EPISODE 519: How Shifting Your Underlying Belief System Will Lead to Richer Sales Success with Ian Mills

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on February 19, 2022, featuring Ian Mills, author of “The Salesperson’s Secret Code” and the “The Leader’s Secret Code.”  Find both here.

Find Ian on LinkedIn.

IAN’S TIP: “If I were to guide somebody on something they do that is potentially game-changing, what I always say to people is, go model somebody who does something that you don’t do or can’t do or don’t believe you can do.”


Fred Diamond:  My guest today is Ian Mills. He’s the co-author of The Leader’s Secret Code, The Salesperson’s Secret Code, and 100 Big Ideas to Help You Succeed. We’re going to be talking about those ideas today. Specifically, we’re going to be talking about what makes a great salesperson.  Ian, we talk about that every day. It’s like, how do you get better at the art and science of selling?

The mission of The Institute for Excellence in Sales, the host of today’s webcast and virtual learning session and podcast is to help sales leaders attract, retain, motivate and elevate top tiers talent. For everybody listening, Ian and his team have analyzed over 1,000 sales professionals globally. They have a deep rich understanding about what we should be focusing on. Let’s get into it. Ian, good to see you. Thank you so much, Ian Mills. Very simple question here. Is there a formula that one can follow to emulate the top sales professionals?

Ian Mills: Well, firstly, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be with you and your listeners. Yes, there is a formula. Five years ago, I was unsure about that. When we did our research, that then told us that there is a formula, hence the title of the book, The Salesperson’s Secret Code, and the following book called The Leader’s Secret Code.

I started from that premise when we began to write the book. Actually, I’m pretty confident having sold for around about 40 years that I know what the answer is to good selling. When I engaged with my academic colleague, he said, “No, if you’re going to do research, you can’t hold an opinion or a view or a perspective, you have to start with a blank piece of paper, and you have to do the research to uncover actually whether there is some formula, some code, something that binds top performing salespeople together.”

That to me was a little bit risky, because that meant we had to invest money, we had to invest time, and we might have found out that actually, there isn’t anything. The good news from our point of view as a business and as an author is that we were able to uncover factors that distinguished top performing salespeople from the rest. The way I see it, if I were to express it in an easy-to-understand way, is the formula is the ingredients that are optimized to make the taste sound perfect. I think about it like Coca Cola, you know what the ingredients are, because you can read it on the label. What you don’t know is how to replicate the taste by optimizing the balance of the different things that go into it. In our code, you will recognize all of the elements and understand them. What you won’t necessarily know is how do you get the balance just right in order that you can become one of those top performing salespeople?

Fred Diamond: I’m based here in the United States, you’re based just outside of London. One of the first questions coming up is, is there global implications? Meaning, can you take a high performing sales professional in the Far East or Europe or South America? Are the attributes basically the same for excellence in sales, or are there distinctions that may come to play?

Ian Mills: It’s a great question. Just to give you a little bit of positioning before I answer that question. What we studied and what we researched with the belief systems. What we weren’t looking at were the skills, we weren’t looking at the behavior, we weren’t looking at the tips, we weren’t looking at the processes. There’s a particular reason why we did that. If you think about basic psychology, the beliefs you hold cause you to behave in the way you behave, and the way you behave causes you to be the success that you either are or are not. We thought, what we need to do is study the underlying root cause of what causes top performers to behave in the way in which they behave. What’s really interesting about belief systems is you can’t see them.

I can observe somebody’s skill, I can observe somebody’s behavior, I can see that they’re following some kind of a methodology, but I don’t necessarily know what goes on in their head. What are they thinking? How are they coping? How are they overcoming barriers? That’s where our focus was. What’s really interesting is that we did research, as you rightly said a moment ago, with 1,000 salespeople across different vertical markets and globally. The underlying belief systems are for top performers almost identical. The way that manifests itself from a behavioral point of view, you will clearly notice differences maybe in Asia and North America versus maybe Europe.

Then frankly, if you take the US as an example, you will see different behaviors by state. Indeed, you’ll see different behaviors by vertical market or organization, either because different organizations have different cultures and different states have different cultures. It’s exactly the same in Europe, but the underlying belief system that causes people to behave in the way in which they behave, there is a strong level of commonality.

