Over my career as a CEO, I invested a lot of valuable money and time into sales training only to see a slight performance lift for a period and then back to normal. Most Sales Directors or CROs have ‘training and development’ as an allocation in their expense budgets. Should this valuable annual investment by their company be considered a default setting every year, or should the company hold them much more accountable for the ROI? If it were the latter, a lot less would be spent on ‘sales training’ as we know it.

There has been an endless stream of articles written about sales training, but none take the bigger picture into account. There is well researched and proven ‘new thinking’ in this area that is driving a different approach from the top tier of leadership – the CEO.

One of the best and most valuable HBR articles I have read is by Professor Michael Beer from Harvard Business School and, Magnus Finnström and Derek Schrader from Truepoint Partners, a firm specialising in organisational transformation. It was in the October 2016 issue, and the link to it is at the end of this article.

The focus of their study is that hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in employee education and development globally, and most of it wasted. Their research showed that only one in four senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes.

The authors’ research and deep dive into this important topic essentially establishes that old-style thinking about training the individual to effect a change in capability and performance is flawed and not getting results or providing a ROI.

Instead, they highlight that problems with organisational behaviour and performance stem from poorly designed and ineffectively managed systems. So, the ‘new thinking’ is if you change the system to both support and demand new behaviours, you enable learning and improved effectiveness and performance. Indeed, they state clearly from their research: “if the system does not change, it will set people up to fail.”

Rather than target the individual first, the primary target for change and development is the organisation – followed by education for individuals. The authors also make the important point that transformational change must be led from the top and the leader of the business needs to be the instigator and the champion of the process. Without this approach, people are cynical and just don’t buy in. I wrote a blog specifically on this late 2017 (link below).

This new thinking about focussing on the systems first and people second is applicable for all parts of a business, but where it is most vital and can have the most dramatic impact is Sales & Business Development. I am constantly surprised that most businesses in Australia do not have a ‘Selling System’. While businesses have selling tools like CRM, pipeline management, sales marketing etc., I rarely find a business, large or small, working with a rigorous end-to-end selling system, or what I call a Performance Protocol.

A simple litmus test you can use to discover if your sales & BD team is running their own self-developed ‘systems’ is to look at the team’s performance metrics. In many businesses, it is just a small number of salespeople delivering the largest part of the sales budget. This simple test highlights that the organisation is selling without an effective universal system, because a Performance Protocol would ensure a sharing of skill sets across a supportive team culture, delivering a more even and consistent performance. Apart from the obvious issues, a hidden danger with the disproportionate sales team performance is that the select salespeople who are delivering the lion’s share of the results often come to believe they own the customer rather than the organisation.

Sending sales and business development people out to practice their self-developed skillsets on the customers will deliver the performance it has been delivering. However, transformational change in capability and consistent growth outcomes for the business can only be achieved, (according to my extensive experience and the global research by Harvard Business School), by embedding a system that will both support and demand new behaviours, enable learning and improve effectiveness and performance. And that system needs to be owned by the top of the business if it is to instil ownership from the broader team successfully.

The McGinn Partnership focuses on that system – our Performance Protocol, and the team development and education required to leverage it. We transform sales and businesses development performance for Australian SMEs in alignment with their leader’s ambition. To learn more and run your Sales & BD organisation through our confidential online ‘Health Check’ questionnaire, or to join us in Melbourne on March 21 for my next Leaders Breakfast Forum on Transforming Sales & BD Performance, please visit:

CEO & Leadership Breakfast



Tony McGinn OAM

Principal, The McGinn Partnership