EPISODE 530: Leading a Compassionate, Cohesive, and Collaborative Sales Team with Mali Phonpadith

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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 April 21, 2022, featuring Mali Phonpadithof Successful Network International.] 

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MALI’S TIP: “A C3 culture is a culture where we have compassionate leaders being developed at every level of the organization. We are designing cohesive, high-performing teams and we’re fostering collaboration at every level. That’s your three Cs, compassion, cohesion, and collaboration.”


Fred Diamond: My guest today is Mali Phonpadith. I’m very excited to have her here today. Maintaining your team has been one of the biggest struggles of the last two years. Mali is the founder and CEO of the SOAR Community Network. She’s also a TEDx speaker. She’s also an author. She does a lot of work on the leading edge of building teams, ensuring that the teams are high-performing and collaborative, et cetera. One of the reasons, Mali, why it’s been such a challenge, obviously because people are remote for the most part, and still are generally remote. But a lot of people had just become leaders either right before the pandemic, right around then, and they had to work with their teams across the boundaries of virtual. Talk about that for a little bit, and we’re going to be going into your C3 culture and we’re just going to go really deep. It’s great to see you, 4and I’m excited to hear. Let’s get started. What is a C3 culture?

Mali Phonpadith: A C3 culture is a culture where we have compassionate leaders being developed at every level of the organization. We are designing cohesive, high-performing teams and we’re fostering collaboration at every level. That’s your three Cs, compassion, cohesion, and collaboration.

Fred Diamond: Do you agree with the premise that we started off with, that leading teams has been more difficult over the last year for some of the reasons that we had talked about?

Mali Phonpadith: Absolutely. We have been getting so many calls throughout the pandemic, even still today, of figuring out how to manage remote teams. Not just remote teams, how to manage hybrid teams, and then also how to manage teams that for almost two years, or over two years, have not been with each other. Then we’ve hired, we’ve moved people. Bringing everybody back together and getting everybody back in sync, that is very difficult for managers.

Fred Diamond: What about the premise of the new managers? Because I know we saw this in the very beginning. Again, the pandemic happened in March. A lot of people just became leaders in January. One of the big challenges, of course, and again, we deal with sales teams every day, is that the hardest job in a company we think is the first-time sales leader. Usually you’re promoted as an IC, individual contributor, because you’ve had some skills. Very rarely do they get trained. If they’re lucky, if their leadership is very forward-thinking, they’ll get them involved with companies like yours. But a lot of times, they’re just kind of thrown to the wolves, right? Now, they’re thrown to the wolves with all the people being away, you can’t touch them, it’s very hard to coach.

Mali Phonpadith: Absolutely. Well, and then with the pandemic, on top of that, priority shifted. Strategic priorities shifted. There were other things that were more important than developing the first-time sales manager or leader. It was really making sure that you could pivot as a company, that you can take all your products and services online, that you can hold onto whatever clients you had, or go out and look for a different market, because the market you were serving can no longer either afford or is willing to invest in the products and services you were offering.

There’s so many competing priorities that usually leadership development, essential skills development, communication development, those types of things were just either put away, ignored completely, or just, “I’m sorry. I wish I could develop you, but we just don’t have the bandwidth to do it.”

Fred Diamond: I remember it was April of 2022, we had a guy named Dorean Kass with Neustar, and he was the first one to say, “When I got my MBA, there wasn’t a class on how to survive a pandemic.” You’re absolutely right. Even now, we hope we’re coming out of this. At the same time, one of my team members just got COVID. She was on lockdown and quarantine for two weeks, so it’s still out there. People are still nervous. Take us back, I’m just curious how you came up with the C3 culture framework.

Mali Phonpadith: I’ve run my business now for over a decade. Over the first early years of my business, I found that leaders who are really investing in themselves, their own personal self-discovery, being aware of their flaws and that they’re not perfect humans in the first place, and really teaching them how to be more compassionate with themselves first, that also fostered them to really think about, “What about my people? If I’m not even kind to myself, and I haven’t really looked at my strengths and my potential blind spots, what am I overlooking with my people?” We started to see how important it was to teach compassionate leadership and how that trickled down throughout the entire organization. I started to notice the change in leaders and also then the change in their cultures and their people.

Then I know that it was one of those moments where folks had come to me, leaders had come to me, “This is great. This is all the woo-woo, soft skill stuff, but how does it actually help drive results for my people? How does it help bring profitability? How does it impact the bottom line?” The cohesive piece became really important to us, because as you start to develop compassionate leaders, you now have to bring everybody who’s working together in a meaningful way, where they practice compassion, but where we’re also designing cohesive teams based on skills, based on unique drivers, based on behavioral reference profiles. We started to bring science into the actual mapping of a team dynamic. That fostered more predictive opportunities to design cohesive teams, even as teams changed.

