Episode 1: What is the Strategic Enablement Framework?
Marissa Gbenro: Hello and welcome to the inaugural episode of the Win-Win podcast by Highspot. Join us as we dive into changing trends in the workplace and how to navigate them successfully. I’m your host, Marissa Gbenro. Through my work as a content marketer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what content people prefer to consume. What did I find? Well, best practices and research are very popular across the board. So, each episode of this podcast will provide insights and best practices on emerging trends to help you stay ahead of the curve. Today we’ll discuss how the impact of COVID-19 has forced many organizations to reevaluate the effectiveness of their revenue engine and how to move forward.
To help us unpack this topic, I’ve invited my colleague, Steve Hallowell, Highspot’s VP of Strategic Services, to be our first guest. Welcome, Steve, and thank you for joining us. Can you introduce yourself and your role to the audience?
Steve Hallowell: Hi, Marissa, and thank you so much for having me. I’m Steve Hallowell. I lead strategic services here at Highspot. My background is that I led sales enablement operations and strategy teams at a number of high-growth technology companies over the past decade. I recently joined Highspot to help our customers benefit from some of the best practices out there, both across our customer base and across the industry.
MG: Perfect. Thank you, Steve. I think we can all agree that 2020 has forced a lot of companies to do an internal audit of what’s working, what’s not, and ways that they can continue to drive revenue. And because of this, I felt that it was only right that the first episode of this podcast cover the strategic enablement framework. What is it? What is the path to mastery and how can people get started? So, Steve, can you start by telling us a little bit about the strategic enablement framework and what it is?
SH: Sure — thank you, Marissa. So, to step back, I would first start with what is the strategic enablement framework trying to drive, and really it’s about trying to drive consistent performance. And I don’t necessarily mean one person being consistent, though that’s a good thing too. But what I mean is that across your team, you may have some people who are doing particularly well. But then most people are doing somewhere around what you would expect. To draw a contrast here in many organizations that I look at, this is true for, I think, a very high percentage of sales organizations.
You have a few people who are doing really, really well, but you have many more people who are actually struggling. So it’s not that they’re just a little bit below quota — they’re actually a lot below. That’s a really unhealthy dynamic for many, many reasons. You know you can imagine these are people who are all consuming marketing resources, they’re using SDR time, they’re using up time from your technical sales team and sales leadership. And yet they’re not turning that into productive value in terms of success in their sales endeavors.
From a morale standpoint, now you have a whole bunch of people that are not being nearly as successful as they could be. That’s no fun for anybody. It’s certainly not helpful for the careers of those folks. So again, when you kind of step back, if you have a situation where some people are doing really well and a bunch of people are struggling, that’s not where we want to be. It does tell us that it’s possible to do well, however.
When you have some people who are doing well, that says, “Hey, there is a path to success here.” We want to be able to turn this into a situation where most people, the bulk of people, are doing what we would call “kind of reasonably well.” Maybe they’re a little above quota, and if they’re a little below quota, it’s solid, healthy performance, and the number of under-performers is much less.
We really want it to look like sort of a bell curve, the way we would imagine it would be. In the vast majority of cases, that’s actually not what the performance of the team what’s like. The strategic enablement framework is something that we developed as we looked across our customer base and saw what the very best customers are doing. There are really two things that the very best customers are doing, and they sound really simple — they’re just hard to do in practice. One of them is defining winning behaviors, define the things that those best people, the people who are succeeding, are doing. The second is systematically helping people master those behaviors. It doesn’t do us any good to define what the best people are doing if nobody can actually go replicate that. Part of the art there is in defining the behaviors granularly enough and crisply enough that we can actually operationalize them. Part of that is about having a really robust way to make sure that no sellers are left behind. We’re bringing everybody along with us, everybody is learning the key things that matter, or we figure out how to teach them better so that everybody eventually gets there.
MG: That’s awesome. Thank you, Steve. One question that I have is how do you measure impact? How do you even know what areas to focus on for metrics of success and key indicators for continuous performance?
SH: Sure. Let me start with a little context. So often in companies we see that there’s a big difference between the folks who are performing really, really well and everybody else. This was true before COVID and I think COVID has not helped this trend. The size of the group of people that are doing really, really well is much smaller than the group of people who are struggling.
