Lead­ers sell, and the mid­dle­man does it best

The Washington Post Sunday - - TAKING STOCK - BY DANIEL H. PINK

Hopefully, this is a lit­tle bit of a wake-up call. This is real. Government spend­ing con­tracted 1.2 per­cent of GDP. That’s a big hit, and it’s just the be­gin­ning.”

— Chad Moutray, the chief econ­o­mist at the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers

Spend a day with any leader in any or­ga­ni­za­tion, and you’ll quickly dis­cover that the per­son you’re shad­ow­ing, what­ever his or her of­fi­cial ti­tle or for­mal po­si­tion, is ac­tu­ally in sales. Th­ese lead­ers are of­ten pitch­ing cus­tomers and clients, of course. But they’re also per­suad­ing em­ploy­ees, con­vinc­ing sup­pli­ers, sweettalk­ing fun­ders or ca­jol­ing a board. At the core of their ex­alted work is a less glam­orous truth: Lead­ers sell.

So what kind of per­son­al­ity makes the best sales­per­son – and there­fore, pre­sum­ably, the most ef­fec­tive leader?

Most of us would say ex­tro­verts. Th­ese won­der­fully gre­gar­i­ous folks, we like to think, have the right stuff for the role. They’re at ease in so­cial set­tings. They know how to strike up con­ver­sa­tions. They don’t shrink from mak­ing re­quests. Lit­tle won­der, then, that schol­ars such as Michael Mount of the Univer­sity of Iowa and oth­ers have shown that hir­ing man­agers se­lect for this trait when as­sem­bling a sales force.

The con­ven­tional view that ex­tro­verts make the finest sales­peo­ple is so ac­cepted that we’ve over­looked one teensy flaw: There’s al­most no ev­i­dence it’s true.

When so­cial sci­en­tists have ex­am­ined the re­la­tion­ship be­tween ex­tro­verted per­son­al­i­ties and sales success — that is, how of­ten the cash reg­is­ter rings – they’ve found the link to be, at best, flimsy. For in­stance, one of the most com­pre­hen­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tions, a meta-anal­y­sis of 35 stud­ies of nearly 4,000 sales­peo­ple, found that the cor­re­la­tion be­tween ex­tro­ver­sion and sales per­for­mance was es­sen­tially zero — 0.07, to be ex­act.

Does this mean in­stead that in­tro­verts, the soft-spo­ken souls more at home in a study car­rel than on a sales call, are more ef­fec­tive? Not at all.

The an­swer, in new re­search from Adam Grant, the youngest tenured pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whar­ton School of Man­age­ment, is far more in­trigu­ing. In a study to be pub­lished this year in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, Grant col­lected data from sales rep­re­sen­ta­tives at a soft­ware com­pany. He be­gan by giv­ing reps an of­tenused per­son­al­ity as­sess­ment that mea­sures in­tro­ver­sion and ex­tro­ver­sion on a 1-to-7 scale — with 1 be­ing most in­tro­verted and 7 be­ing most ex­tro­verted.

Then he tracked their per­for­mance over the next three months. The in­tro- verts fared worst; they earned av­er­age rev­enue of $120 an hour. The ex­tro­verts per­formed slightly bet­ter, pulling in $125 an hour. But nei­ther did nearly as well as a third group: The am­biverts. Ambi-whats?

Am­biverts, a term coined by so­cial sci- en­tists in the 1920s, are peo­ple who are nei­ther ex­tremely in­tro­verted nor ex­tremely ex­tro­verted. Think back to that 1-to-7 scale Grant used. Am­biverts aren’t 1s or 2s, but they’re not 6s or 7s ei­ther. They’re 3s, 4s and 5s. They’re not quiet, but they’re not loud. They know how to as­sert them­selves, but they’re not pushy.

In Grant’s study, am­biverts earned av­er­age hourly rev­enues of $155 — beat­ing ex­tro­verts by a healthy 24 per­cent. In fact, the sales­peo­ple who did the best of all, earn­ing an av­er­age of $208 per hour, had scores of 4, smack in the mid­dle of the in­tro­ver­sion-ex­tro­ver­sion scale.

What’s more, when Grant plot­ted to­tal sales rev­enue against the scale, he found that rev­enue peaked in the cen­ter and fell off con­sid­er­ably as per­son­al­ity moved to­ward ei­ther the in­tro­verted or ex­tro­verted poles. Those high in ex­tro­ver­sion fared scarcely bet­ter than those high in in­tro­ver­sion, and both lagged far be­hind their coun­ter­parts in the mod­er­ate mid­dle.

What holds for ac­tual sales­peo­ple holds equally for the quasi-sales­peo­ple known as lead­ers. Ex­tro­verts can talk too much and lis­ten too lit­tle. They can over­whelm oth­ers with the force of their per­son­al­i­ties. Some­times they care too deeply about be­ing liked and not enough about get­ting tough things done.

But the an­swer — whether you’re push­ing Nissans on a car lot or lead­ing a ma­jor non­profit group or cor­po­ra­tion — isn’t to lurch to the op­po­site end of the spec­trum. In­tro­verts have their own chal­lenges. They can be too shy to ini­ti­ate, too skit­tish to de­liver un­pleas­ant news and too timid to close the deal. Am­biverts, though, strike the right bal­ance. They know when to speak up and when to shut up, when to in­spect and when to re­spond, when to push and when to hold back.

Here’s the best part, how­ever. The distri­bu­tion of in­tro­verts and ex­tro­verts in the pop­u­la­tion looks eerily like the re­sults Grant found plot­ting rev­enue across his 1-to-7 scale. Some of us are heavy in­tro­verts. Some of us are stal­wart ex­tro­verts. But the vast ma­jor­ity of us are am­biverts.

The good news, then, is that in some sense, we are all born to sell and equipped to lead. And that means a hid­den but ur­gent chal­lenge for or­ga­ni­za­tions of ev­ery kind is to shat­ter the stereo­type of who’s an ef­fec­tive leader. When we choose lead­ers, as when hir­ing man­agers choose sales­peo­ple, we’re un­der­stand­ably drawn to the gre­gar­i­ous, friendly types with their com­fort­able pat­ter and ready smiles. But are they really the best?

We’d be far bet­ter off with those who take a more cal­i­brated ap­proach — who can talk smoothly but also lis­ten keenly, who know when to turn on the charm but also when to turn it off, who com­bine the ex­tro­vert’s as­sertive­ness with the in­tro­vert’s quiet con­fi­dence. In other words, when it comes to pick­ing lead­ers, per­haps we should look for peo­ple a bit more like us. Pink is the au­thor of “To Sell is Hu­man: The Sur­pris­ing Truth About Mov­ing Oth­ers.”

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