Fred Diamond: Let’s get deep into it then. It’s interesting, I had a conversation today with a member of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, and we were talking about the ability to train people to be better at sales prospecting. This person’s belief was, with the right skill set development, we can take anybody and make them a good prospector. Ian, like you, I’ve worked with thousands of sales professionals, and I’ve seen hundreds of them, if not close to thousands, who haven’t been able to get good at a core sales skill of prospecting with all the training. When to make phone calls and how to make calls.

I realized it came down to what I think we’re going to be talking about today, their belief systems. Things that are innate in them, fear of rejection, those kinds of things. I want to get deep into it, tell us what some of these underlying belief systems are. How did you notice them? Then we want to talk about the premise that I just said, can you shift your underlying belief system? Or is it, go get a better job, or something else?

Ian Mills: Let’s answer the second part of it first, and then I’ll give you some real examples. Yes, you can change people’s belief systems. On the other hand, they’re far more difficult to change than somebody’s skill, or somebody’s behavior or somebody’s knowledge. Many of those things are quite linear. You develop skill through practice, you develop knowledge through education.  As a leader or coach, trying to get your people to change their perspective on the world is incredibly difficult. I’ll try and give you a real example.

I ran an event for around about 100 salespeople a couple of years ago, pre-pandemic. This happened to be in London, so there’s a cultural dynamic. My question to the audience, who’s the top salesperson in the room? What I found over the years from a cultural point of view is in the UK, nobody will put their hand in the air. If you go to North America, you’ll get 10 or 20 of them who’ll put the hand in the air. That’s the first dynamic.

I have to look at one of the bosses and I say, “Come on, tell me, who’s the top person?” A particular individual is pointed out. I go over to that individual in the auditorium and say, “You’re the top sales guy in the room. Here’s a question for you, how many of the other 99 people in the room have banged on your door this year to buy you a cup of coffee or a beer or a glass of wine in order that they can find out how you become the number one?” As a typical question a coach might ask. I knew exactly what was going on in the individual’s head. He was thinking, “Oh my God, how do I avoid embarrassing all of my mates in the room?” I’m pretty good at using silence when I need to use silence – one attribute of great salespeople, in my opinion. Eventually, he says, because he doesn’t know where to go, “Well, actually, nobody.”

If you think about it, you’re the top sales guy, and every one of them has got your phone number and your email address and none of them have picked up the phone to find out how you’ve done what you’ve done. Without over engineering this, what the other people are doing is saying, “He’s the top sales guy because he hit lucky, he’s given the best accounts, is in the best geography, it won’t happen next year, why would I want to bother phoning him?” Rest assured, he’ll be the top sales guy next year as well. The people who are below the top sales guy will continue to be below the top sales guy, because they believe that they can’t learn anything from a top performer.

That illustrates the importance of getting the belief system quite right. Just a very quick illustrative example outside of the world of selling. Roger Bannister was the first person to run the four-minute mile in the in the world. We all know that. What’s a little bit more interesting is how many people ran it the year after. What’s even more interesting is why did they run it the year after, not the year before? The year before, those people were sat on their sofa at home saying to their family, “Nobody will ever run the four-minute mile.” Roger Bannister ran it. They then sat on the sofa with their family said, “Somebody’s done it, I better up my game.” Nothing changed in terms of their skill, their equipment. The only thing that changed was their attitude.

Somebody has done it, I can now do it. Had they sat there thinking, “He hit lucky, I’ll never do it,” then they’d continue to sit on their sofa and they wouldn’t do it. That’s just a very small example of re calibrating your perspective. I’ll give you a classic example of the belief of high performing salespeople, entrepreneurs, business professionals. A belief would be if somebody can do it, I can do it. If somebody can be the top performer, so can I. I can’t flick a switch and it happens tomorrow, but I can go on a quest of learning, developing, finding out, copying, modeling, and getting to where I might want to get to.