I think we all kind of assume that most people are somewhere in the middle, but unfortunately, in many companies, the bulk of the people are actually out in the left in terms of the people who are most struggling. So the opportunity for businesses is that because we have some people doing well, let’s figure out what those people are doing and get the rest of the folks in our company to do those things.
The reality of actually making this happen is often pretty challenging. It’s one of these things that is incredibly valuable. I think everybody wants to do it and yet it can be really hard to do in real life. The strategic enablement framework is really a roadmap for how to do this. It’s been tried and true and applied many times, and if you follow this framework, you really can change the shape of the curve of performance in your organization. It goes from a situation where many people are underperforming to a situation where most people are really doing quite well, with all of the benefit that comes from that, which is you no longer having this big drag on performance across the organization. You no longer have a lot of people who are just failing to live up to their potential. Really, you have most people performing well, driving financial return, and driving the growth of the business forward.
MG: Is there a specific term that you use when thinking of how you phrase closing this gap and what it is?
SH: Yeah, it’s a great question, Marissa. It’s interesting because I hear this question asked in different ways by different people, but it all comes down to the same thing. One question that I hear come up is an enablement leader saying, “Hey, how do I measure the impact of my enablement program?”
It can also come from a very different altitude in the company. Let’s say you have somebody on the board who’s saying, “Hey, I have a company that’s growing quite nicely, but should I be high-fiving the go-to-market organization because they are just killing it? Or do we need to uplevel our game because we’re leaving something on the table?”
Especially in the world that I come from with high growth companies, let’s say you have a company growing at 50% a year. Is that phenomenal? Or should that company be growing at 100%? I actually think this framework can be applied to both audiences to say, “Are we really taking full advantage of the market opportunity ahead of us and using all the investments we’re making — not only in our sellers, but in all the people who surround our sellers? The marketing team, sales consultants, sales engineers, your customer success folks, your account managers — are we bringing the full weight of that company to bear in an effective way or not?” And that comes back to this notion of consistency.
I look at quota attainment, if that’s the metric I care about: How many people are blowing their quota out, how many people are a little bit above quota, how many people are a little bit below, or how many people are really struggling? If I put people into those buckets, what does the ratio look like across those buckets? If I see that most people are kind of in the middle of that, I’m doing really well. Again, the reality for most companies, though, is that far too many people are over in the “I’m struggling” bucket.
That says to me that the organization as a whole has not figured out how to make its people successful. So you can look at this in overall quota attainment but you can also look at this in more specific things, like maybe how quickly folks ramp is a big issue for you if you’re a fast growing company. Then you can look at it in terms of how much business do people close in their first year. Usually when people say they have a ramp challenge, it’s not that nobody’s ramping quickly — it’s that some people are, but a bunch of people aren’t. So there’s, again, disparity between the haves and have-nots.
It’s one of these things that can sound really simple, and can be harder to do in practice. Step one, do I know what those best people are doing? This is something that for a lot of companies you’ll get an answer, but sometimes the answer isn’t specific enough that you can operationalize it. A situation that I’ve certainly been in when leading an enablement team is, let’s say a head of sales comes to me and says, “Hey Steve, go make our people better, we want better performance.” What should I train them to do? What do you want them to do differently? And that’s not really clear when you actually get to the level of running a program to help people get better. You don’t really know where to start. It’s sort of like trying to scale a pile of mush, it’s just a nondescript pile of something. And I want more of it. Well, how am I ever going to copy it because I don’t even know where I’m starting. So the first task really is, do I even know what the best people do? Have I defined that in a way that’s clear enough and crisp enough that I can really operationalize those things? Do I have the blueprint for what I want to replicate?
MG: I was just going to say, I think that defines so much of the pain points for a lot of professionals, “Go do this and do it better.” Well, what is this? What does success look like? And if I come back to you and improved in one area, was that the area that was most important? Is that going to have the most business impact? So getting very clear on expectations of what good looks like and areas that you’ve clearly identified need work and are going to have the most impact are extremely important before even starting. You don’t want to get too far into it and realize you focused all this time and energy on something that no one wanted to change. You have to put the mush in a box so you at least know you want it to have four sides, instead of being told, “No, I wanted it to be a circle or triangle instead.”
