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Luck or talent?

Updated: Feb 7, 2023

Successful in business? How much did luck, or lack thereof, play in your situation?

One of my mentors long ago made a passing remark to me (in connection with a pending reorganization) that sometimes letting someone go came down to him not having the time to help the individual. At the time, I thought that he was just being kind to blame it on himself instead of the underperforming employee.

At FUNNELCAST, we have the perspective of seeing a spectrum of salesperson performances across a variety of companies. And we do a see a lot of salesperson churn in these businesses. This leads me to reflect frequently on my mentor's comment. Was he just being kind?

In the classic broadway tune Luck Be a Lady from the show Guys and Dolls, composer and lyricist Frank Loesser eloquently pens a great metaphor for B2B sales. "The pickings have been lush. And yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush." Anyone who has ever worked on a complex sale knows how fickle things can be.

How does a B2B organization with a direct sales force grow? Sometimes the whole company is successful, and most salespeople in those companies are similarly successful. (Let’s call that company S.) But a lot of times the company sets aggressive goals, hires to the goal, and only a few salespeople are successful. We see this a lot. And it always results in high salesperson churn. (Let’s call that company C.)

Inquissima haec bellorum condicio est: prospera omnes sibi indicant, aduersa uni imputantur. — Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola 27:1 (~ 98AD) Roughly translated: This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.

So, were the successful ones in company S skilled or was it good luck to be in the right company at the right time? Were the unsuccessful ones in company S bad salespeople or was it their bad fortune? And were the successful ones in company C really that talented or was it the luck of the lottery that they happened to work on the right opportunities? Were there talented people in company C who nevertheless failed due to their circumstances and a few bad breaks?

I know there is an argument that the successful ones continue to be successful in subsequent periods. And there may be some merit to that point, but there are other explanations. We have to ask, is the repeated success due to their skills? Or is it that, once successful, the organization directs those people to work on the most promising situations? Do others in the organization afford more resources (consciously or unconsciously) to the previously successful ones? And when these people do fail, does the organization cut them more slack than they would for others?

I found this post by video blogger Derek Muller most useful in putting this into perspective. Derek shows that luck can play a much bigger role in success than we think. His point:

Our circumstances and psychology conspire to make us oblivious to our own luck. And this leads successful people to view the world as fair. And those who are less successful than them as less talented, or less hard working. ... What to do if you want to be successful in such a world? I think that the best advice is paradoxical. First, you must believe that you are in complete control of your destiny. And that your success comes down only to your own talent and hard work. But second, you’ve got to know that’s not true—for you or anyone else. You have to remember if you do achieve success that luck played a significant role and given your good fortune, you should do what you can to increase the luck of others.

Let’s be clear, sales and business are performance games. But before you form an opinion about someone's talents or reorganize because of their successes and failures, you should consider the possibilities; and how you can contribute to the success of others.

Instead of simply cutting the bottom performers, you can use analytics to figure out if someone has a super-difficult set of accounts. That would tell you if they are unlucky or untalented. And, if you used analytics to understand (before a deal is lost); you could help your salespeople by providing more resources or better opportunities. Isn't that your job?


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