The Best Managers are Unequal but Fair

Blog for Specialized Sales Systems

In my second job after college, I worked as a salesperson for a small professional services company.  One day, our best salesperson (not me, unfortunately) told us he was leaving. I didn’t understand it – Brad was killing it, and under our commission-heavy comp plan, he was making stratospheric money.

When I asked him why, Brad said, “I’ve got another opportunity where I really have the chance to grow.  It’s a smaller team, and I think I really have a lot to learn from my new boss.” And so he left – because our manager made a fundamental management error.

That fundamental management error was mistaking equal for fair.  Failing to recognize the distinction leads to managers being unintentionally unfair to people like Brad. For an example, let’s use education – there are a lot of similarities between sales management and teaching.

Remember the group projects you did in school? In about 99.99% of group projects, contributions are unequal – the best students in class continue to be the best students, and the students who don’t care continue to not care.  However, everyone gets the same grade.  This is equal, but is it fair? Not to the “A” students, it’s not.

Second example: Were you ever in a class where you wanted to excel and needed help, but the instructional/coaching time was distributed equally between you and students who didn’t care?  How did you like that? How did that go for you?

I think you get the point:  Treating people equally often means you’re being unintentionally unfair to your best people. Education is different than business – teachers are paid to teach everyone, they can’t hire and fire students, and they face massive challenges every day. I have massive respect for what they do.

But sales leaders are paid to correct this fundamental error and use UNEQUAL BUT FAIR as your guide. Otherwise, unintentional unfairness leads to two unfortunate consequences: First top performers (“A” students) don’t feel appreciated/valued, and they get dissatisfied and leave. On the other hand, low performers (“C” students) are too satisfied, and don’t improve or leave.

The Tyranny of Rules

Several years ago, I agreed to speak at a client’s national sales meeting. When I saw the contract, I just had to ask: “Why is there a clause in my contract prohibiting me from using the hotel pool and hot tub?” Answer: The previous year, a married manager was caught, “fooling around” with an employee’s spouse. And as a result, the pool was off-limits – for everyone, not just philanderers.

Making a rule to deal with individual issues is a major case of “equal but unfair” – top performers are insulted, and transgressors aren’t punished. Nothing annoys and alienates top performers like being subjected to rules they don’t need. In a lot of cases, that’s just lazy management – making a rule for everyone is easier than dealing with individual issues head-on.

The key to driving performance: UNEQUAL BUT FAIR 

Last year, I served as Interim VP Sales for one of my clients. One of my salespeople complained to HR about the “preferential treatment” a colleague, Tracy was receiving. The VP of HR said, “We hear Tracy comes and goes whenever she wants, you let her skip your weekly one-on-one meetings, and you never ask her about her call numbers. We seem to have an issue of fairness.”

“We don’t have a fairness issue,” I replied, “We have an inequality. Tracy sells twice as much as everyone else. If they want that kind of treatment too, they can have it. All they have to do is double their sales.”

It’s that simple: Give top performers preferential treatment, but give everyone the opportunity to receive that treatment. Treat your best people the best.

How to Be Fairly Unequal

High-performing teams typically pull several levers to achieve “fairly unequal” management:

  • Make Unequal treatment a policy. Sales compensation plans are a perfect example of codified inequality – the salesperson who sells more makes more, and it’s in writing. Where else can you make fairly unequal treatment part of your policy? How else can you bake preferential treatment into your operating system?
  • Communicate and celebrate unequal treatment. Fairly unequal treatment should be public, not private. If your top performers are more richly rewarded, your low performers should know about it. That way, “A” students feel valued, and “C” students get mad…and motivated.
  • Give everyone a fair chance at unequal treatment. The goal is motivation, not discrimination – if everyone has an opportunity to achieve preferential treatment, you’re not discriminating. You want low performers to feel they have an opportunity to become top performers – if they want to.
  • Don’t use rules to solve individual performance problems. A rule for everyone based on one person’s transgressions is like giving everyone a “C.” Instead, deal with individual performance problems individually.
  • Give top performers more of what they want. Particularly in sales, it’s not the money – top performers are already making good coin. Focus on rewards that give them more control and autonomy, increase their quality of life, and show them respect. (Hint: Ask them what they want!)

Remember Brad, the top performer who left his lucrative sales job because he didn’t feel valued? In his next job, he got more of the management attention he craved and deserved, and his success proved it was warranted. He also got micromanaged, his call numbers got tracked, and he had to go to the office every day…until he started making his number. Then, and only then, he got rewarded with autonomy, flexibility, and freedom.

And that, sales leaders, is how unfairly equal treatment should work.

What to do:

  1. Record how much time you spend with each of your people. Are top performers getting enough?
  2. Ask your best people what they need. Are you giving them enough of the right attention?
  3. Set a new target for how much time you’ll spend with each seller.
  4. Use this target to evaluate interruptions, requests, and new demands on your time.
  5. Evaluate and adjust.