Many CEOs and function leaders achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling…


..themselves, their ideas, or even products or services because they fear rejection, are uncomfortable asking for anything and don’t know how, exactly, to sell well. These feelings are as career damaging as they are remedial. Even the most taciturn can learn how to overcome this problem, which pervades all leadership contexts including the top three: leading during complex change including business development, job finding and surviving the first 100 days of a new role. I have case study examples of each.

The fear of rejection is deep-rooted. It is linked firmly to the second driver, which is a dislike of being and appearing needy. Experts tell us that this revulsion indicates a history of difficulty in negotiating needs in formative years. If you were able to negotiate and satisfy your reasonable needs at home and school, then you are likely to be able to do so in adulthood leading to a natural ability to sell well when the need arises. The opposite early years’ experience, however, is more common.

Much of my work is in helping clients deal with this hard-wired behaviour because they have no option but to sell; not just in the business development sense but also if they are leading during complex change – restructure, M&A, conflict, adverse trading conditions, first 100 days, earn out or even trying to win at interview for a new executive or NED role – they must succeed at selling themselves and their ideas to people.

One client had a life-long difficulty with selling although this was not immediately apparent. I stumbled on the extent of the problem when I did my selling module with them, the key points of which I can deliver in about an hour. He seemed quite grumpy at the end of the session, and there was an insinuation that I had rushed it. I picked this up and did a Feel/Need/Do process which I use to surface any dissatisfaction with my sessions. Sometimes these can be subliminal.

I managed to get him to say that “All my working life I have felt uncomfortable selling; I’ve done it because I’ve had to but I hate it, I FEEL I’m no good at it but increasingly I must do it, so I NEED to get better at it and what I’m going to DO is to ask you to spend much more time on this than just an hour.” So I did.

I created a tailored programme for him over several sessions, focusing on those steps in the selling process with which he had the most difficulty. For example, he had a block around finding out what a target needed or might need. He didn’t know how to ask questions which surfaced needs.

Once he understood that he could ask open biased questions – who? what? when? where? how? – i.e., opening questions and how these linked with the closing steps, he felt much more comfortable. He learned that good selling is about genuinely putting yourself in the shoes of the buyer. It’s not about smoke and mirrors. I suspect his background would not have been one where intrusiveness was encouraged, so he confused gentle questioning with an intrusion. The result was that he subsequently did a pitch with a colleague who was astonished at his change in selling behaviour. The success was his. I was delighted to provide the framework.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

One thought on “Many CEOs and function leaders achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling…

  1. Interesting article Ciaran. I empathise with this completely and never associated my inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to sell (particularly myself and my capabilities) with my childhood, which was interesting to say the least. Thanks for the post!

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