Fred Diamond: That’s a really interesting point. We have a question here. The question comes here from Lucy. The questions a little bit fuzzy, but I think what she’s trying to say is a lot of times, we work with assessments. We have some vendors at the IES. Some are our sponsors do assessments. They can tell if you’re going to be a good performer because of things like your attitude about money and your attitude of asking for things. You’re probably very familiar with assessments, I would presume. The question that Lucy is trying to say is here is, are these things innate? Or like you just said, nobody believed that they can run a four-minute mile until Bannister did. Could everybody now run a four-minute mile? Obviously, not everybody could. I just don’t mean because of the physical skill. Maybe people still believe that, “Oh, there’s no way I’m going to be able to do that.” I’m just curious how that plays in. Are things just so innate? Are you never going to get past them anyway?

Ian Mills: Look, it’s a fantastic question. These things aren’t linear. What I mean by that is if you hold a belief that is going to lead to challenging behavioral change, and challenging performance improvement, if you hold the right belief, you might not quite get to where you believe you wish to get to, but you’ll get pretty damn close to it. If you hold a belief that you can’t ever do that, then you’re going to sit on the sofa at night, and you’re going to make no progress. Any of your listeners who’ve ever worked for, or read about some of the iconic global entrepreneurs, sometimes you will question their perspective. Do they really believe that they can achieve these extraordinary things, or is it a tactic? I’m pretty confident that they really believe that they can, for example, put man on the moon. They might not quite put man on the moon as quickly as they want to put man on the moon, but they will eventually get there.

They will exceed what everybody else does. What that inner belief does is it drives them and compels them towards that ambitious destination. If you use my little example, a moment ago, if I believe that I can become the top performing salesperson out of a thousand in my country or my organization, I may not end up becoming number one, but I might get in the top five. It may propel me forward. It may accelerate my performance. That’s why recalibrating, readjusting, and developing a belief system that is similar to other top performers is the game-changing move that anybody in sales can make.

Fred Diamond:  Let’s get right to it then. Ian, how can salespeople use your findings and data to improve their own sales?

Ian Mills: I’m going to make an offer to the people on this call. I’m on LinkedIn, I’m easy to find. Ian is spelt I-A-N and my surname is Mills, M-I-L-L-S. The first 50 people that make contact with me, free of charge, they can assess themselves using a psychometric instrument to see where they stack up against the benchmark. The benchmark is the study that we undertook. If you’re lucky, I might get you a copy of the book as well. That’s a good way to get going. You have to buy the argument and believe that this is important. If you believe this is important, then you will be able to liberate yourself by beginning to study what a belief system is, and what it might mean for you, and how you might gain advantage out of it.

Just very briefly, the five measures. The areas that we looked at, we looked at fulfillment, we looked at control, we looked at resilience, we looked at influence, and we looked at communication. We call those destination beliefs. In each of those destination beliefs, we looked at what are called two journey motivators. What that means is we looked at 10 measures, we could have looked at more, we could have studied a more extensive list. We researched what were the most common themes that salespeople need to master in order to be top performers. They were 10 measures. As I said a moment ago, it’s a little bit like the Coca Cola recipe. I’ll give you an example. When we’re looking at control, we were looking at the degree to which the salesperson believes that they are in control of their destiny, and indeed their success. Then the journey motivators were, are they more hero-like or victim-like?

What I mean by that is a hero is somebody who, regardless of what’s going on in the economy, or pricing or proposition, they can work around it, they can work over it, they find a way of achieving their goal. Whereas the victim is somebody who’s, well, “I’ve got the wrong accounts, I’ve got the wrong territory, the pricing is not right, the management are all over the floor.” What we found in the research, which is really interesting, is that the top performers have some victim-like mindset, but significantly more hero-type mindset. They will still go off on one occasionally. That’s entirely appropriate from a psychological perspective, but they have far more of a perspective of, I’m going to find my way around, I’m going to find my way over, I’m going to find my way through it to get to where I get to.

Now in isolation, that’s not game changing. But if you then take something like fulfillment, so what we’ve measured there is the balance between I’m driven by a fear of failure, versus a desire to achieve what I never imagined I would achieve. Now, the interesting thing about those, that the desire to achieve what I never imagined I would achieve is far more powerful and liberating than fear of failure. Those salespeople who had too high a fear of failure were in the bottom performing group. By the way, those who had too little fear of failure were in the bottom group. You need a bit of fear of failure, but you need significantly more intensity around your desire to achieve what you never imagined you would achieve. The big ambitious goal, the thing that you’re dying out on with your children and grandchildren when you get older.

