What's the No. 1 trait all entrepreneurs share? The ability to solve problems without a manual.
When issues occur, entrepreneurs come up with solutions. That is what makes them successful. However, not all great problem-solvers start their own businesses. Some choose to work for companies or agencies like yours.
The place to find such high-performing, naturally talented people is Sales.
Why Sales? Your sales team members are the ones most likely to come across messy customer situations that don't fit a script or handbook. The messiness of their jobs requires nonstop problem-solving, and that makes entrepreneurs easy to identify.
A salesperson with an entrepreneurial spirit will tell you, "There was a problem, but I took care of it." A salesperson not inclined toward entrepreneurialism will be polished and rehearsed but unable to deviate from the script.
I enjoy finding entrepreneurs in my sales department because I know how valuable they are. The ability to problem-solve is transferable and hard to teach. You want entrepreneurs in your sales lineup because they can become future leaders throughout your company. Just make sure that you don't trample the potential of these bold thinkers; otherwise, you'll end up losing them.
Case in point: one of my colleagues is an incredible COO who's doubled the size of her organization's business in three years. When she first interviewed at her current organization for a mid-level position, she admitted to the interviewer that she wasn't sure how effective she would be in the role. The interviewer asked her why. She explained that her previous employer enforced a stay-in-your-lane, top-down culture.
The interviewer could tell she had an entrepreneurial spirit and gave her a chance. Within six months of accepting the position, she was promoted. A year later, she was in the C-suite. At that point, her former employer would probably hire her back at triple her old salary. But the irony is the company could have held on to her from the start if it realized how valuable her abilities were.
Not every salesperson is an entrepreneur, and that's OK. It's your job as a leader to determine which salespeople already possess those skills. From there, you can retrain them as needed—and hopefully retain them for the long haul.
Here are four recommendations to ensure competitors don't woo your top problem-solvers away.
1. Make your routine one-on-one meetings count
If all you do is talk about current projects and operations during your one-on-one meetings, you're not making the most of them. Start incorporating philosophical and ideation conversations into the mix. Talk about problems that you anticipate could come up. Then, ask your sales representatives how they would solve those issues.
You'll notice that some of your salespeople have a lot to say because they're deep thinkers. They'll want to share solutions, and they'll be eager to brainstorm. Take them up on their offers.
Your one-on-one meetings will have a greater purpose for all involved, and you might come away with fresh initiatives to move your business forward.
2. Ask your sales entrepreneurs what they want
I love what executive coach Susan Drumm does when she talks with employees. Instead of conducting typical performance reviews, she asks questions such as, "How am I going to keep you for the long term?" and "How can I help you actualize in your role?" She calls those talks her "stay" interviews.
Don't be afraid to ask your problem-solvers about their ambitions. Once you understand what they want to accomplish, you'll be able to better support them. It's hard to know what resources people need if you aren't sure where they want to go.
3. Let your superstar salespeople explore new positions
That might sound counterproductive, but you should keep an open mind. When other jobs and opportunities become available in your company, tell your sales entrepreneurs about them. Give them your blessing to work cross-functionally or make lateral or upward moves. That way, they can see what they're made of.
A lot of managers won't do it because they're afraid that if they let a star go, the star will leave forever. What I've found is the opposite: When I let my entrepreneurs develop themselves, they always come back to me better than when they left.
Treat your company or department as a university where they can learn and grow, not just a place where they can get a paycheck.
4. Give entrepreneurs a long leash
Leading entrepreneurs isn't a piece of cake. You'll need to follow up when they say they're going to do something. Sometimes entrepreneurs get too busy dreaming and innovating, so you have to be clear about your expectations.
That said, you shouldn't micromanage them. A good rule of thumb is to let sales entrepreneurs spend at least 10% of their time pursuing passion projects. You never know what kind of magic they'll generate. I've seen a casual conversation turn into a full-blown (and successful) customer program. However, the conversation wouldn't have happened if the salesperson hadn't been given a little thinking room.
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Your organization's greatest innovations have yet to be discovered. Who's going to discover them? Your sales team's entrepreneurs. So, find and nurture your brightest problem-solvers. As today's innovators and tomorrow's leaders, they're your best bet for staying competitive.
More Resources on How to Find Entrepreneurs
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