Abusive Coaching: It Happens in Sales, Too

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Rutgers coach Mike Rice, known for his coaching intensity . . .

As comedian Jon Stewart says “OK, let me stop you right there . . . .” We’ve seen the video of the Rutgers basketball practiceIntensity doesn’t explain or justify anything about Rice’s behavior. Some columnists have attributed Rice’s actions to what occurs when you combine testosterone, adrenaline, and hyper-competition in college sports. It’s a volatile mix, but physical abuse and homophobic slurs don’t belong in the picture.

Hyper-competition isn’t unique to sports venues. Nor is abusive coaching. Both happen in sales organizations, too. Watching Rice’s behavior reminded me how the pursuit of winning can make immature people inhumane. I’ve seen it up close and personal.

In the days before the Internet, tele-work, and every-day casual dress, Paul, a Sales VP at an IT company I worked for, instituted a weekly face-to-face sales meeting to review accounts and to share product updates. 7:30 am, every Monday. In the boss’s office. Suit and tie. Don’t be late. Those Monday Morning Sales Meetings became synonymous with de-motivation, with good reason.

l’ll set the scene so you can be in the moment. Paul’s office was drab and windowless. His large desk was positioned somewhat in the middle, leaving a wide space behind him, and a narrow corridor in front. The desk faced four thinly-cushioned chairs, their rigidly-straight backs pressed tightly against the wall. The office had a raised floor that Paul made from some knotty pine he recovered from an old farmhouse. I mention this because dimensionally and aesthetically, nothing was right about his office. The chairs weren’t comfortable, either.

So every Monday morning at 7:30, Paul sat behind his expansive desk, and my colleagues and I sat lined up in these chairs, ready to begin our sales week. But in almost every meeting, Paul became abusive. His tirades were so infamous that after our meetings, which usually lasted about one hour, others in the company would ask, “who was the Rep of the Week?”—code-speak for “which one of you got reamed?” There was always somebody.

Usually it was Barry, an otherwise nice guy with an annoying flaw. Barry could not answer a question to save his life. If Paul asked him “When will the ABC Company deal close?” Barry would ramble three or four minutes in meandering run-on sentences that lost meaning with each word he added. Much as we tried to listen for a date or time frame in Barry’s answers, there weren’t any. Our boss mercilessly berated Barry in front of us. The more he pressed Barry for straightforward answers, the more befuddled Barry got. He stammered. He vainly tried to protect himself, often crossing his legs so tightly that we winced just watching him. But he had no choice. His back was against the wall, literally.

After we experienced a couple of bad quarters, the company faced the possibility of reducing staff. “Management had to come up with some people to let go, and you, Barry, were on the list,” our boss told him during one meeting, with all of us present in the room. Nobody had yet been fired. Barry quit about a week later.

“If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen!” Maybe Barry wasn’t a good fit for sales. I agree. Sales isn’t for sissies. But neither should it be a haven for jerks. In one particularly contentious meeting, Paul told Shawna, another salesperson, that her revenue numbers were low and he asked her what she was going to do to “justify her existence.” Emoticons hadn’t been invented, but if they had, I can assure you that the one at the end of his sentence wasn’t winking.

Shawna, who was as thick-skinned as anyone I’ve worked with, told me tearfully over beer one day after work how damaging Paul’s statement was. “I almost resigned right there,” she told me. I still wonder why she didn’t. In his lust for revenue, Paul conveniently forgot that Shawna was also somebody’s sister, daughter, and wife. There’s more—much more, actually. But I’ll save you the time. You can always watch Alec Baldwin in Glengarry on YouTube. There’s great truth in fiction, because his mannerisms are a dead ringer.

Eventually Shawna left the company, along with me and Mark, the person who sat in the fourth chair. Over several years, many others joined the exodus. “Sales force churn” people call it. Even the euphemisms sound ugly. Paul continued to recruit and hire new salespeople. Hopefully, he got some emotional maturity along the way.

When I became a manager, the COO of my company told me, “Andy, there are two things you can do to unite your staff. You can either be a common friend, or a common enemy. It’s your choice.”

Republished with author’s permission from original post.

About the Author

Andrew (Andy) Rudin is Managing Principal of CONTRARY DOMINO. Andy provides expertise and solutions to companies seeking to strengthen sales governance, revenue risk management, and ethical compliance (GRC). His cross-industry background in marketing, sales, and product management uniquely positions him to help companies in many industries manage a wide range of revenue growth challenges. Andy has a BS in marketing and an MS in information technology, both from the University of Virginia.

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