In 2001, Daniel Goleman published a book called Primal Leadership. In it, he posits that there are six leadership styles –Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Commanding, and Pacesetting.
Of course, none of these styles are hardcoded, and no leader should stick to any one of them all the time. But a good leader must have the ability to exhibit traits of whichever style is best suited to the present situation and will get the best out of their team in that situation.
In the pacesetting leadership style, the leader:
- Leads from the front
- Leads by example
- Sets high standards / targets / goals
- Expects his or her team to excel with minimal management
When pacesetting, you expect high-intensity performance from your team.
It should be used when you want to get quick results out of a highly motivated team.
What makes a pacesetting leader?
Pacesetting is best implemented when time is of the essence. That is to say, there is a lot that needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly.
But to be successful, the leader requires a highly skilled team that knows what to do, can execute at a high level, and needs very little management. The leader is not going to meddle much in individual team members’ work, because that would slow things down. They are focused on one thing: results.
And what’s more:
- The pacesetting leader knows their stuff inside-out. That’s how they are able to lead from the front. That’s why the team respects their commands, because they have proven themselves.
- They expect high standards for themselves. And because of that, they’re able to set high standards for the team.
- Pacesetting leaders are obsessed with doing things faster and better. For a pacesetter, time is in short supply, and output must be of the highest quality, consistently.
- They give absolutely clear expectations of quality and strict deadlines so that their team knows what to deliver. After that, they expect their team to know what to do and even think.
- If they intervene, it’s to keep the project on track. They might help a team member understand how their current behavior won't complete work within the deadlines, and emphasizes how altering their behavior will lead them towards delivering quality output in time.
In short, their instruction is simple: “Do as I do, and do it NOW.” Like a pacesetter in a race, they expect their team to be in step behind them so that they can lead the whole team across the finish line.
When to use pacesetting leadership in sales
Now, knowing what we know about pacesetting leadership, let’s take a look at a few hypotheticals of how pacesetting might work in a sales environment.
1. When you’re tracking behind for internal, not external reasons
It’s easy for sales teams to slip into poor performance. Everyone has a down spell, and oftentimes a whole team can fall at one time.
If you’re finding this happening, it might be a good idea to try out pacesetting leadership. Here’s how:
- Identify the key metric you want to move. Your sales velocity equation can be helpful here.
- Work out the behavioural lift you need to get you back on track.
- Outline the key steps your team needs to do to make those changes
- Timebox your effort.
For example, say you were tracking behind for your Q4 numbers and needed to generate more top-of-funnel pipeline to get where you needed to be.
As a sales leader, you might say to your team: “ok folks, we need to each generate 10 opportunities by the end of the month. I’m going to get in the trenches too, and get a bonus 10 for the team.”
Then, just get out of the way and let your team do their thing. Remember: the key to pacesetting leadership is having a team who already knows how to execute at a high level.
2. Your team is fully ramped but your messaging is inconsistent
Messaging is hard to get right, and even harder to keep it consistent. If you’re pushing for a year-end goal and you know certain messaging works, then pacesetting leadership might work.
- Decide what messaging you want, and do a sales team training so the whole floor knows it.
- Create an experimentation blackout period – no experiments for XX days - for now, just work the messaging that works!
- Listen to Gong or whatever conversation intelligence tool / call recorder you’re using to identify reps who aren’t using the new messaging.
- Reiterate that this is a temporary measure to get you to your goal.
For example, say you’re tracking behind for the end of the year, you laid out the new messaging, and a rep was still using something off-message.
A pacesetting leadership approach might be: pulling them aside and telling them: “I do appreciate your dedication to being innovative, but now is not the time for that. We have determined that our script closes deals 30% of the time, and that’s what we need. When you go off-script, you get into new conversations and you need different collateral, and all of that extends the sales cycle. Right now, I need you to close 10 deals in this very limited time frame, or it’s going to hurt us by 12%. So let’s stick to the script for now, and once we get through this period we can get back to being experimental.”
The key here is knowing what you have to do, pushing your team to do it, and limiting the timeframe for the pace. We’ll see in a second that burnout is a major downside of pacesetting leadership, and the main reason why it shouldn't be used all the time.
3. Your team has low morale
Let’s say your team had a slow couple of quarters in 2020, like most sales teams across the world. They were feeling a little defeated and a little deflated.
Here’s how pacesetting leadership could help.
- Create urgency for your sales team. A Spiff is one way, but you can do other things like offer more aggressive financial terms they can spin out in deals as well to get them over the line.
- Timebox the urgent event
- Ensure your team knows what they need to do to take advantage of the new urgency
The whole idea here is that you can often reinvigorate a sales team by injecting urgency and, yes, some anxiety and pressure into the process. Pacesetting leadership is not only a good way to do this, but is also a good way to achieve your outcome at the same time.
When to use pacesetting leadership
Pacesetting leadership is to be called into action only when needed.
- First of all, you have to have a highly competent and motivated team in place. If you are dealing with a lot of novices or folks who will need frequent guidance, then it will eat up time and defeat the purpose of pacesetting. Your team needs to be able to deliver what you are asking for with little or no intervention from you. Ongoing training will ensure that they are always up to speed, like a vanguard of soldiers ready to go.
- The most obvious situation for pacesetting is when there is an urgency of time. Use it when you’re backed into a corner by a ticking clock, and the pressure to deliver is higher than normal.
- You can also use it when team morale is faltering and their belief in themselves is low. Pacesetting can get their head in the game and remind them what they are capable of.
- It can be used as an opportunity for a leader to set an example, to bring focus to excellence, and to underline the importance of performance and time.
When to move on from pacesetting leadership
As great as pacesetting sounds (and can be, when used correctly!), it does have its limitations. Pacesetting leadership is to be deployed as a response to exigent circumstances and is not meant to be sustained for a long time. Given its high intensity, it takes a toll on team members over time.
It’s best to move on from this style of leadership when:
- The goals that you have set for this burst of pacesetting have been achieved. It’s unnecessary, and possibly even detrimental to your team members to stay in this state longer than needed.
- Burnout and loss of motivation are very real risks of being in a high-intensity mode for too long. If you start seeing this in your team, it’s time to shift your leadership style.
- If you suddenly get an influx of new folks who will need more guidance, or your team is not able to handle or understand the instructions you have given them without frequent intervention. They may begin to second-guess themselves because they aren’t getting enough guidance on whether they are doing things correctly.
- Employee engagement is low because work has become repetitive and boring.
Is pacesetting leadership right for me?
Let me put it this way, pacesetting leadership—like everything else—is a tool. It depends on how you use it. A hammer can build a pretty birdhouse… but it can also smash one to bits.
Pacesetting leadership has a lot to offer. It can push your team to achieve business goals quickly. But at the same time, people aren’t robots, and there is a limit to how much anyone can operate at high-intensity levels. As a leader, you must be aware of that.
You need to use pacesetting when the time is right, as discussed in previous sections. For other times, you need to embody one of the other five styles developed by Goleman, and you can read more about all of them here. If you think it would help, push your managers for some sales manager training.
Use these leadership styles wisely, and your team will follow you anywhere.