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If you stand still, the world will fly past you. It’s as simple as that, and anyone in the direct selling channel—whether employee or independent representative—is keenly aware of that principle. For direct selling executives, inspiring action is a twofold challenge: How do they as leaders model and encourage engagement not only within their employee base, but also out in the field, where independent distributors are growing in number, are widely dispersed and have varying goals for their businesses?
Our ultimate focus should be on, of course, the salesforce members who represent direct selling companies. Occasionally, however, leaders forget that the salesforce is only half the equation. “I say this from experience. You can get so focused on your outside salesforce, because they’re driving the business, that you miss what’s going on inside your own building,” says Team National CEO Angela Loehr Chrysler. “As leaders, we can miss what’s right in front of us.” The effort to inspire action, then, must begin at home.
A company with a steadfast mission, consistent messaging and frequent communication has the best opportunity for success. The leader sets and drives that ongoing conversation with employees. And although leaders do have direct contact with the salesforce, it’s the rank and file who most often interact with them on a daily basis. Good leadership, then, is so critical at the corporate level because it ultimately affects how employees engage with the salesforce, and, therefore, shapes the salesforce experience with your company and your brand. Direct selling leaders may be speaking to two audiences, but alignment in messaging is absolutely critical.
John Addison knows a thing or two about inspiring action through effective leadership, having led Primerica through its IPO as Co-CEO and now frequently lecturing business leaders on the topic. “Your corporate goals have to be consistent with those of the salesforce,” he says. “It’s death when the home office has one set of priorities and the field has a completely different set of priorities. You’d better have a vision and a message where both of those entities have goals that are in congruence.”
Complacency may be the most formidable obstacle facing any leader. A 2006 study conducted by Duke University found that 40 percent of what we do every day is merely habit; in other words, we’re running on autopilot. It’s highly likely this figure still holds true, that is, if it hasn’t increased thanks to the relationships we have with our smartphones and tablets, and due to the onslaught of information surrounding us in our everyday lives. Whether we’re trying to reach employees or salesforce members, we have to compete not only with human nature, but with a lot of distraction. In fact, “how we inspire action is one of the great challenges in our industry right now,” says Darren Jensen, CEO of LifeVantage. “A leader has to have an understanding of the ability to be significant, rather than just successful. Because significant is much more powerful. Customers add, distributors multiply, but leaders are the exponential factor.”
The Importance of a Strong Start
Direct selling companies across the board are looking at ways to increase salesforce retention. Take, for example, LifeVantage, in which Jensen estimates that approximately 80 percent of distributors “never engage. They never recruit anyone, and they never bring in a customer. They simply become a consumer of the product—a very happy consumer.”
The time to engage is right at the start. “The first question people have is ‘OK, I’ve joined, now what?’ ” Jensen says. “Our industry is different. Think about doing business with Uber. I do what the app tells me, they push customers to me, and I get paid. With network marketing, I have to sign up, build my organization in a specific structure to maximize my return, and find customers. I believe we’re going to have to simplify the way we do business in order to engage people. We’re going to have to deploy technology in order to do that.”
At perhaps no other time in the lifecycle of a direct sales business is action more critical than during the first few months. Quick wins validate the business owner’s decision, generate momentum and help her develop the mindset she’ll need for continued growth and persistence. On the other hand, several factors can leave her questioning her decision to start an independent business. One of them is “analysis paralysis” caused by information overload. More direct selling companies understand and are making concerted efforts to simplify what has been a confusing onboarding process for new representatives.
As for corporate employees, companies of every industry have invested significantly more time and effort in recent years to ensure that new hires receive thorough onboarding, which reaches well beyond training and delves into company culture, or what’s commonly referred to as the “why.”
“It’s absolutely not only possible, but necessary to inspire both your corporate team and your outside sales team,” says Chrysler. “They play different roles, but they’re partners in your success, and so it’s doable with focus and intention. I think when you bring those two things together, there are a variety of ways to get to the same answer—and I think the answers lie in your culture.”
