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  • Writer's pictureLance Tyson

What Beach Volleyball’s A-Team Can Teach Us About Sales Management?

Updated: May 30, 2023

Beach volleyball woman spiking ball

The Difference Between Sales Management and Sales Leadership for High-Performing Sales Teams

In my coaching sessions, I sometimes ask, “Which has more appeal, sales leadership or sales management?” Often, sales management doesn’t quite have the appeal that sales leadership has. Don’t know why that is, but it doesn’t matter. If you are creating, managing, and leading high-performance sales teams, you’ll split your time between sales leadership and sales management. In fact, Sales Management is one of the 6 drivers for high-performing sales teams.

In these discussions, we eventually reach the conclusion that leadership deals with people while management deals with processes. So, when we are discussing sales management, we’re talking about creating a sales coaching process that is scalable and predictable. We’re talking about having a way for your sales team members to track their performance. And we’re talking about establishing meaningful KPIs  (Key Performance Indicators) so your team can measure real progress. We’re talking about all of the processes that help people succeed.

You can get a quick assessment of sales management, sales leadership, and the other drivers by taking the Sales Team 6TM Assessment here.

More Observations from the Tokyo Olympic Games

Like many folks, I spent a fair amount of time watching the broadcast of the Olympic Games. Remember, the Games have expanded over the past decades to include a variety of sports, like badminton, skateboarding, and now surfing. One of the relatively newer sports that catches everybody’s attention is beach volleyball.

The sport itself stretches back to 1996. But I first became aware of it when Kerri Walsh and Misty May took to the stage—and the gold—back in 2004. Since then, the women’s team have dominated the sport, including the latest team of April Ross and Alix Klinemen, also called the A-Team.

As you may have noticed, this was the first year there wasn’t a big, noisy crowd in the background adding to the atmosphere of excitement. Not only did this change the dynamic, but it also provided me with a chance to make some observations I never noticed before.

Observations of Beach Volleyball Reveal Constant Coaching, Planning, and Strategizing

First, there are the hand signals used between teammates on the serving team to set up the play. But I think everybody notices the hand signals. They aren’t necessarily arbitrary or unique to a particular team. In fact, they’re a set of beach volleyball standards used to communicate complex maneuvers. In one match, a team filed a complaint that their hand signals were being picked up by the camera crew and broadcasted on the big board for everyone to see, including the opposing team.

Then there were the little hugs after each rally. Now, everybody likes to be congratulated after hitting a milestone. And sometimes we need some encouragement when things don’t go quite as planned. But Ross and Klineman were using this time to plan, strategize, and coach each other. You could see them talking to each other. Sometimes, the microphone would pick up snippets of their conversation. I’m sure sometimes they were giving each other a pep talk. But there were also times you could hear them planning their next attack, which person on the opposing side to target with the serve, and how they wanted the next rally to go.

Lastly, there was communication with each other while the ball was in play. Without the noise from the audience, I could clearly hear one member of the team shouting “Left! Left! Left!”, telling her teammate where the opposing team was light and where she could spike the ball for an easy point.

Insights From Beach Volleyball Off the Court

The most insightful element about this team came during an interview with Ross and Klineman, where Ross was describing how she came to pick Klineman and revealed a small detail about beach volleyball. In order to qualify for the Olympic qualifying tournament, players need to accumulate a certain number of points to make the Olympic team. When Ross first approached Klineman about teaming up, Klineman was primarily an indoor volleyball player and had no points.

So, Ross’ first conversation with Klineman was that she had to improve her outdoor game. And she had to play tournaments that would earn her enough points in time to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic games. Think about that a second. After her stint with Kerri Walsh Jennings and winning a bronze and silver medals at previous Olympic Games, Ross could have had her pick of any established player. Yet, she saw something in Klineman that would eventually lead to the A-Team dominating the Tokyo games.

Applying These Observations to Sales Management

So, what can a volleyball team teach us about sales management? Well, for starters, you need to get the right people on your team. In my coaching sessions with sales leaders, one of the topics we discuss is exactly what April Ross did—find the right people to join the team. Or as Jim Collins put it in his book Good to Great, you have to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. That’s going to be a combination of talent, desire, grit, and a dash of chemistry with the rest of the team. The last thing you want is someone who is so confident that they are uncoachable.

Next, you need to be able to communicate your expectations and set KPIs. Remember, you have a team of individuals. But it’s still a team. And everyone has a unique set of skills, talents, and opportunities for improvement they are bringing to the table. You need to be able to sit down with that individual and lay out the expectations, milestones, and goals. But remember, they have expectations as well. There has to be something in it for them to get them to commit. People support an environment they help create.

Then, you need to be able to coach when it counts. Coaching and feedback does no good if it comes a week late. That means sometimes you have to get in the arena with a team member so you can give feedback in real time, just like the A-Team did on the court.

Part of Sales Management is Keeping Score

Finally, you have to keep score. You know Ross and Klineman were keeping score every time they stepped onto the field of play. They knew how far up they were during each match. They knew how many games they had to play to get to the gold medal match. They knew all the numbers. I find this to be a common theme in sports and in business.

In my copious spare time, I coach my son’s hockey team. The one thing that still stands out for me is the scoring. If I asked any of the parents what the score was, many of them would tell you that the kids are out there just to have fun. But if I asked any of the players what the score was, they could tell me exactly what the score was, who was up, who was behind, and by how much. Your salespeople are always keeping score. Give them a scoreboard so they can track the team’s performance.

Here’s your insight for today. You will split your time between sales leadership and sales management. Lead the people but manage the processes that help them succeed. People support a world that they help create, and they support processes that they feel helps them succeed. Give them both and your team will dominate the field.

If you're a sales manager, take this opportunity to inventory your team's  strengths and opportunities for  improvement. Build your team's success on a strong foundation of self knowledge.   Take the Sales Team Science Assessment here.

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