One of my favorite hobbies is playing baseball with my kids. I’m very involved with their Little League teams and volunteer to help teach baseball skills to the kids. My 7-year old son, Steven, is playing his first year of coach-pitch baseball. Prior to that, he played T-ball which is a very different game.
One day at practice, I was pitching to the team of 7-year olds. Boy after boy came up to home plate and swung the bat as if it were a wet noodle. They picked up the bat, barely swung, and, as soon as they made contact with the ball, stopped swinging altogether. The ball dribbled a few feet in front of home plate and then the process began all over again. It wasn’t fun for the kids to play, and even more painful for parents to watch.
Having watched a few kids swing the bat like a piece of cooked linguini, I got an idea. I picked up the ball, walked over to the hitter, and asked what I was holding in my hand. The boy, looking puzzled, said, “It’s a ball, Coach!” He resisted all temptation to finish that statement with, “you dummy.” I contradicted, “No, it’s not! It’s a tomato. And the next time I throw the tomato over home plate, I want you to crush it with the bat. Crush the tomato!” A dastardly smile appeared on the boy’s face. He went back to home plate to hit again. Ball after ball sailed into the outfield as the boy crushed the tomato. And it wasn’t one boy. It was hitter after hitter crushing the tomato with a big grin on their face.
What changed? We didn’t teach hitting technique so they were not better-skilled hitters. We didn’t change their stance, nor did we alter their swing. It was the same group of kids with the same skill-level using the same old bat and ball. All of these factors were the same, but the results were drastically different.
What changed was a shift in the player’s mindset. That shift changed their performance. For one, the kids had a visual in mind when they were hitting. And, that visual was something fun. It also had a little naughty in it. Wouldn’t these kids get into trouble if they were crushing real tomatoes? Mom wouldn’t like the mess! This real-life story was really Motivation 101 at its core.
This same issue happens on sales teams every day. Sales people show up to work without really being there. They are there in body, but not in mind or spirit. They work the hours, collect a paycheck, and begin the process all over again. Whose fault is it that this culture exists in your company? In my mind, a leader is responsible for inspiring their team to perform. Their job is to inspire success! How many sales people on your team stop their swing as soon as they make contact with the ball? How many balls are sitting in the dirt a few feet from home plate?
There are three reasons why the strategy with the Little Leaguers worked.
1. The motivation was fun. Sure, technique is important, but that’s not the only ingredient of the success recipe. Successful teams have leaders that motivate the group to want to excel. The team relies on its leader to make work fun. Perspiration without inspiration leads to frustration. Inspired teams don’t even notice that they perspire.
2. They could visualize the metaphor. When I spoke with the kids, I didn’t toss out meaningless, trite expressions. “Win one for the Gipper” would not have worked with these kids. The tomato was a metaphor that created an image in their minds. I probably could have use a pinata and had the same effect. In either case, a picture was created in their mind that they could replicate.
3. They had a focus for their energy. As you can imagine, many of the fathers were bellowing at the kids; “Lift your elbow!” “Turn your foot.” “Move your hands.” None of those worked, just like yelling at workers to work harder doesn’t yield productivity improvement. The “crush the tomato” expression gave them one thing on which to focus. We just wanted them to swing the bat as hard as they could without directly telling them to do it. We wanted them to swing the bat because they wanted to, not because they were told to do it.
These same three ingredients can be used as a motivation recipe in the workplace.
*Pick a specific area of the business in which you desire an improvement in the results the sales team is producing.
*Create a fun program to inspire the team and create awareness of the issue.
*Develop visuals to promote the program.
One of the most rote sales functions is prospecting. Sales people, fundamentally, despise it, but every sales person needs to do it to be successful. Sales managers have an opportunity to reduce this pain and make the exercise fun. For example, create a team prospecting time where everyone makes calls at the same time. Have prizes for, not only the best results, but also the funniest story about a prospecting experience. Every sales person has one of those, if not a bunch of them.
Years ago, I managed a lead creation channel that was underperforming. Yelling at the partners was not a prudent strategy. So, to get them up to snuff, I created a mock, fantasy football league where the channel partners played against one another each week. Points were awarded for different lead types and standings were kept for the season, and more importantly shared amongst the channel partners. They quickly forgot about lead generation and became focused on winning the championship. Needless to say, very quickly, we were drowning in qualified leads.
Leadership, at its core, is about motivating a team to perform at levels they never dreamed possible. You see it in sports every day. The team that wins the championship isn’t necessarily as skilled as the others, but they are driven to achieve. Get creative and inspire your team to crush the tomato!