Then the collaboration piece came when we realized that, “Well, we now have these awesome business units or teams that are working really well together, but how do we then make that happen for the rest of the organization?” We started to foster how important it was to have collaboration, how important it was to do cross-functional training, bringing these types of cohesive teams, piloting it, and then rolling it out throughout the whole organization to foster more collaboration. When we started to look at the compassion piece with the cohesive teams, and then fostering collaboration at every level, we really started to see transformational change around culture. The overall employee experience changed.

Fred Diamond: We recently did a study on the words that have been said on the over 200 Sales Game Changers Podcasts that we’ve done during the pandemic, the primary sales words. The number one word was listening, and the number two word was empathy. When you say something like woo-woo, and you say soft skills, I think emotional intelligence, which is something that is underlying what you’re talking about here, is a hard skill. I can’t really say, but it’s come up all the time. Finally, I think it’s gotten a lot of the recognition that it really is critical with.

Mali Phonpadith: Fred, you bring up such a great point. Because we’ve had this business for over a decade, we feel almost like we’ve been building the train track this whole time. Just with the pandemic and with the awareness of how important it is to take care of your people for your bottom line, it’s now become such a relevant conversation. Empathy is key. Empathy and the actions you take based on your compassion really is making a difference between a good leader that is just status quo, keeping things going, and a great leader who is being able to retain their people, engage their people, and create real ambassadors for their brand.

Fred Diamond: The Institute for Excellence in Sales, our mission is to help sales leaders attract, retain, and motivate in order to elevate top tier sales talent. I want to talk about behavioral insights and how that informs the work of the sales leaders in developing leaders and designing high-performance teams. Something you said just struck me. Not everybody responds to a hard-charging leader who says, “You got to hit your quota. You got to make 40 phone calls today. If you don’t make 40 phone calls, you’re going to be off the team.” Not everybody responds to that. Some people respond to, “Hey, you had 10 great calls. How can we get to 20 next month?”

We talked recently about identifying the blocks that are in the way. There’s so many more blocks now, Mali. We’ve heard that meme that, “We’re all in the same storm, but on different boats.” People have lost people, people have lost jobs, people have lost spouses. I was talking to the spouse of one of our members who’s a teacher. He said that the students in his school, they lost two years because they don’t know how to be students anymore. There’s so many things, but let’s talk a little bit about the behavioral insights and how you have determined those so our listeners can understand how to build better teams.

Mali Phonpadith: I think using behavioral insights is really helpful, not just for the executive team to have buy-in into what you just said were hard, essential skills, instead of soft, woo-woo skills. We always challenge the leaders when they come back and say that and describe these skills as woo-woo. We said, “Well, when you think about it being soft, it really isn’t.” These are basic skills, especially for sales team, being able to be emotionally intelligent, read cues, know when someone is inviting you to sell them something, and when someone needs some time to pause and think through whatever it is that you’re pitching to them. Behavioral insights are really important for us because it also gives us some metrics. It helps us really bring to the table behavioral science, people data, that is something that now we can measure and map. It allows us to be more strategic in where we’re looking at these behavioral drivers.

Certain personalities are going to be better at driving results, while others are going to be better at nurturing relationships because of the way that the brain is wired and what they care about. Others are going to always want to be breaking new grounds, entering new markets, because they’re innovative and they really are forward and future thinkers. Then others are going to be very careful about process and making sure that they follow the rules and the structure to get the job done.

Being able to look at the entire spectrum of humans that show up in your team, in your organization, helps to make sure that you’re putting the right people in the right seats. But also determining who’s leading what initiative and who is able to delegate and follow instructions very well, versus someone who’s constantly coming up with the big ideas. You need all those personality types to create a robust ever-changing and ever-evolving team.

Fred Diamond: Where do you see people falling short in this? Again, you work with a lot of leaders, a lot of companies send their leaders to your organization to get leadership development. What do you see is the biggest problem? There’s probably 10 things that you’ve noticed, but what do you think is the number one reason why people struggle as leaders? Which of course then leads to the teams not really reaching their goals.

Mali Phonpadith: We’re human beings. We can’t transform overnight. We have all these behaviors that have been developed all these years, and it doesn’t get fixed by one workshop, or three workshops, or a retreat. This is a practice. When we come to you or you come to us with your leaders, we are inviting you to join us on a journey of continuous evolvement, and involvement as well, from the top, all the way through individual contributors. This is a practice of evolving as a human. This is a practice of evolving your leaders. You’re not going to get it right overnight. Too much of habits have been formed. We have to help you rewire your habits, and your brain, and your perspective, so you can become a better leader and you can lead people through their own personal transformation.