SH: Yeah. You know, I think something that you see often is that sales leaders will actually sort of over-delegate to an ailment. They hire an enablement leader. They’re super psyched. They can’t wait to see what we can all go do now that they have a strong enablement team. But they don’t recognize that there are certain things that the enablement leader just simply can’t solve by themselves. So part of defining a set of winning behaviors, for example, is, “Are we really clear about what we want our sales team members to accomplish and our managers tracking, are those things happening?” and then holding people accountable and coaching them when they’re not.
That’s something that there’s a lot of work by the sales leadership team to do there, enablement can facilitate, but they can’t fully own it. Or, similarly, “Are we arming our salespeople with the right content to support having the conversations that we need them to have?” In most companies, the product marketing team has a lot to say about that content and the messaging in that content. If there isn’t the right alignment across product marketing, sales, and sales enablement, then product marketing doesn’t have the right vision for what they really need to build that will help fill that need and really provide the right milestone. Sales enablement can knock it out of the park on the downstream efforts, but if you’re not enabling on the right thing, it’s not going to help.
MG: That absolutely makes sense, and I heard you kind of mention training and coaching a couple of times. How exactly does training and coaching fit into this framework and where is it most important to expect training and coaching to have a real impact, or what are the best key metrics or indicators to expect from training and coaching to make sure you’re really getting the most out of it early on? Like you said, downstream isn’t when you want to recognize something has gone wrong.
SH: So that’s a great question. I think I’d start with there are two things that lead to consistent performance. The first that we were just talking about was defining winning behaviors, but then we also need to systematically help the team master those behaviors. And that’s one of the places that training and coaching fits in. One of the other things I see is that maybe we haven’t defined all of our winning behaviors, but we have at least one thing that we know it’s really important for our teams to go do.
A very common example of that, for instance, is that we know we need our teams to do better business discovery. Before they get too deep into talking about our product, we need to understand the business challenges that we’re going to be solving for. Let’s say that’s the thing that I want people to go do. Many enablement teams will kind of go through the normal things that an enablement organization can control to help with that first. Maybe they publish some discovery questions, perhaps they wrap some guidance around that of here’s when and how to use those assets and materials. That can be wonderful for somebody who is really self motivated to grab those discovery questions.
But the reality is that for most of us when we’re learning something new, we need more than that to get good at doing something. We need some real structure to our training to be able to learn a new concept. We need to be able to practice it and build confidence before we go use it with a customer in what can feel like a pretty high pressure environment. And lastly, we need somebody to hold us accountable for actually going to do it and providing us with the right support when we’re out there in front of the customer. This is where the role of the frontline manager really comes in.
If as an enablement team I can do a wonderful job putting the right content out there — I get the content, I source the material, I package it really well, I make sure everybody knows about it, I even built great training around it, I hold an awesome training session and everybody loves it — I may still fail in the objective of getting the whole team to do it consistently because there’s this extra missing piece on the path to mastery. Am I creating accountability in the field for doing that thing? Are my frontline managers plugged in? Do they see it as being important? Are they providing the right coaching and support when I’m actually out there with customers?
MG: I think that accountability and visibility piece is often overlooked. There’s a box that’s going to get checked of if you did it or didn’t do it, but it’s so much more than that. Accountability is more than saying, “Did you do it?” or “Did you not do it?” but, “Are you practicing these behaviors on a daily basis and using them?” because we know it works. We’re asking you to change behaviors and for you to do these specific things for a reason and that accountability isn’t translated. There’s no open loop of feedback that not only gives you visibility but also holds the person accountable to say, “I’ve tried it, this is the success I’m seeing,” or, “I’m not seeing any success at all and maybe it requires some rework.” I think that aspect is really important and often not talked about enough.
Also, you mentioned change behavior. How do you make sure that we’re helping to build that confidence in sellers and how can enablement practitioners in particular really hone in on making sure that each seller that you’re putting onto the phones is ready and going to smash that call their first time?
