Sales and Super Bowl Sacrilege

Super Bowl 51, like every Super Bowl before it, is being hyped as a battle royale. For those of us who live in New England, the game is the stage where our heroes Brady and Belechick will stake their claim to best, first, and most “wicked pissa -- evah!” Atlanta’s Ryan is an amazingly legit, MVP quarterback fronting a team of starry-eyed, fierce first time Super Bowlers. Both teams and their fans are convinced they’ll emerge the victors, leaving those on the wrong side devastated.

We live in a world where it’s all about winning, being better and having more. It’s especially so for those of us in sales! We celebrate victors and shun the losers – even if they’re us. We’ve been taught to perform, fear failure, work the plan, hate our competitors, and feel shame when we lose. Those who play the long game know that all of these ideas are for those willing to settle. Those who wish to thrive know a better way to be.

The Super Bowl is like an epic, quota-smashing sales deal in play. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise, our focus narrows, we lose our appetite (even though there’s food and beer like you can’t believe) and we prepare to put everything on the line for the team we want to win. This all happens while we’re sitting on the couch watching the TV. It’s all the work of our primitive brain. It’s exhausting, stressful, and has absolutely nothing to do with who wins.

Here’s another way to watch the Super Bowl, think about your approach to sales, and set yourself up for an amazing life.

Focus on how you’re playing – not on winning.

In football and sales, we’re surely battling competitors, but 90% of the enemy is in our own heads. When we fixate on the outcome (scoring, winning the deal, hitting quota, getting promoted) we take our eyes off of what’s happening now. Worrying about the future sucks the energy out of the present. Says Dan Pink, if-then rewards like sales commissions and quota bonuses “turn out to be far less effective for complex, creative, conceptual endeavors [like]working with a client to tackle a problem neither of you has confronted before. For those projects, you need a broader perspective, which, research shows, can be inhibited by if-then rewards.”[1] Football games are won by teams playing “in the zone,” focused on the moment, and executing as the situation requires. So are sales deals. Allow your sales team to do the job without the constant pressure of a numbers guy breathing down their necks. I know; this is sacrilege for old school sales leaders. Our deeper understanding of what motivates people and drives performance, though, suggests we shutter the old school – or at least that room of it.

Think about surprise opportunities, not just on executing the plan.

Every year, game and play starts with a plan. So should every sales call. Once things are in motion, though, the unexpected happens. During the Super Bowl, I’ll be watching not so much for well-executed plays, but for how each team handles the chaos of the play that blows up.  When that happens, if you’re focused on the plan or your uncertainty, you lose the ability to see the bigger picture. The best differentiate themselves by their ability to stay open to possibility, in fact to delight in the surprise and the opportunities that chaos creates. This celebration of surprise is a mindset you can choose. Choose wisely!

Find reasons for love and respect, not animosity or blame.

Football, sales and life are team sports. Regardless of which side of the line of scrimmage you’re on, football is a brotherhood. In the long game we’re on the same team. The same is true for sales and business. Your competitor today might be your boss or colleague tomorrow. The bond between competitors (with some help from the referees) keeps the play fair but doesn’t touch the intensity of the battle. A solid connection between a quarterback and his receiver, like that between the rep and the customer, makes the play and the sale look easy. And finally, when things go wrong, the respect among teammates lets them stay focused on moving forward without getting mired in unproductive finger pointing.

If the game goes the wrong way, listen to how you explain it.

All the attention after the Super Bowl will be on the winners, save for a few short, painful interviews with the losing coach and QB. What I’d love to hear, though, are the words shared among losing teammates. Even more, I’d love to hear what each player says to himself when he’s back home in the days and weeks that follow. Football and sales both involve wins and losses. What makes players and sales reps great is how they handle the losses. Seeing them as temporary, specific and beyond themselves (from Pink’s To Sell is Human) allow the losses to roll away, leaving only the learning and growth that they created.


[1] Pink, Daniel. "A Radical Prescription for Sales." Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Review, 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 04 Feb. 2017.

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Pete Colgan works with sales and marketing professionals who want strategies to handle the stresses of their profession so they can create successful, happy lives.