Although the organizations we interviewed had different cultures in many respects, all shared certain values. Leading sales organizations seek to create a cultural environment where salespeople are treated with respect and there is an opportunity to grow professionally and personally. Other positive cultural attributes seem so obvious that some organizations take them for granted and fail to develop policies to sustain them. As one new sales leader commented, “I came into an organization that did not have a sales culture at all. People had no selling skills to speak of, and there were no performance metrics in place. The very first thing I did was to create some measures, define processes, and make sure everyone understood what was required from their role.” Successful organizations realize that they must be proactive in improving their culture. One company representative noted, “Our culture is our weakness. We are too resistant to change and too entrenched in the past. We gotta get to the other side of the fence.”
Without support mechanisms, such as established channels of communication, training programs, incentives, or performance standards, many of these healthy cultural characteristics fall by the wayside. The list of positive attributes might include such things as “having the ability to think for yourself,” “being able to see the end results of your work,” “being well informed,” and “having challenging work.”
Similarly, there are negative cultural attributes that can create dissention within a sales force and ultimately lead to employee dissatisfaction and poor performance. For example, treating people differently or unfairly, or showing favoritism, will likely undermine strategic objectives by pitting salespeople against each other. Gossiping, bad-mouthing the company or management, and unhealthy competition that creates an every-personfor-themselves environment creates winners and losers and undermines cultures, or perpetuates bad ones.
One of the most critical aspects of building and maintaining a strong culture is that management models the culture and communicates the cultural values, norms, and expectations in a consistent manner. Cultures fail to influence when there is a disparity between management’s stated values and management’s actions. However, management can’t lead by fear or manipulation, and enforcing a “mandated” culture won’t work.
Another important lesson learned is that organizations change and values change. Consequently, the values of a sales culture should be evaluated on a regular basis and updated if necessary, given changes in key personnel, mergers or acquisitions, or a change in the product offerings or customer mix. In particular, organizations that are acquired or merge with organizations that have very different cultures need to evaluate how they can best develop a new culture and reinforce that culture in light of the goals and objectives of the new organization. While this can be a difficult task that involves egos, emotions, and strongly held beliefs, a strategy for creating an influential culture is a requirement for winning sales in today’s marketplace.
The North American operations of Stora Enso is a result of a 1998 merger of Stora and Enso and an acquisition of Consolidated Paper in 2000. Each of the three original companies that formed the new Stora Enso had their own unique history and sales culture: Stora, a Swedish company founded in 1288, was Sweden’s oldest surviving mining charter; Enso, incorporated in Finland, had an equally long history; and Consolidated Paper, the Wisconsin-based forestry product company that was originally incorporated in 1894.
The integration of three cultures was seen as both a strength and a challenge for the organization. The culture of the people, management style, and the overall sales culture of each company differed significantly. This made it difficult for salespeople thrown together with very different cultural values, norms, and backgrounds.
In addition to bringing together sales associates from three different countries—complete with language, cultural, and historical differences—the primary cultural distinction centered on the hierarchical versus decentralized nature of the organization and decision-making authority. Stora was traditionally a flat organization with a decentralized decision-making authority, meaning that salespeople were empowered to make decisions in the field without being required to seek approval from their managers. Enso was more of a hierarchical organization, and Consolidated Paper’s culture was characterized as a traditional U.S. manufacturing top-down, decision-making organization with a very centralized authority. In both Enso and Consolidated, salespeople were not accustomed to making their own decisions in the field.
The new Stora Enso culture adopted various attributes from each of the three legacy companies. This new hybrid culture, while borrowing from the Enso and Consolidated cultures, tended to give more weight to the flat, decentralized authority structure of Stora. Consequently, various individuals throughout the organization, depending on the company they came from, had challenges with adapting to new and unfamiliar leadership styles. Some salespeople were not comfortable with making decisions on their own, while others were not comfortable with having to consult with their manager before making decisions in the field.
The company has made great strides in creating a new and distinct sales culture, and through training its salespeople have become “more culturally diverse and aware in their thought processes and more open-minded and accepting of different cultures.” They are also more comfortable with knowing when to make autonomous decisions and when to report to management.