Essential Advice for Executives Leading Distributed Revenue Teams Through The COVID-19 Crisis

In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, every business is experiencing unprecedented challenges, uncertainties and risks requiring their leaders and organizations to respond and adapt at a frenetic pace.

Leading remote selling teams in a crisis environment has emerged as a critical issue as over 4 Billion people are being confined to their homes in an uncertain marketplace.

Sales leaders must plan for disrupted work for the next several months, or indefinitely, as they guide revenue teams they cannot see through new ways of working, different modes of engaging customers, a dynamically changing marketplace, and new communications priorities. 

Few organizations were prepared for this scale of employee dispersion. Less than 6% of enterprise work forces were formally equipped for telecommuting at the start of the year.

Managing, coaching and motivating thousands of sales, call center, and service employees in a work at home environment is creating immense challenges for sales leaders, including:

  • Leadership: Many sales managers are unprepared, inexperienced, or ill equipped to lead and manage all the activities of distributed revenue teams they are geographically and physically disconnected from;
  • Transparency: Newly displaced workers are largely untethered from the corporate information systems and networks they rely on for the fast, transparent, and inclusive communication that is central to selling;
  • Collaboration: Sales, account, service and success teams must find ways to operate in the absence of the face-to-face collaboration and the physical and cultural anchor points they rely on for coaching, management and communication;
  • Speed: Customer facing employees working in a remote setting need to be empowered to make quick and informed decisions to support customer engagement at the edge of the organization. This means leaders need to find ways to give up authority without giving up control, take their culture online, and learn to build relationships and trust on digital platforms.

“Leading remote teams during the COVID-19 crisis requires different forms of leadership” according to General (ret.) Stanley McChrystal the founder of the McChrystal Group in a recent webinar he gave on managing remote teams in a crisis.   “We faced a very similar situation in the throes of our fight against Al Qaeda fifteen years ago when we built the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq in the wake of 9/11”, according to General McChrystal. “We pivoted from being a centrally located, thousands-strong enterprise to a network of small teams spread around the world.  “Digital leadership” was not in the job description for our generation, but it became a critical skill for all of us to learn in the fast-moving and constantly changing fight.”

In the face of similar challenges, sales leaders must very quickly assess the situation, come up with a plan to adapt, act quickly and follow through with hyper focus.

The first step is to quickly assess the situation in terms of how your team is functioning as a remote network.  “In the fight against Al Qaeda, we learned the hard way that you need to first understand yourself before you can understand and adapt to the outside environment,” reports General McChrystal.While changes in the environment are out of your control, the way your organization reacts to it doesn’t have to be. Right now, markets are changing quickly, and uncertainty can dominate the discourse. Effectively collecting and using the right data from within your organization and from your people can be an incredibly powerful tool for leaders in today’s chaotic environment.”

To do this, McChrystal recommends taking a week to collect qualitative and quantitative data on your employee network to get a pulse on sentiment, morale, functioning, and the level of communication across your remote team. This will allow you to identify the critical issues, communications and priorities that you must focus on to adapt to the crisis. 

Running fast but blind will not get you very far. Most organizations can easily execute a quick five-minute pulse survey to provide essential information to leaders in a crisis – what do we as an organization need to change right now?  What do my managers need to know? What does my sales team need to get from their managers?

It’s also critical to take advantage of the information systems and advanced analytics at your disposal – such as collaboration, communications and sales enablement platforms – to quickly map and understand how your network of distributed and largely invisible teams is behaving and performing.  “It’s critically important to recognize that in the digital age, a 21st century organization model works more like a network of connected teams than the hierarchical command and control structures businesses and the military used successfully for over a century” – warns Victor Bilgen, the Head of McChrystal Analytics. “For example, when we use advanced analytics to take a network analysis approach to optimizing selling teams, we find entire networks hinging on a few key people who act as connectors to keep information flowing between sales, marketing and services teams and the managers and organizations that support them.”

A close up of a map  Description automatically generated

As an illustration, Bilgen shared the analysis of an underperforming selling network above. It clearly shows one individual is acting as a super-connector and almost single handedly holding together two essential teams. This person represents a key point of failure because if he or she leaves, communications across the selling network will suffer greatly. To stimulate growth, sales leadership had to build more connective tissue between the service delivery team at the core and sales and professional services teams engaging customers at the edge of the organization. This involved turning first and second level managers into information hubs, flattening layers, and activating other network influencers to broker communications between service delivery and the sales and professional services groups in the field.

Armed with this essential information, the next step is to create an integrated crisis response plan that hyper focuses your organization on communications, processes and execution priorities essential for short term survival. A key part of the plan is to provide a common purpose to the larger team by establishing a shared emotional connection and aligning priorities, goals and incentives.

As a leader, the most important thing is to act quickly on your crisis response plans regardless of whether you are attacking, pivoting or protecting what you have – or if you are uncertain about how the market will ultimately evolve. “In any crisis, there is a natural temptation to simply wait it out. Today’s leaders cannot give in to this instinct”, relates General McChrystal.  “Right now, we’re facing a perfect storm of economic downturn, social isolation and a fast-spreading pandemic. The answer to this problem will not suddenly reveal itself; leaders must create solutions. Any leaders who are not already on a war footing and preparing to fundamentally change their organizations for the foreseeable future must start moving today.”

Enabling your network of sellers for communications at scale is a critical part of executing. This means eliminating the physical, cultural, and psychological walls that slow down information flow and create “blinks” between geographies, technology platforms, process steps, social systems, organizational silos and layers.

From a technology standpoint, this means enabling remote teams with solutions that allow them to work with the same, or even higher levels of effectiveness. This can mean augmenting existing platforms – CRM, CMS – to make connectivity work better, faster at scale. It also means increasing the cadence of communications with customer facing employees at the edge of the organization from weeks to days.  For example, to accelerate the flow and cadence of information sharing the US Joint Special Operations Task Force built a “virtual” Situational Awareness Room (SAR). The SAR acted like a central nervous system to provide a network of 7,000 team members spread across 70 global locations real time information critical to ongoing anti-terrorist operations in daily operational and intelligence briefings. In the crisis, sales leaders are moving to a faster operating rhythm by executing similar daily stand-up meetings to communicate essential information, changes and priorities to entire sales teams.

Another key is to operationalize the network map analysis to systematically identify and eliminate network and communications bottlenecks that stop information from flowing to and from the field to inform leadership of activities and engagement.  This involves eliminating they key points of communication failure, scale and leverage in your distributed selling network.  Communication or interface failures happen in the gaps between teams, sales process steps, management layers and increasingly geographies. 

The secret is to bridge and fill those gaps and disconnects by building “connective tissue” across selling teams. Building connective tissue means identifying and motivating the people who act as network influencers to share information widely, building sub networks, and turning Regional sales managers into “connectors” that facilitate both top down and bottom up communications.

You can learn more about leading remote revenue teams through the COVID-19 crisis by reading the  Operating in a Crisis: A Leaders Guide report by the McChrystal Group and participating in the Covid-19 Remote Sales Productivity study of how sales leaders are adapting to the new buying reality.

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