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Aligning Your Sales Enablement Strategy to Corporate Initiatives

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Most business leaders know that alignment around corporate initiatives should happen – but in many organizations today, that alignment exists only partially. While executives might agree upon core business goals that fulfill the company’s strategy, the message gets stuck at the top and fails to trickle down into daily operations.

In fact, research finds that only 14% of organizations report that employees have a clear understanding of the company’s strategy and just 24% understand how their individual responsibilities are linked to the strategy.

As a business function that has historically struggled to gain a seat at the table with executive leadership, but whose responsibilities are tightly bound to revenue impact, sales enablement has both an obligation and an opportunity to define its capabilities in alignment with corporate initiatives.

“Alignment is important for sales enablement, not only for effectiveness and impact, but also for visibility,” said Jessica Ryker, sales enablement lead at HelpSystems. “Oftentimes reps feel like they’re being pulled in a lot of directions, and there isn’t always a clear directive from the top-down and from each department. When you speak the same language as [other leaders], your initiatives are much more likely to stick because the rep has heard it before. They understand what the initiative is and what everyone is shooting toward.”

Whereas tactical initiatives are those that focus on the execution of routine tasks, strategic initiatives are those that seek to influence change. By aligning the sales enablement strategy to impact key corporate initiatives, sales enablement can help embed the behaviors necessary for change to occur among revenue teams. Here are four steps to begin aligning your sales enablement strategy to corporate initiatives.

Identify Key Initiatives

The first step to building a well-aligned strategy is to get clarity on the core areas of focus for the business. Proactively seek opportunities to listen, observe, review, and learn about key objectives from top leaders and peers in the organization. The book, “HBR’s Guide to Thinking Strategically”, offers three steps to develop a holistic understanding of your organization’s strategy:

Step 1: Gather Information About Strategic Objectives

Review any strategy documentation that the organization may have. This should expand beyond the mission and vision statement. Try to understand what key performance indicators the executive team has committed to, as well as any available data on current progress toward those goals.

“[It’s important to] understand what the business objectives are, what is the business issue that we’re trying to solve,” said Susan Savona, vice president of global sales enablement at Monster. “If we can really answer that question, then the goal would be to be able to tie a metric to that success, whether that’s an increase in particular types of activities, whether that’s an increase in revenue of a particular product.”

In addition to listening and conversing with key figures in your company, also seek insight from cross-functional peers, including those both below and lateral to you. This will help you form a perspective that encompasses the full scope of those involved in executing the strategy.

Step 2: Analyze Risk in Strategic Objectives

Once you’ve gathered this information, review it through a critical lens to determine both the potential risks associated with the initiative. In doing so, ask the following questions:

  • What are the major sources of uncertainty?
  • What external risks can you identify?
  • What internal risks can you identify?

By anticipating potential risks, sales enablement practitioners can better gauge the opportunity for impact as well as design strategies that mitigate such risks.

Step 3: Spot Trends That Affect Your Business

Looking externally is just as important as introspection in determining the key initiatives where sales enablement can deliver the most value. Consider the following internal and external factors:

  • Internal Trends:
    • People: New hires, turnover, leadership changes, sense of employee engagement
    • Process: Key process or technology changes, patterns in requests, changes in service
    • Products: New products, major product updates, drops or increases in sales
    • Strategy: Mergers or acquisitions, changes in resource allocation, shifting stakeholder priorities
  • External Trends:
    • Competitive landscape: Changes in competitor offerings, new competitors, increased saturation
    • Research and news: The latest industry research, relevant news, awards and recognitions, industry experts
    • Macro trends: Market evolutions, new tools or software, world events

“By taking a holistic approach, you’re thinking outside of the role of sales enablement as it’s defined today,” said Yarun Nahar, head of enablement and learning solutions at Facebook. “I really see sales enablers as the change agents in a sales organization, which typically means having to influence and direct different functions to support your end goal.”

Determine Priorities

With a full understanding of the core objectives the organization is pursuing, sales enablement can prioritize efforts in the areas where they have the highest potential for impact. In determining how to rank priorities, consider bucketing each by their level of importance:

  • Critical Priority: These objectives are tied to hard deadlines, where a positive outcome must be reached within a specific amount of time. Such objectives should be prioritized first
  • Important Priority: These efforts are projected to have a significant positive impact on performance. However, either the time or the specific objective are variable factors
  • Desirable Priority: Such efforts are viewed as “nice-to-have” results if enough resources can be allocated to them, but the organization or team cannot commit specific resources over a specific time period.

