Learning to Lead
About nineteen years ago, I took a new job and stumbled onto a passion for learning and applying leadership principles. After my husband and I had our first daughter, we decided we wanted to live closer to our parents. I was a stay at home mom, but we knew that it was best for our financial situation for me to return to work. I sent a letter and a copy of my resume to the president of a small community bank in southwest Georgia. To my surprise, he immediately called me and asked me to come in for an interview. He thought I might be a good fit for a bank sales manager role that his bank’s holding company had recently created. The holding company, which also owned more than thirty other separately chartered community banks, was in the early stages of implementing a new growth strategy. It was requiring all its affiliate banks to build sales cultures. In this new role, I would be responsible for implementing the bank’s sales strategy and leading its business development and marketing efforts.
During the interview, the president seemed impressed with my past loan and deposit growth results. He asked questions about my business development activities in my previous jobs as Commercial Banker and Director of a Small Business Banking group at a couple of bank affiliates of a much larger, regional bank holding company. I answered honestly. After concluding the interview process, he believed me to be strong at business development. However, the truth was it terrified me. I hated making prospect calls and attending networking events, and I had realized very little results from these activities. The reason for my past success was primarily due to my analytical and loan underwriting skills, which had enabled me to develop trusting relationships with bank leadership and other commercial lenders. I had exceeded my sales goals, not because of my outside calling efforts, but because supervisors and other lenders had mentored me, handed me new loan opportunities, and assigned me active customer portfolios. To my credit, I did figure out early in my career that I could gain a client’s trust by providing a high level of service and by taking time to understand their business, which aided in getting loan requests approved. These clients would later send me more business and referrals. However, even the thought of having to make a new prospect call terrified me.
I assumed leading business development efforts meant regularly making cold prospect calls, but I pushed those fears to the back of my mind. I wanted to move and needed this job to make that happen, so I accepted the president’s job offer. He must have assumed that because I appeared to be successful at growing my own loan and deposit portfolio, I could use the “big bank” business development strategies we had discussed to lead his bank in their new sales and business development efforts. He was wrong. I had no idea how to lead a team through any kind of change, especially in implementing a sales culture.
Fear is a monster that can suck the life out of you. For my first two years as sales manager, I allowed my fears to incapacitate me. I kept to myself and neglected building relationships with my fellow employees. I mostly did the things that did not require me to face my self-doubts. I managed the bank’s sales and referral system and the sales incentive plan. I rolled out new products from the holding company. I relayed orders that came down from corporate to the local bank team. At the president’s request, I coordinated a couple of business development calling blitzes, but the results were lackluster. I did not lead by example, so no one bought into the sales strategies I was pitching. Everyone simply complied, but only when required. I was miserable and sure most of the team did not like me. For my first two years in that role, we were the worst performing bank in sales results in our region. I was failing, and I resented having to go to work each day.
This was probably the lowest point in my life professionally and personally, but this deep valley led me to my passion. I believe the three things that happened next were the results of answered prayers.
First, out of nowhere, I began regularly receiving free, easy to read leadership books in the mail from a company called Walk the Talk. I read them all, some multiple times. These books challenged my thinking about leadership. Before finding these books, I had plenty of excuses for my failure as a leader. I assumed that people only followed those who had titles and authority. I had a nice sounding job title. I was an officer of the bank, a Vice President, but I had no direct reports. I had thoughts like, “I have been set up to fail. If the president truly supported me, he would give me more authority. Everyone else in the bank does not want this sales culture, and I can’t make them comply because they don’t report to me.” My favorite book that was sent to me, Leadership Courage, by David Cottrell, had a short chapter devoted to accepting responsibility. The few words in that chapter had a profound impact on me. I still have this book, and this sentence is highlighted, “Making excuses and blaming external factors, rather than accepting responsibility, is fatal to success.”
Second, I went on maternity leave after I gave birth to my youngest daughter. During my leave, I made a decision about work. If God wanted me home, that is where he would put me. If finances did not allow me to stay home, then God must have important plans for me at work. So, I chose to be thankful and enthusiastic about my job when it was time to go back to work, and I took the initiative to build relationships with fellow employees.