Again, the mistake is you invest in a couple of retreats, a couple of training programs, but you don’t enforce it as a practice. You don’t deploy it as a practice. Our job is also not to come and outsource all this. We want to teach your folks internally to maintain, and calibrate, and recalibrate so you are continuously operating as your version of a C3 culture.

Fred Diamond: Danielle says, “Mali is 100% correct. The most important quality one can have is self-awareness and self-control.” We have a question here that comes in from Monk. Monk says, “Are leaders made or built? What does Mali think?” I guess my question along the lines of that is, can everybody become a leader, Mali, or are there people that you basically say, “Maybe this ain’t for you?”

Mali Phonpadith: Everyone can become a leader, everyone who is willing, and it starts with your interests, your desire to become a better human. It starts there. Then that transfers and translates into, “Okay, if I know that there’s something holding me back, and I want to get better, now I got to find the tools, I got to find the reasonable to help me.” Everyone can evolve as people. Why couldn’t we nurture and train you into a better leader? When someone tells me, “Well, I wasn’t born a great leader.” I say, “Well, that’s your excuse not to do the work of evolving.” I really believe that we can, as human beings, grow and learn from whatever background, whatever walk of life we are, we just have to want it enough and we have to choose to do the work.

Fred Diamond: Again, members of the IES are typically business to business. We have a lot of tech, we have a lot of hospitality, a lot of professional services. Everybody has to figure out in some ways, Mali, we have to figure out how to sell today. A lot of times people will say, “It’s the same.” It’s not the same. We’re all still going to be in lockdown. People are still getting COVID. People are still nervous. We’re doing a Women in Sales Conference. By the time actually this comes out as a podcast, we will have already done our Women in Sales Conference, it was the middle of May, and I was talking with someone this morning who said, “I ain’t going to events until 2023.” There’s a lot of those type of factors out there, if you will.

I’m just curious, what would be some of the first things? Take us through your process a little bit. Leader comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to send three of my sales leaders, because we really need to build our teams.” What are some of the top two or three steps that you do to figure things out to get them on the right course?

Mali Phonpadith: The first thing that is the most essential is we have to know thyself. We have to know ourselves. The question will be who are you as a leader? What is your natural communication style? What are some of your motivating drivers? That has to be uncovered. Those three folks that get sent to us, we would put them through an assessment where it really helps someone uncover their unique strengths, their potential cautions or blind spots we call them, anything that might hold them back from becoming the best version of a leader they can be. Number one is that, Fred. It has to be where we have to uncover and help you understand your natural strengths and potential blind spots.

Then two, we have to help your team, your peers, your colleagues, your partners, understand that about you, but then we also have to help you with a relationship guide to understand the other person. How do you effectively communicate one on one with your peers and colleagues or your manager? Three, what’s the team type? Using behavioral assessments and these insights, we can even map your team type. Based on who sits in the team now, there are nine team types that we look at using The Predictive Index talent optimization model. There are nine team types.

Those are the first three things. You need to know who you are, what your strengths are, the strengths and potential blind spots of your manager or the people that you’re managing. Then as a collective, your team, how do you function and operate? What are some of the gaps in your team that you should address right away so that you also, before you set your strategic objectives and goals, you know who you’re working with and who needs to be coached and flexed to meet the work to be done, to be able to align them to the work to be done?

Fred Diamond: We got a question here that comes in from Nelson. Nelson says, “What responsibility is on the team member to help the leader become a more successful leader?” We talk about that not infrequently, Mali. How about that question from Nelson about what expectations are on the team members for the team to succeed, or from your experience, is it all about the leader?

Mali Phonpadith: It’s on the leader, yes. I have had experiences where the team members, the individual contributors, they are so committed to the mission and they don’t want to leave or just abandon their role because the mission is so important to them. They’ll reach out to us and say, “Can you please come and do a speech that will convince my leader that we need this?” An individual contributor can also raise their hand and fight for a more cohesive, collaborative culture because the mission is too important to just quit and leave. I feel like we have to also as leaders, I’m a CEO of my own company, for my employees, for my partners, for my staff, we need to be able to create a safe enough, a psychologically safe environment where people can raise their hands and express the things that they desire for change, and not fault them for it, not put their jobs on the line, and make it okay for individual contributors to also have a word and put their input and feedback into how to create a better culture.

Fred Diamond: One of the big topics that we’re dealing with at the Institute for Excellence in Sales is DEI&B, diversity, equity, inclusion. As a matter of fact, I referred to our Women in Sales Conference. We actually published an executive report on DEI&B from a women in sales perspective, and especially about getting minorities, women in sales from minority groups into sales, or I should say women in minority groups into sales as a profession. We treat the sales profession as a noble profession. Talk a little bit about that if you can, about that added thing to be thinking about the companies need to be aware of, and not just be aware of, but how are you helping increase the sensitivity towards that?