SH: I think what you’re kind of touching on here is how you build really effective training. There’s a few things that I’ve seen over the years that make a big difference here. I think one of the first things is getting really specific about how you hope to help people’s training. What is the specific thing you want them to do differently as a result of the training and where are they actually stuck? Sometimes it’s easy to kind of launch into a training and sort of unload on somebody saying, “Here are all of the ways I’m going to try to help you, but I don’t really know what you need.”
It would be sort of like, your car is having some issue so you pull into a shop and they change the tires and the transmission, they change the belts in the engine, they wash your windows, they change the headlamps, and then you have this huge bill at the end of it. You’re not sure they actually fixed the thing you needed to be fixed, but you spent a lot of time and money doing it. Your car is shinier now, but did it actually help anything? As opposed to being able to say hey, I need help with this, I have a squeal in my back left tire and I need a new brake pad. That requires really talking to people, talking to their managers, understanding specifically where they lack confidence, where they need the most support, and recognizing that can vary across different people.
Secondly, it’s about making training that’s actually challenging. I just got off the phone with a sales leader who said, “I want a situation where all the training that my team takes is the hardest thing they ever do. I want them to know that if they get through that training and they’re successful, they would be fully confident to face any situation with a customer.”
Many of us in the enablement field are nice people and we want friends on the sales team, and we don’t want to push too hard, and we want them to feel good about our training. The reality is, if I go through training that’s really easy, I didn’t get anything from it. If you push me in a productive way, outside of my comfort zone, now I’m really getting value and really getting better. Now training will be a good use of my time as opposed to looking back and saying, “That was kind of nice, I had a good time hanging out with so-and-so, but I’m not sure that I’m actually any better for it at the end of it.”
MG: That’s really true. Some of the best trainings I’ve ever gone through made me so intimidated that I thought, “The first time I ever get on a call with a customer, they’re going to ask me all these really hard questions and I’ll have to remember all of these product specs.” But then you get on a call and you’re having a great conversation and it just so happens that there’s this perfect opening where you get to pitch your product and it goes a hundred times easier than what you were prepped for in training. I have to agree, I would prefer training to be the hardest part of my job, as opposed to when I actually get on the phone.
If you had to wrap up the three components that are most important to keep in mind when driving consistent performance, what would you say those are?
SH: I think the first piece is just understanding where you are and understanding if there’s an opportunity to improve consistency. In almost all cases the answer is yes, there is. But the more crisp you can get, the more you can help focus your leadership team on why this matters and what the opportunity is.
The next step is to really robustly define the winning behaviors. But I would say just pick one thing where you and your leadership team know that if only our people could do this thing differently, it would move the needle. It’s not going to solve everything but you know it’s going to help things get better. As we’re in SKO season, think about the major themes you’re anchoring your sales kickoff around. That probably points to a behavior where there’s an opportunity, that if people did that thing, you’d be better off.
The third piece is to really swing all the way through on helping people master those behaviors. Again, with SKO season here, have your SKO, but make sure you’re following up with, “Here’s the content you use to action this thing that we talked about, here’s where you find it, here’s where we guide you on how to use it, here’s the training program around it, here’s how to build confidence through getting coached,” and then hold people accountable for actually going and doing it in the real world.
Make sure you have alignment with leadership. If you get pushback on any of that and leadership says “Oh, we don’t really need to do that,” I think it’s worth asking the question, “Is this behavior really important? Does this actually matter?” Because if it’s not worth the manager’s time to follow up and coach, is it worth your time to put the stuff together? And more importantly, is it worth your team’s time to sit through that session at SKO? So make sure that you really have that alignment across the teams that this is what matters and you’re willing to really drive it through.
MG: I love the recommendation that if you’re receiving pushback, then it’s time to ask the question, “Is this really important? Is it a priority that we should be spending our time on and an initiative we’re trying to still move forward?” If you don’t think it’s that important, then maybe it’s not and we can save a bunch of time and effort that way.
Steve, this was so much fun. Thank you so much for joining us for the first episode of the Win-Win Podcast. It was a pleasure having you.
SH: Thank you, Marissa. Thanks for having me.