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January 01, 2017

New Perspectives

Culture, Communication and Calendars

by John Addison

Click here to order the November 2016 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.

John Addison spent 35 years in the corporate offices of one of the world’s largest direct selling companies, Primerica Inc., most recently serving as Co-CEO. Since his retirement, he wrote the best-selling book Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, and he now serves as the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS magazine and President and CEO of Addison Leadership Group. He regularly offers his leadership insights to Direct Selling News readers, and has answered some of your questions below. If you have a question you’d like John to answer in a future issue, email:

We’d like to improve the relationship between our corporate team and our field leadership this year. Any tips or suggestions on where to start?

A lot of things in life start with having the right assumptions. The independent contractors of your salesforce who are out building their own businesses are never going to look at the corporate folks and say, “Oh, they’re just like me.” There is always going to be some tension. That said, having a symbiotic working relationship, where the corporate team and the salesforce are moving in the same direction, is incredibly critical for the health of the business.

The death of having a positive working relationship with the field is if they think you’re saying one thing but doing another. I’ve been around when there was almost war between the corporate people and the salesforce, and the salesforce had a view of “You don’t appreciate me, you don’t understand me, you’re more focused on you and your needs than me and my needs.” The key component to avoiding that is constant communication. You’ve got to meet with them. You’ve got to talk to them. You’ve got to listen to them. When people are upset, you need to hear them. Maybe you can’t fix everything they want fixed, but they need to know that you’ve listened to them. You can disagree without being disagreeable.

The other thing they need to know is that you understand them. Their view is: “You’re getting a salary. You’re getting a bonus based on corporate performance. I’m out here on commission.” They’ve got to know that you understand what they’re doing, that you have a ticket on the clue bus of what they go through every day—all the rejection, all the no’s. They aren’t a cog in the wheel of the business, they are what drives the business. It is your job to build the infrastructure that allows them to have success.

You need to be constantly focused on the care and feeding of the salesforce. This business is at its core distribution, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re focused on that. This means spending time with them and listening to them, but also improving things for them. When we were preparing for a big event, I used to tell our corporate team that we had to get better than we were at the event before. We had to show the salesforce it’s better for them today than it was yesterday because of what we’re doing.

The cornerstone of the whole thing is trust. They’ve got to know that your words and your actions are in alignment and that you’re looking out for the best interest of the organization and the team. If they really trust you, they will forgive you when you screw up. If they lose trust in you, you’re done.

We’re having a tough time finding the right person for a key management role. What can we do to improve our odds of finding the right fit this time?

One of the things that I think is incredibly important is the culture of your organization. You have to understand what makes your organization unique. I’ve seen through my years very smart people who get rejected by a company’s culture; it’s kind of like an organ transplant, where sometimes a body rejects a perfectly healthy organ. You’ve got to find people who love, not like, your business and the business model.

I’ve seen people who come into a direct selling company and say, “I like this about the business but not that.” And the truth is, those people aren’t going to fit. You have to embrace the business model and the business in order to succeed. As a result, I’ve always had a huge bias for developing management from within. I believe the healthiest way to develop a long-term, successful direct sales business is to hire talented junior people who you develop into talented senior people. Probably my bias stems from the fact that that is how I developed. I was a kid who grew up and wound up running the business. But I learned all the aspects of it, and I knew how the company worked. I had a visceral feel for it.

Sometimes you don’t have that luxury and you have to bring in a senior person to fill a role. When that happens, your selection process has to be first and foremost: Can they do the job that you’re hiring them for? But you’ve also got to figure out: Do they embrace and like the model? That doesn’t mean someone has to have direct selling experience, but it does require a certain personality type. Direct sales is a different business. It’s not like manufacturing widgets and selling them online. You can tell whether somebody has the personality type and is going to say, “I really like this and this is fun,” or if the person is going to constantly fight your culture.

John Addison

What are some techniques we can use to sustain the energy surge that comes with the new year?

Each year, when we came into a new year I had a theme for the year that represented my view of how we were going to drive energy and focus. For example, 2007 was “007, License to Build.” Then, we laid out an incentive calendar. There are cycles to the business, and every so often a salesforce needs a shot of adrenalin and anti-rejection medicine. The incentive calendar lets you schedule that. So, you might have your kickoff meeting at the beginning of the year to start things off rocking, and then about April, you come in with another incentive to provide another boost. You have to have a calendar of short- and long-term incentives to create and achieve excitement.

The most important thing in this business is momentum. You’re either building it or losing it every day. It’s like being a football coach in a game. There are games where everything is going great and then the momentum turns against you, and you’ve got to get the momentum back. A football coach has to be focused on the momentum of the game and making sure you and your team have the momentum. It’s the same thing with a year in direct selling. You have to lay out a plan, and you need to have enough of a feel for the business so that you know when the plan needs to change. Sometimes you might start something and realize it isn’t working. Well, you’d better come up with something that works.

You have an opportunity to visit with many different companies. What do you see the most successful doing that others miss?

Companies that are very successful have a strong culture, as well as a consistency to what they’re doing. Some companies are constantly changing products, changing comp plans, changing, changing. Even positive change is disruptive. Success comes when the leaders of the organization have strong integrity and character, which fuels credibility and strengthens the culture.

Let’s be honest, most of our events are pretty similar. But the companies that do incredibly well also have great recognition. I think the ones that I see that are the most successful are very field-driven and very recognition-driven about the successes that people are having.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for direct selling companies in 2017?

I think there are tremendous opportunities in this business. I think people today want to control the means to their income instead of having the means to their income control them. People today are less job-focused and more lifestyle-focused, and that creates a tremendous opportunity for people who have the right platform.

Everybody’s not going to make money; that’s never going to be the case. But when you have enough people who put the work in and succeed, and you’re offering a real business opportunity for people, people are looking for that. The fact is, young people today aren’t looking for a job for the rest of their life. They want what they do for their money to fit with how they want to live. And a good direct sales opportunity offers that.