• Get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme
  • In the sales operations profession, personal growth and professional learning never end
  • Neal Peart, one of the world’s greatest drummers, keeps finding ways to sharpen his skills – we should, too

Living in the limelight /
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem /
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation /
Get on with the fascination
The real relation /
The underlying theme

                — “Limelight” by Rush (lyrics by Neil Peart)

Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush, is one of my personal heroes, and one of my favorite Rush songs is “Limelight.” As a teenager, I saw him as a rock god. Now that I’m older, I see him in a different light, or should I say… limelight? In my mind, Neil Peart is an awesome musician, an accomplished author, poet and philosopher, and just an overall fascinating human being.

Limelight on Sales Operations

I learned something new about him a few years ago and it really blew me away  –  after 40 years of ruling the rock world as one of its greatest drummers, he did something shocking. He took drumming lessons! I thought, “Are you kidding me? Neil Peart taking drumming lessons?” He said he did it because he wasn’t happy with the quality of his playing and he thought he could do better.

That makes me question what I could still be doing better – what I could be doing to grow professionally and personally. Contemplating that question made me think about why I chose sales operations as a profession and what’s kept me with it for this long. The answer is that I really like studying hard problems and working with others to find a solution – and, let’s face it, there’s never a shortage of hard problems to tackle in sales!

In fact, these problems have multiplied over the years, with massive migrations to “as-a-service” business models, the rise of inside sales, sales technology upheavals, demands for big data strategies, a growing war for sales talent, the need to create and lead deal desks, lingering requirements for sales operations to assist sales enablement, growing pressures for sales operations to serve as sales compensation strategy leads, and finally, changing demographics caused by maturing Millennials. 

The question is, what skills and competencies do we need to cultivate so that we can keep stepping up to these new challenges? Here are a few of my suggestions, as well as some things that I’m contemplating doing for myself:

  • Consider earning an MBA. It’s refreshing to go back into an academic environment with years of experience under your belt. Executive MBA (EMBA) programs give students the opportunity to keep working while pursuing a degree and condense the program into 18 months or so.
  • Get a masters in business analytics. Having advanced analytical and Excel skills isn’t enough anymore. Understanding data science and having the ability to intelligently build a data strategy is a must. Personally, I’m giving this one some serious thought. These programs are similar to EMBA programs in that you don’t need to quit your job to complete it.
  • Earn a Certified Sales Compensation Professional (CSCP) designation from WorldatWork. If you’ve spent several years in sales operations managing and designing sales compensation programs, you are already well versed in the material. Read a few books and take a couple of classes to sharpen your theoretical knowledge, and you’ll pass the exam.
  • Become an expert on sales and marketing interdependencies. Know the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall® and understand how to build a bridge and a process between sales and marketing operations. The days are gone when these functions were able to operate in silos. Learn demand creation strategies, account-based marketing and the principles of leading a sales development team. All of those functions overlap with sales, and as sales leaders, we can’t afford to not understand them.
  • Use personal coaches. In sales operations, we do a lot of writing and presenting of ideas – we need to be sharp! Fifteen years ago I was writing for a nonprofit and was frustrated by the quality of my work. I hired an editor to help me, and she’s since become a personal writing mentor. Also, a career coach can be a powerful guide. In sales operations, it’s easy to focus only on the technical aspects of the job, but acting as the CSO’s emissary to all the other organizations on which they depend requires some political agility! Career coaches can help you enhance those skills.
  • Find sales mentors. The greatest sales leaders stand out from the crowd. Follow them in their careers. Look for them at all levels. The talented sales managers and sales reps you support today will take CSO roles in the future, and when they do, they’ll call on you to run global sales operations for them. On the flip side, sometimes in your career, you end up working for people who just don’t share your values. When that happens, move on.  
  • Get out of reactive mode. You’ll be a lot happier once you do. It’s common to have a lot of tactical issues in sales operations when you first take on a new sales organization. Usually reporting needs improving, forecasting needs work, and sales compensation needs to be improved. It’s a lot of work to straighten those things out, but fix them quickly so you can move on to more strategic impactful things like improving sales process, optimizing sales models and leveraging technology to improve the buyer’s experience. Improving sales productivity is really the only reason sales operations exists.
  • Hang out with and hire people smarter than you. I’ve never hired anyone in a sales operations role who I did not believe had the potential to eventually take my job. That keeps an organization really sharp and moving forward. There are also a couple of well-positioned sales operations, sales technologist and sales compensations experts whom I consider friends. I draw a lot of inspiration and insights just from talking to them.
  • Study a new philosophy, or explore your own more deeply. A lot of people do yoga to find balance. I found my balance in a distant cousin of yoga called qi gong. In studying it, I had the opportunity to learn from a master of one of the Eastern philosophies. His idea was that to be content you need three things in life: good health, good luck (and you make your own luck) and a good teacher. How true. He also shared an old parable about a student who once knocked on his teacher’s door and asked to speak with him. The teacher’s servant greeted the student and said, “He can’t see you now, he’s busy.” The student asked, “Busy doing what?” The servant replied, “Thinking.” Multitasking and always being “on” are counterproductive and draining. In fact, multitaskers tend to be less productive than others who focus on one thing at a time. Close your door sometimes, and just think! Or, as Neil Peart wrote, “Cast in this unlikely role, ill-equipped to act. With insufficient tact. One must put up barriers. To keep oneself intact.”

Neil Peart inspires me to never give up learning. Let’s help each other out in sales operations. Please share your suggestions below!

To learn more about B2B sales and marketing strategies and competencies, attend SiriusDecisions’ Summit 2016 in Nashville, TN, from May 24 to May 27.