HBR March/April 2021: How leaders can drive sales

Harvard Business Review
March/April 2021
Annotated table of contents

1. Adi Ignatius, How to tell a know-it-all he’s wrong

It is not unusual for business leaders to be larger than life and persuading them may present unique challenges. In this introduction to the issue, Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, recommends the article by Adam Grant on how to overcome resistance from those who think they already know it all.

Idea watch

2. HBR Team, Reengineering the recruitment process

Recent research by Gartner estimates that at the current rate of change in skills in many key functions, as many as 10 new skills might need to be acquired within 18 months of taking up a post, suggesting that hiring for skills may be more appropriate than hiring for resumes. Equally the talent pool is now more diverse as many job seekers use training solutions outside current jobs and geographical distance from the workplace is no longer a determining factor. As a result, companies need to offer an attractive package, above and beyond pay, and including opportunities for continual professional development. Cynthia Burkhardt, global head of talent acquisition at Phillips, in change of hiring around 15,000 people every year, explains how she takes account of these dynamics in her role.

3. Eben Harrell, Mocking can help an initiative succeed

Harrell interviews professor Magdalena Cholakova of Rotterdam School of Management about her research on the uses of humour to help implement a major cultural change effort at PwC, Netherlands. Gently, mockingly invoking some of the new proposed norms, such as “reimagine the possible” during everyday work interactions chips away at the sense of imposition from outside. Trying out the new language in a slightly non-committal and critical way creates a space for everyone to begin to see how it might work without forcing an immediate position-taking. It is a delicate balance, requiring sensitivity to the overall cultural and organizational context, as managers seek to support rather than undermine the success of the change program.

4. Richard Haythornthwaite and Ajay Banga, the former and current chairs of Mastercard, on executing a strategic CEO succession

Haythornthwaite, former chair, and Banga former CEO and current chair of Mastercard describe the ten-year process of preparing for succession that began when Banga was hired to lead the company in 2009. Determining the length of his tenure at the outset allowed Banga to work thoughtfully to transform Mastercard and to lay out the foundations for the next stage in its development. The new CEO, announced in February 2020, was selected through a thorough process that cast a large internal net, providing opportunities for professional development to around 40 executives, before narrowing down the selection in the final stages. Rigorous training and evaluation offered by an external consultancy, a disciplined process of defining the criteria around ‘solving for tomorrow’, respect for impartiality and the inclusion of all the members of the board created broad legitimacy for the process.

Spotlight: How leaders can drive sales

5. Noel Capon and Christoph Senn, When CEOs make sales calls

Based on workshops with strategic and global account managers and interviews with executives, Capon and Senn have identified five types of involvement of CEOs and other senior executives in the sales process. Only a minority of CEOs (14% in this study) act as growth champions, with significant improvements in sales and profitability. The largest categories, 28 and 21% respectively, take a hands-off attitude or act as loose cannons, with limited positive impact. On the other hand, CEOs who act as social visitors and dealmakers have positive impact of around 4% in sales and 7% in profitability. The article describes the upsides and the downsides of these styles and recommends strategies for improvement.

6. Doug J. Chung, How to shift from selling products to selling services

Chung explains that the shift from selling products to selling services affects all the elements of the sales process: what to sell, to whom and how. He suggests that this transformation entails several distinct steps: rethink the customer segmentation by determining the enterprise metrics that capture consumption rather than head count; strengthen the technical skills of the sales team to drive consumption; orient sales practices towards the new targets and types of interactions with clients through hiring, compensation, training, and culture. The transformation at Microsoft and other companies illustrates the analysis.

7. Frank V. Cespedes, Selling after the crisis

According to Cespedes, two types of disconnect dominate sales: within companies, between the sales function and executives, and between companies and customers, as the latter have moved away from earlier models of purchasing decisions, based on seamless transitions from awareness to interest, to desire and action (AIDA). To address these disconnects, he recommends building and maintaining a whole new sales model, providing a distinct understanding of three core components: the customer selection criteria, the customer buying process, and the economics and metrics of going to market.


8. Rob Cross, Heidi K. Gardner, and Alia Crocker, For an agile transformation, choose the right people

This article shows how organizational network analysis can surface informal and formal relationships in the workplace that may help or hinder change initiatives. The authors identify three typical mistakes that undermine agile teams: they are staffed only with star performers; they are kept apart from the main business; and members are 100% dedicated to the team. These design features can be modified to take account of more complex organisational dynamics and foster overall success: use ‘hidden stars’ to staff agile teams and deploy highly connected staff selectively, according to their strengths.

9. Paul Gompers, Will Gornall, Steven N. Kaplan and Ilya A. Strebulaev, How venture capitalists make decisions

This article reports the results of a large survey including major VC firms as well as intensive interviews with investors, capturing broad trends and qualitative insights on decision-making and culture. For instance, it shows that most of the deal flow comes from existing networks: only 10% of deals under consideration result from cold email pitches by entrepreneurs. The most important criteria for selecting deals include the quality of the team and the business model. In terms of financial indicators, VC firms favour cash-on-cash return, rather than discounted cash flow, because the success of investments depends on M&A and IPO exits. On average, VC firms are quite small, employing around 20 people, and their time is split almost equally between networking and sourcing deals and helping portfolio companies.

10. Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer, Are you really listening?

There are substantial barriers for CEOs as they strive to assess the important environmental signals that can lead to success or failure, not least expectations of decisive leadership at speed, and dependence on a variety of lines of communication that may convey distorted information. Thus, listening well is the result of sustained effort, giving permission to challenge blind spots, irrespective of hierarchical position or negative implications, creating an early-warning system and encouraging problem-solving. As well as developing a listening attitude, a space for detached, neutral consideration of possibilities, the organisation also needs processes that regularly surface ideas, opinions, and information from all employees, including regular reports, surveys, interviews, and ad-hoc conversations.

11. Alison M. Dachner and Erin E. Makarius, Turn departing employees into loyal alumni

Companies are increasingly following into the footsteps of universities and other institutions recognising the value of continued good relations with their former employees, as potential advocates in the broader community. In this article, Dachner and Makarius show how compliance requirements related to the exit of employees can be met through processes that lead to a smooth transition from employees to alumni while maintaining a customer service mindset throughout. This is shown through numerous examples of practices from a variety of companies.

12. Ashish Nanda and Das Narayandas, What professional services must do to thrive

This article proposes two important tools to help guide strategic choices for professional services firms: the practice spectrum and the client portfolio matrix. The practice spectrum refers to the level of service sophistication, ranging from commodity, to procedure, to grey hair and rocket science. Firms in each category make choices about the client need their serve, selling proposition, organizational capabilities, and professional skills. This is reflected in a corresponding mix of profit drivers in terms of margin, rate, utilization, and leverage. Given its position on the practice spectrum, a particular professional services firm needs to decide which type of client to pursue, keep or give up, by considering client expectations and behaviours in terms of willingness to pay and costs.

13. Jodi L. Short and Michael W. Toffel, Manage the suppliers that could harm your brand

Short and Toffel have studied tens of thousands of code-of-conduct audits for factories across the world to determine the factors that predict whether suppliers can improve their working practices. They suggest that suppliers who have certified management system standards, adopt lean management, work with unions, avoid piece-rate compensation and supply formerly tarnished buyers tend to have higher labour standards and can get better. Certain practices support suppliers along this path: using highly trained auditors; announcing the audits in advance; and aligning the activities of the purchasing and social responsibility teams internally. Auditing tends to produce more accurate reports when different auditors or auditing firms are used at different times, when a female auditor is included, the auditing work is paid by the company and company staff are involved.

14. Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks, and Mahwesh Khan, Designing the hybrid office

According to a variety of surveys, working from home has gained wide acceptance during the pandemic and any return to the office will almost certainly entail recasting its role. In this article, Fayard et al. suggest that the office will likely remain important for creating a ‘culture space’, as social anchor, schoolhouse, and hub for unstructured collaboration. To work well along these lines, offices will need to be designed and managed to foster moments of human connection, with the help of customised technology. Many companies have taken steps in this direction and the article offers a wealth of example of how these objectives may be achieved in practice.

15. Adi Ignatius interviews Bill Gates, ‘It will need to be the most amazing thing humankind has ever done’

Climate change is here to stay and containing its effects presents extraordinary challenges for humanity. In his new book on the topic, Bill Gates argues that to avoid a climate disaster, green innovation would have to accelerate exponentially to allow for development while staying within the planet’s carrying capacity. Urgent and necessary, getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050 is nonetheless extremely difficult and remains unlikely if we simply follow the current path. Moreover, achieving this objective would not prevent a climate catastrophe given the large quantities of carbon already in the atmosphere. In response, Gates has set out to help galvanise opinion and efforts to increase the pace of innovation and direct more financial resources to it.


16. Adam Grant, Persuading the unpersuadable

There are many internal barriers to listening and taking account of other views, including personality traits such as a presumption of being right (knowing it all), stubbornness, narcissism, and disagreeableness. But, as Grant shows, personality traits do not manifest in the same way in all situations and contexts. It is thus possible to construct interventions that upend established dynamics and even persuade the unpersuadable, as he shows here.

17. Joseph Badaracco, Case study: Protect your company or your cousin?

Closeness to co-workers can bring both privileged access and an emotional surcharge that makes effective use of restricted information more difficult. In this case study, a cousin learns from another that her job at a critical supplier, and the ability of that company to execute existing orders, are in peril. But how are the two issues related and how should this information be handled outside private conversations between relatives?

18. Vasundhara Sawhney, What do we like about WFH?

Sawhney reviews three recent books that consider the pros and cons of working from home from the point of view of employees and their organizations. They all contribute valuable suggestions on healthy boundaries, as we continue our search for the right blend of remote work and the camaraderie and collaboration of the office.

19. Alison Beard, Life’s work interview with Takashi Murakami

Murakami, a famous and successful visual artist, sheds light on his journey from spontaneous work and joyful celebration with others to a more established, and commercially viable art practice.