It’s no coincidence that sporting parlance and sales parlance are essentially one and the same. Talk of ‘being coachable’, ‘aiming for targets’ and ‘kicking goals’ feels as natural in the sales office as it does on the sporting field. That’s because both sales and sports are inherently competitive pursuits, and as a participant in both you’re constantly striving to do more and be better.
But can one directly affect the other? Does an out-of-office focus on sports aid your in-office sales performance?
In the search for answers, we spoke to a few of Australia’s foremost tech sales leaders; Mike Johnson, Chief Sales Officer at MadeComfy, James Bergl, Sales Director at Datto, Jack Blayney, Account Manager at Receipt Bank and Paul Muller, CEO of Nuix, as well as David O’Connor, who remains on the sales frontline as an Inbound Marketing Specialist at HubSpot.
Along with the success they’ve enjoyed professionally, these experts are also well-versed in sports. Johnson has competed in the British Sabre Fencing World Championships, Bergl has played competitive rugby and has since made the switch to iron-man, and O’Connor is a lifelong sailor, having recently taken home nothing less than a world championship in his class.
So what wisdom can these sales and sports successes pass on to those looking to follow their example?
The early lessons of junior sport
A life of learning begins well before you’re ready to enter employment, with school allowing you to both develop your education and your social skills. But junior sport is often overlooked as valuable preparation for adulthood.
“In junior sports there is always somebody bigger than you. It can be harsh; you’ll get knocked over and your team will lose” says Johnson. “But if you learn to get back up, keep practising and stay positive, you realise that you can be as good as anyone.”
Bergl sees junior sport as a fantastic way to learn teamwork. “You quickly realise that a field of talented individuals focussed on themselves winning is exponentially less successful than a team that’s focussed on the entire group winning.”
As does Blayney with first-hand experience of an early start ” I have played team sports since I was 5 including; soccer, cricket and rugby league. This has been beneficial as Team sports require an interesting mix of individual effort performance in conjunction with team cohesiveness and co-ordination.”
From sports pitch to sales pitch
But by no means do the lessons garnered from sports dry up at adulthood. If anything they just get more useful – particularly, it seems, for sales professionals.
O’Connor has seen this first-hand, and believes his sporting pursuits directly affect his workday performance. He describes “a real sense of self-motivation; a hungry desire to over-perform and win.”
“To play sports at a competitive level you need to have a competitive mindset, be a real team player, have discipline and be open to new ways of getting better”, notes Bergl. “If someone has played top level sports I often a see them striving for the same success in their sales role.”
“When I attended my first international fencing competition I was bundled out after losing all of my first round fights” Johnson admits. But where many would’ve been blinded by disappointment, he saw opportunity. “I spent the rest of the day watching the world’s best fencers fight their way to the finals, then when we got home I practiced what I’d seen. The key is to watch and listen to people who are better than you, and then practice. It’s simple, but it’s something that is underrated, both in sports and in sales.”
More than just a correlation, Muller sees sports and sales as almost one and the same. “Sales is a team sport”, he says. “Your team are the experts around you that help set up the ball (your solution), you need to keep the competition at bay (research, presales support, etc.), you need to know when to seek the advice of your coach (your sales leader), and all this will help to put a winning score on the board (close the deal).”
Are sports a necessity for salespeople?
But what if you’re not a particularly sporty person, but have a deep passion for tech sales? While the parallels between sales and sports are undeniable, our experts certainly don’t see involvement in athletic competition as a must for potential salespeople.
“As a salesperson you need to be self-motivated, adaptive, coachable and eager to learn. You need to continually develop your skills, and have the ability to set clear and achievable goals.” O’Connor says it doesn’t matter whether you adopted these traits from sports or not, as long as you have them.
It’s a point backed up by Blayney “Sports encourage a constant refinement and improvement of skills. This input of time and effort then reveals itself in the results that you get on the pitch. This commitment to self-improvement will translate to any role or workplace you work in.””
As a CEO, Muller finds himself looking less at a candidate’s background, and more at what it has produced. “I look for a strong desire to learn and try new things, a tendency to question why current things are the way they are and a confidence to suggest new and better options.”
Johnson is similarly unfussed – “Salespeople come in all shapes and sizes. As long as you bring the right attitude there are no real rules!”
Some parting advice
So what should a young tech sales hopeful take from all this? Well, while it’s obvious that sports can serve to sharpen the skills and characteristics that drive success in sales, participation certainly isn’t mandatory. Tech sales professionals just need to ensure that they pick up the skillset one way or another – it could even be that they do so on the job.
On this point, the last word is perhaps best left to Datto’s Bergl.
“Come in with the attitude that you are there to earn your stripes. Work harder than your friends. Be coachable and open to criticism. Be smart enough to know that you’re not the smartest person in the room, and continually look for ways in which you can develop and get better. Read books. Help your teammates win. Remember that you have a 30-40 year career ahead of yourself; there is no need to rush your career progression.”
To finish, Bergl leaves us with a sentence that could be used to describe almost any world-beating professional, be they a salesperson or sportsperson – “Be humble on the outside, but arrogant on the inside.”
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