A ‘Why’ Is Key
“When you can help your field members determine their own personal why and you can help them connect that to the company’s why—your mission and vision—it really becomes more of a movement, and the passion and the momentum become unstoppable,” Chrysler continues. “People do more for you when they believe they’re helping others versus themselves. They can get through ups and downs, people can leave, the latest fads can come and go. If you have a really defined culture, a why, along with purpose and passion, then your field will weather the hard times, and they’ll drive themselves to action because they not only want to succeed, they want to help you succeed.”
In fact, any effort a company makes to marshal action from its employees or salesforce members should start with an examination of its culture, an integral component of the company’s identity. Employees and salesforce members who have a why, or a reason for their feet to hit the floor in the morning beyond just earning a paycheck, are more likely to feel connected to your company and less likely to leave. “The State of the American Workplace Report 2017,” issued by Gallup, found that 51 percent of the U.S. workforce is not engaged. Another Gallup report, “Does Your Brand Attract Star Employees?,” found that 51 percent of U.S. workers overall and 60 percent of millennials are considering new employment opportunities.
For leaders, it’s all in the delivery, says Jared Turner, Chief Operating Officer of Young Living Essential Oils. “You can tell people you want to open up a new warehouse, and they’ll see the problems in it. They may say that it will take too long, it’s going to come in over budget, and that it’s going to be painful. But if you paint a vision and say, ‘Opening this warehouse ultimately alleviates issues for our members on the East Coast, because it aids our mission statement, which is getting more essential oils into each home,’ then they will be more aligned with your vision. It’s like telling people to run to the mountain without telling them what’s on the mountain, as opposed to saying the mountain has a beautiful waterfall and a lake, and this is why you need to run to the mountain. You have to paint a vision of what the mountain looks like, not just tell them to run to it. If you connect employees to their whys, and you empower them, you’ll have the most powerful employees in the world. There’s nothing that will stop them.”
Whether we’re talking about field or employees, leaders are dealing with volunteer organizations, “and people can come and go as they choose,” says Travis Ogden, President and Chief Operating Officer for Isagenix. One of his roles is to help employees have “line of sight”—to understand specifically why their jobs matter to the company. “People might think employees aren’t volunteers. In reality, they can go work anywhere they want, but they choose to work for us. When you look at them that way, it helps frame the communication and approach in your dialogue. If they can understand how their daily actions contribute to where our company is going, it helps them have satisfaction and fulfillment in their jobs.”
“It’s more a movement away from doing great work to focusing on feeling great about the work they do,” Jensen adds. “If they feel great, that’s what keeps them motivated and engaged, and the same thing goes for distributors.”
Cast Vision, Then Repeat
When it comes to communication, corporate leaders have found they need to partner with salesforce leadership to ensure understanding, buy-in and consistency; and they need to repeat themselves—often.
“The most important thing you’ve got to do with a large direct selling company is constant, constant communication. A business is an organism, not an organization,” says Addison, who also serves as Leadership Editor for SUCCESS magazine and President and CEO of Addison Leadership Group. “Whether you’re growing or not growing, wherever you’re at in the process, you have new people joining. Your salesforce is a living, breathing thing that’s changing. Maybe you think sometimes you’re being repetitive because you’re saying the same thing over and over again. Well, the truth is you’d better be saying the same thing over and over again, because you’re communicating not just to the people who’ve been around, but to the people who are joining.”
“Employees forget, even senior management, if you don’t remind them,” Ogden adds. “It comes down to keeping your priorities at the forefront, so people filter their decision-making through those priorities.”