As you begin to build those things together, you can imagine that you’re making the perfect cake mix. If I take resilience and in the pandemic world, resilience is being probably top of the agenda. What we looked at there is the balance between working hard and working smart. What we found with the top performers is absolutely they believe that in times of challenge, they will put in a more significant shift, but they would devote more energy and more intensity to working smart than they do working hard. They do both, and the other way around, of course, the lower performers. The lower performers will continue to bang on the door that, frankly, they’re never going to get through.

I get back to your original question, Fred. If anyone wants to explore this, read the book. I’m not here to say I’m making money from selling a book. But as I said, the top 50 people that make contact with me, I can give them access to the benchmarking psychometric instrument that will give them some very specific guidance on how they need to reframe the way they think, and their attitude and their perspective to the way they might become who they wish to be.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that transformation. The mission of The Institute for Excellence in Sales is to help sales leaders attract, retain, motivate, and elevate top tier sales talent. Here’s the thing, not everybody who signs up is going to get to that level. For example, we’re doing today’s show at two o’clock, you’re doing it seven o’clock your time, in London, and just outside. I’m actually broadcasting in Florida at two o’clock. We have a couple dozen people who are physically watching us have this conversation on a Thursday, in the United States and around the world. We have thousands of people who are going to be listening to this afterwards.

They are making a commitment at some level to transform their career. They’re making an investment, so good for you all the people who are watching and listening. Talk about how people can use this information, and how can they transform? What are some of the things they can do, besides just being aware? I guess the first stage, of course, is you need to be aware. You need to understand what’s holding you back. Why am I not being as successful as I want to be? And once they’re there, how do they make this transformation?

Ian Mills: If I were to guide somebody on something they do that is potentially game-changing, what I always say to people is, go model somebody who does something that you don’t do or can’t do or don’t believe you can do. It’s not about picking up on you, Fred and trying to be like you, but it might be, “I love the way he asks questions without notes.” There’s something about him that means he’s curious, interesting, or whatever that dynamic might be. Every salesperson must be able to observe people. They may be famous people, they may be people in their team, they may be colleagues, where they think, “Oh, I wish I could do that.” I go back to an example I gave earlier. Pick up the phone to them, go meet them for a coffee or a glass of wine or something like that, and find out how they do it. What’s really important is you need to dig deeper than how they do it.

What you’re really trying to do is trying to get into their head to find out how they cope, how they think, how they prepare, how they overcome the problems and the demons and the challenges that face all of us. The magic will be inside. It won’t be a tip and a trick. When you go meet them and when you ask them those questions, they’ll say, “Oh, well, I just do it.

I’ve been doing it for years.” You started somewhere, you faced problems and challenges. You will have had or held limiting beliefs. The self-talk will tell you that you’re not good at it. How does that individual master that in a way that you could copy and paste that into your world? That’s probably one of the most game-changing techniques that anyone can adopt.

Fred Diamond:  I have a question for you. We talk about that all the time, the concept of mentoring. One of the things is that those sales professionals who are at that level, they’ll love to talk about it in a lot of cases. If you use the analogy, you and I talked about sports before we did today’s show. You sometimes say to a great basketball player, “What’s your thought process?” They’re like, “I don’t know, I practice a shot a thousand times.” It’s muscle memory and skills and confidence. From your experience, can the sales professionals who are performing at that level conceptualize it in a way that would be communicated properly? Or is it like, “No, I’m just good at it.” Or it’s just that, “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” I’m curious on this.

Ian Mills: I do know exactly what you mean. I’m a salesperson, so I could say this as a salesperson, that one of the things that frustrates me is that salespeople quite often don’t study and don’t learn perhaps in the way other functions and other occupations do. One of the reasons for that is that quite often in sales, you don’t need to have a degree or a PhD to become a salesperson. I was like that. I was very successful as a salesperson as a young man. That then fuels your belief, that actually I can just do this stuff. I’m born to be really good at it. Then what happens is that you then begin to find people who are better than you, or different to you, and something goes on in the market.