Mali Phonpadith: It’s interesting because we do a lot of work around leadership development, which encompasses diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. We talked already about creating psychological safety. That’s a part of it. Then when we think about the word diversity, we also want organizational leaders and the individual contributors to really understand what they mean by that, help them define that based on what their culture ecosystem needs and desires to be more diverse. Because again, it’s not just about ethnicity and culture when we talk about diversity, that is a huge part of it. But we’re also talking about generational gaps. We’re also talking about the accessibility. We’re also talking about also different types of behavioral drivers that would be more of a culture add than just a culture fit.

Diversity first has to be defined by every organizational leader specifically on what needs more diversity. Then inclusion is also needs to be defined, who are we excluding that we may intentionally or not intentionally been excluding, but we think need to be more mindful of? That starts with getting everybody in the organization to give feedback. We have to do a 360, a diagnosis of even the diversity concerns and challenges, because it’s not just the leaders who can guess it. You have to let your people tell you what they believe is not working well, what they believe is broken, what they believe their personal experience are in terms of not being included or not having peers that look and feel that they’d want a sense of belonging, because, “No one looks like me. No one comes from my background. No one comes from my industry.” It doesn’t even have to be culture.

Those are the types of things that we work on, is first, help you define what it is all of those things mean. Then make sure that your core values align to what you’re seeking when it comes to your definition of being more diverse, being more inclusive.

Fred Diamond: Again, with the C3 approach for sales teams, if you could answer this question for the leaders who are listening. Again, we have sales leaders around the globe. We have people who work for them who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast. Basically, if you’re listening today, you want to take your sales career to the next level. You want to be a higher achiever. Mali, help us let the leaders know what their employees really want. This isn’t the question of, do salespeople want to earn a living? Of course, they want to. Everybody who’s in sales wants to make a lot of money. Let’s not be wrong about that, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But that may not be the main reason why they’re at their company. Talk a little bit about, for the leaders, help them understand from your experience, what do their employees really want and how should they be sensitive to that?

Mali Phonpadith: Sales professionals are human beings. What human beings want at the basic level is to feel seen, to be heard, and to feel valued. That’s it. As a sales leader, are we taking the time to actively listen to what individually, each person, what feelings being valued looks and feels like. How would they want to contribute? What are the skillsets that make them a strong contributor to the team, and have you acknowledge that? This is the best attribute of this particular salesperson for our team. How do we utilize it? How do we put them in the right place? It’s that simple, Fred. They want to feel seen, heard, and valued. Recognition is a part of it.

Not all personality types want recognition in the way that we traditionally think. They don’t need to be on the big stage with the big plaques or giving all kinds of monetary incentives. Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, I want to stop by your office and tell you you’re doing a great job.” No one needs to hear it, but they just want to hear it from you. They also want a more empathetic, compassionate leader. They want someone who cares that they just lost their loved one, or they just lost their household pet of 20 years, which is a family member, and they’re just not having a good day, and that’s okay. That’s what they want. They want people who care about them. They want to come to work in a place where if they’re going to give all of their time, their energy, their resources to you, that they matter, that their whole self matters. Not just their skills, not just what they bring to the table for you as the leader meeting the quota, but that they are cherished because they’re so good at what they do and they’re helping you drive whatever business results you want.

Fred Diamond: Mali, I just want to acknowledge you for the great work that your organization has done. Again, we’re both based here in Northern Virginia. We probably have clients and customers around the world. We have IES members all over the world right now. But the work that you’re doing has been absolutely fantastic in helping companies grow over the years. Even right now, it is so critical for all the reasons that we just talked about. We’ve talked so many times about The Great Resignation and The Great Exodus, and all those things. I talked to a very, very successful company this morning. We actually did a podcast recording with a very well-known brand, I’m not going to mention their name, but they are a top five employer. They said they’re struggling with getting people to work right now because it’s just a challenge, for all the reasons that we’ve touched on that people want to know.

Again, I want to acknowledge you for the great work that you do. We end up every Sales Game Changers Podcast asking for a specific action step, something specific. You’ve given us 30 great ideas. Give us one thing specific that sales leaders should do right now after listening to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast to take their sales career and their teams to the next level.

Mali Phonpadith: My biggest advice is get to know yourself at a greater level, at a deeper level, and get to know your people. Take whatever behavioral assessments are available to you. We love using The Predictive Index. We are certified, just all transparency. We love it. We recommend that one, but you can use all the others that are out there. Know yourself, study those reports and understand what drives you. What drives your decision making? What drives your communication? What drives the way in which you interact with others? Then ask that of your people, make sure that you study who they are, that they feel seen. Then you design your strategies, whether it’s sales or business, or just putting everybody together to co-create your strategies based on those natural drivers. It makes the difference, because you’re working with human beings. You’re not working with just sales entities.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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