%. The best leaders of companies, the sales leaders ultimately move before they have to. It doesn’t need to be a pandemic. I love this quote from from Jack Welch that “If the rate of change inside an organization is less than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.” How do we reimagine the role of sales leaders? Don’t worry, this is not all doom and gloom. Resiliency is not just about surviving but thriving. What you, as a sales leader, need to ask yourself is, “Are we as an organization taking the requisite steps to reimagine ourselves? Adversity usually triggers fear, not how am I going to change and get better?”

The subtext here is, firstly, just stop blaming the market, stop blaming the circumstances. What you can do is manage your response to the circumstances. This should be no surprise, there are four key pathways to driving deep change. Firstly, it’s having humility for your team, your clients, your community. It’s fostering an open and curious mindset about how things work problems, just what’s going on. It’s having empathy for all of those you work with, partners, clients, and so forth. Then, it’s having a winning attitude. We are in sales to win. These are all probably very obvious and work in good times. It’s what happens whenever we join an organization or when things are rolling well, but the moment a crisis hits, in some companies, this changes very quickly. Humility changes to arrogance. Curiosity leads to inflated egos and people who just know-it-all. Empathy leads to indifference. In sales, we need all of a suddenly can result in an attitude of “Hey, let’s just not lose,” and that’s what I want to drill in here in a little bit more.

What are the ways to really kind of reimagine this mindset? In sales, we play to win. There’s no prize for a second place. Yet, somehow, unfortunately, after the course of a crisis, play wind changes. It changes to play to not lose, and we didn’t sign up for that. It always starts with playing to win, but then evolves into this defensive place. Being defensive, you’re focused on small, minor improvements, doing what you’ve done in the past, maybe just a little bit better, kind of focusing on the bottom line and having more of a subtraction mindset. Whereas if you’re able to kind of lead with offense, this involves more risk taking, more exploration, connecting to customers in different ways, connection with your team members in different ways, and ultimately, discovering what you don’t know. This has more of an addition mindset to the business.

This is one of my favorite photos of Roger Bannister. This is in the UK in 1954. Leading up to this, he’s just completing the one mile. Break in the four-minute mark for the one mile was considered an impossible feat that no one would ever do it. For years and years and years, it was a target that no human was able to surpass. Here is in 1954, and a bunch of reporters was able to just crush it right and get in under the four-minute mark. An amazing feat, but what I love most about this story is that just six weeks later, his record was broken. Once he set the bar, someone else like immediately came out and said, “Oh, I can do better.” I think, for us, like, our responsibility, as sales leaders, should be building this mindset of playing to win, and really raising the standards of all of those around us, the people who report to us, our peers, as well as executive management.

I’ll leave you to wrap up with another quote that really boils assault. That is, “Do you have the courage to take the actions that you need to take to explore, take the right risks, do things differently, engage with your clients or team in a new way? Be a leader that makes things happen, because courage, after all, is a choice.”

Thank you all for attending and listening in. If you’re keen to stay in touch, you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. I wish you all a very prosperous and change filled year, and enjoy the rest of the conference. See you later.

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