Given the growth and sheer expanse of modern direct sales companies both at the corporate and salesforce levels, though, how do leaders keep those lines of communication open? While nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, technology can help fill the gap between company and local events. Executives are employing Zoom, Facebook Live, BeLive and other media to talk to distributors, sometimes conducting live interviews and panel discussions. Others routinely chat with distributors via social media, text and phone. Annual, quarterly, monthly or even weekly meetings give employees the opportunity to interact with leaders and ask questions. At Team National, for example, monthly “personal growth” meetings, led by Chrysler and Team National Vice Presidents, are intended to help employees “grow personally and
professionally, and foster an environment of great discussion,” Chrysler says. “We look at these meetings as a time for them to grow in all aspects of their lives. If we only focus on the business side, we’d be missing a big part of their lives.” Those personal growth topics, in turn, help shape the company’s communications with field members via a weekly conference call with a simultaneous Facebook Live broadcast, a monthly newsletter, and national and local events.
Information overload is always a risk, of course. Addison says that one of the first priorities as Primerica Co-CEO was to cut through the clutter. He was a firm believer in the expression that a confused mind will do nothing. “We had all of these people sending urgent bulletins out to the salesforce,” he recalls. “Well, I clipped their wings. In the noise we live in today, these people are being inundated in every direction you can imagine. If you want your organization to be important in their lives, you have to have a compelling message, it has to be clearly communicated, and you have to be one of the loudest voices in their heads.”
Times of Adversity
Leaders have the power to inspire positive action through times of adversity. Transparency is never more important than during times of adversity. Direct selling leaders agree that the best approach is to acknowledge the issue as frankly and as quickly as possible—even if it’s their own. When fear is removed, innovation can soar. “I manage my mistakes by exposing them,” says Annie Price, Vice President of Field Touchpoints for Scentsy, adding that most mistakes are due to processes, not people. “People don’t come to work to do a bad job. So I usually try to lay mistakes out on the table, then figure out the root cause so we can prevent it in the future.”
Team National’s philosophy on mistakes is to “assume that they wanted to do it right; they just didn’t have all the information,” Chrysler says. “When you assume that people meant to do it right, you’re setting them and you up for greater success.” She adds that the company solicits feedback from employees when those employees make mistakes. “We ask people to be part of the solution; we want to know how we can help them be successful next time. When you approach it that way, you get some great ideas.”
During times of crisis, a leader’s role, Ogden says, is to “stand up and be willing to face the difficult questions, acknowledge head-on what the challenges are and address them transparently. A leader has to have unshakeable belief in the future and in where the company can go, and needs to cast that vision. There’s adversity everywhere, but adversity can be a good thing; it helps us get stronger.”
Indeed, a company with a strong culture likely has a reserve of goodwill and loyalty from employees and field members, upon which they can draw during difficult times.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that one of the best ways to connect with people is to have them know you’re just a person too,” Addison says. “You’re just doing the best job you know how to do. It doesn’t mean you’re going to bat a thousand. When you’re wrong, figure it out and change it. When times get tough, people will stick with you if they have a real connection to you. They know it’s not just about the products or the opportunity; it’s about building a culture and a family. It creates an environment of growth, a self-improvement movement. People view that just by being connected with you, they’re better people than before they were connected with you.”
Getting in the Trenches
How deeply should a leader step into the trenches? A leader’s actions speak much louder than his words, which is why authenticity and a willingness to jump into the trenches can build trust—and inspire action among the masses. It’s also important for a leader to know when it’s time to step out, delegate and empower her employees to rise to the occasion. “I learn best by rolling up my sleeves and getting involved early,” Price says. “But as soon as I get the fundamentals of what it’s about, how it operates, what the challenges are, I back way out and manage purely by objective.”
“Leaders inspire action taking action themselves,” Turner says. “If you expect people to do things you’re unwilling to do yourself, they will not respect or follow you just because the org chart says they have to. It’s also important to be with the troops and identify talent in lower ranks who might not be recognized. It’s important to find a way to connect with and identify that talent.
“I would argue that management is a noble profession, because you have the chance to help human beings identify their purpose, magnify that purpose and be recognized from it, grow from it, and become financially stable from it,” Turner continues. “You’re really crafting and creating greatness in people if you’re willing to take the time to help empower and inspire. You can change the trajectory of someone’s life and her children’s lives by creating that confidence.”