The third thing that happened was the president hired an experienced leader from a competitor. This woman became my mentor and friend. Her leadership, wisdom, business development acumen, and listening ear nurtured me in my personal growth. Her early success that year in selling annuities to private banking clients was the spark our team needed to get us moving from the worst performing bank in our region the previous two years to the top performing bank in our region that year and the next two years. I clearly remember, at the end of a bank-wide sales meeting I had led, the head of our special assets department approached me and remarked, “You have changed. Something is very different about you. It is good, whatever it is.” He was right. I was changing, on purpose. I was making choices to show up to work each day with gratitude and enthusiasm; to regularly read and put into practice what I was reading; and to really listen to and follow through on the advice of a friend/coach.
Those five years serving as sales manager for that bank were the beginning of an adventurous journey for me in learning to lead. UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning describes learning as, “a process that results in a change in knowledge or behavior as a result of experience.” Brene’ Brown, a prominent leadership researcher, states the following about learning in her book, Dare to Lead, “We know the way to move information from your head to your heart is through your hands.”
Learning that sticks is the result of putting into practice the teaching received, making mistakes along the way, adjusting, and trying again. An example of this is learning to drive. I have taught three kids how to drive. I am certain they were all terrible drivers when they each passed the driving test. I am also convinced they all really learned how to drive when my teaching was over, I was no longer in the car, and they were driving alone, free to make mistakes without fear of me picking their every move apart. Learning is real when what is taught has become so instinctive, you no longer need to think of how to do it.
I have observed that most bank cultures are not conducive to the kind of learning that delivers desired behaviors and results. Some of the banks I have worked for invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in formal training, but most of it never sticks. Real learning happens on the job where team cultures reinforce behaviors daily. Learning is much more affected by the influence of leadership and peers than by formal training.
Merriam-Webster defines culture as, “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).” For training to be effective and profitable, it must change employee behaviors. This transformation is achievable when leaders intentionally cultivate cultures that support their desired outcomes. However, cultures cannot be changed until leaders are first transformed themselves. Leaders can only affect individual and team culture change to the maximum potential of the leader’s ability to lead or “leadership lid,” a concept John Maxwell describes in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.
Before I could lead a team in building a sales culture, I had to first personally grow in my way of thinking and behaving. To succeed in this role, I had to put what I was reading and being taught into action. As James exhorts in the Bible, “But do not just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” This is true in all areas of life. Learning that drives desired results requires faith and action. Just attending a training course, no matter how good the information and instructor are, will never be enough to promote personal growth. Growth occurs only when the person puts what has been taught into action. Leaders create learning cultures when they are intentional in turning training concepts into practice and action for their team members. In a learning culture, everyone is encouraged to take risks, leave their comfort zones, practice, make mistakes, adjust, and try again.
There were five factors that took me from failure to success as sales manager. Anyone, whether you want to be more successful in your job or your leadership role, can achieve similar results by taking the following actions:
Make sure you truly want (be careful not to confuse want with need) to be in your job. It is possible to change your mind like I did. However, to create the success you desire, you must be fully convinced you are doing a job you want to do.
Take the initiative for your own learning and growth. No one is going to learn for you. Those that sit around and wait for someone to teach them will keep sitting around. Success does not find you. You must seek it out.
Put what you are learning to action. Realize that vulnerability, looking incompetent, and failure are absolute requirements for learning and growth.
Lean into your strengths to overcome, and sometimes bypass, your fears. As sales manager, the strength I leaned into was relationship building. When I discovered the best salespeople were great relationship builders, selling got a lot more fun.
Find an experienced coach in your field who cares about you enough to tell you the truth and nurture your growth. I doubt my results would have been the same without my friend’s candor, encouragement, and leadership example.
I am thrilled to be on this new learning journey, as a small business owner. Adopting a learning mindset ourselves is the first and most important step in moving toward the success we desire. When we raise our leadership skills, we can then begin building a learning culture for the teams we influence. With a learning foundation in place, we are ready to start construction on a winning culture.
Do you need a coach to nurture your leadership growth? Maybe, you need a partner to help you create a team learning culture? Contact me. It will be my great joy to serve you.