You begin to realize,” Actually, unless I read, unless I meet people, unless I watch videos, unless I learn, I’m not going to become who I potentially, could be.” I think you can accelerate that. Rather than via experience, realizing that you need to open your lens to something more significant, you need to be doing that much earlier to accelerate your success. If you think about the top athletes in the world, I’m going to give you a soccer example. This may not translate well in North America. There’s a man called Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s one of the top two soccer players ever. Now, he is a relentless learner and a relentless trainer. That’s why he’s number one. He was probably naturally good, but he would have been unknown, but because he practices relentlessly, he is the best of the best. I think that’s a great example.

Illustratively, another example. If any of you have read the book, Talk Like TED, which is an analysis of the best TED Talks ever, there’s a particular lady who lacked confidence in presenting. She practiced her 20-minute presentation about 120 times, not designing it or building it, practicing delivering it in the mirror, in the car, to her children, in order that when she was on stage, she was like a top end musician. I’m not suggesting you all have to do that, but you can learn from that. I found over the years that the stuff you just don’t know, and then all of a sudden you read about this, or you’re told about this, or you meet somebody like that, and you think, “Oh, my God, that’s extraordinary. I could learn from that.”  I’m 60 years of age, it was my birthday last month.

I learn things from other people every day. I’m not going out there thinking I’m here to learn, but I pick up things that say, “Actually, I could do that. I could resharpen my saw from what I’ve done previously, or could get it back on my agenda.”

Fred Diamond: We have a question here from Peter. Peter says, “Who is the other great soccer player?”  You said Ronaldo’s one of the top two. Who’s the other one you are referring to?

Ian Mills: Lionel Messi. If it’s the right age, a little bit like me, I would say George Best, or Pele.

Fred Diamond:  I would probably say Pele. We actually have used that story before. We have a guest named Alan Stein Jr. who is a high-performance basketball coach. He went to a training camp and Kobe Bryant was there. May he rest in peace. He asked Kobe if he could just observe him practice, because Kobe was famous for having separate intense practices. Kobe said, “Yeah, come see me four o’clock in the morning, I’ll be in the gym.”  Alan got there. He didn’t want to make a mistake. He got there at three, and the lights were on in the gym, three in the morning, and he walks in, Kobe is practicing at three o’clock in the morning.

A couple of quick things. One is that Kobe wasn’t practicing 360-degree dunks, he was practicing very, very slight movements. I want to say one other thing too, I agree 1,000% with what you just said, is that sales, we believe it’s a profession. We talked about the fact that sales is a profession, if you’re in sales, what are you doing to be a professional? There are so many things that you need to do to be well. Macro level things need to be going right. The pandemic, you might have been selling things to entertainment arenas, and obviously, they shut down, so you have to figure things out.

But we stress what you say, that it is a profession you need to work at. Ian, I want to congratulate you for the great work you’re doing. This is definitely a landmark study to really understand another aspect of how sales professionals can get great. One of the missions of the Institute is to help sales professionals take their careers to the next level. Not so just that they can make money, but so they can be happier, and that their families can be happier and their children and then their companies can do better.

That really is part of the mission and understanding a lot about what you talk about. Focusing on how to make that essential transformation is key. I want to applaud you for the work that you’ve done for sales professionals around the world. Ian, wrap it up here, we like to end every show with an action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas, but give us something specific sales professionals should do right now – don’t waste any time – right now, to take your sales career to the next level.

Ian Mills: I’m going to give you a behavior, not a belief, and I’m going to give you a phrase, and that is, be interested, not interesting. What I mean by that is be insatiably curious, get to the truth. Every sale in my opinion that goes wrong is caused by the fact that the salesperson hasn’t understood the client emotionally, logically, factually, their needs, their wants, their truth, their reality.

Fred Diamond: That is a great point. We actually just did a show just on curiosity with the great Dr. Alison Horstmeyer and that comes up all the time. I agree with you 1,000%. All the great salespeople are the ones who just want to know more. They want to know more of the customer’s industry, the customer’s challenges, what’s happening at the customer’s customer. Mr. Director of IT, why do you work for this company? That will help you be successful. I want to thank everybody for watching today. If you’re listening as a Sales Game Changers podcast listener, thank you so much. Ian Mills, thank you so much for the value you’re bringing and for the great value that you brought today.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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