Take on the top one or two critical priorities first, and then select the remaining priorities based on the remaining available resources and level of importance. By organizing priorities into these three categories, sales enablement practitioners can develop a clear roadmap for what needs to be completed by when, thus allowing for more accurate resource allocation, efficient project planning, and effective cross-functional collaboration.

While it is important for practitioners to determine priorities for sales enablement based on what they can commit to accomplishing within a given timeframe, this process should not take place in a vacuum. Rather, decisions around prioritization should be made with input from cross-functional partners and executive leaders so that it is clear how all functions, including sales enablement, are furthering the organization’s vision.

“There’s no such thing, I believe, as your own priorities or just sales enablement priorities,” said Nahar. “One of the most important things to do is to make sure that whatever you prioritize is shared, agreed, and aligned with the sales leadership team and even the senior leadership team.”

Define Enablement’s Role and Actions

Often, the most challenging part of the process is translating the strategy into action. In order to ensure that sales enablement can meet the business objectives it has committed to, practitioners should determine specific actions their team will take in order to execute the strategy.

“It’s really important to understand what are those key corporate initiatives and areas of focus so that we, from an enablement perspective, can help ensure that we are building the right programs to effectively enable the sales organization to execute on those goals,” said Savona.

In breaking down your strategy into an execution plan, consider the following questions for each stage of execution:

  • Build the Execution Plan
    • Are you clear about how sales enablement adds value?
    • Do you have the capabilities you need to execute the strategy?
    • Are you shaping the outcome with your given strengths, or are you waiting for change?
  • Translate the Strategy Into the Everyday
    • Are you diligently following through on what you have decided?
    • Are there visible programs to build key capabilities?
    • Are you building specific connections between strategy and resources?
  • Execute the Strategy
    • Are you motivating reps?
    • Are you enabling reps to work together to meet the shared goal?
    • Are you keeping track of performance?
    • Are frontline managers engaged?

Aligning on goals is just the first step to tether sales enablement’s efforts to strategic initiatives. It also requires detailed planning for how enablement can put solutions in place that will enable revenue-facing teams to execute the strategy through their day-to-day responsibilities.

Assess Outcomes

Finally, continually track progress toward goals in order to keep efforts moving in the right direction and make changes to the strategy and execution plan if not.

“Ideally, if you’re really wanting to drive strategic sales enablement, I believe every mature sales enablement team should have a dedicated analyst consistently looking at enablement metrics, trending metrics, and just ensuring that enablement initiatives are doing what they set out to do,” said Nahar.

Without well-defined and consistently tracked metrics that will be used to assess impact, it can be easy to fall prey to what Dan Heath, author of “Upstream”, calls “ghost victories” – metrics that mask the actual correlation between one’s efforts and the outcome. Heath details three types of “ghost victories”:

  1. Your measures show that you’re succeeding, but you mistakenly attributed that success to your own work.
  2. You succeed on your short-term goals, but they don’t align with your long-term mission.
  3. Your short-term measures became the mission in a way that undermined the work.

In each scenario, the underlying problem is that sales enablement has not taken the time to define short-term goals that correlate with the long-term mission, and therefore are unable to articulate impact on the corporate objectives they set out to influence. In order to avoid this and assess the right metrics, Heath suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • The “rising tides” test: If you were to succeed on your short-term measures, what else might explain that success other than your own efforts, and are you tracking those factors?
  • The misalignment test: If you learn that your short-term measures do not reliably predict success on your ultimate mission, how could you determine misalignment as early as possible, and what alternate short-term measures might provide replacements?
  • The lazy bureaucrat test: If someone wanted to succeed on these measures with the least effort possible, what would they do?
  • The unintended consequences test: Imagine you succeed at our mission (short and long term) but cause negative unintended consequences that outweigh the value of the work. What should you pay attention to that’s offstage from your work?

Armed with data that shows how sales enablement efforts are impacting the overarching corporate strategy, practitioners can build trust with executive leaders and cross-functional partners, making it easier to maintain ongoing alignment. However, be careful not to wait until the end of a project to show your outcomes. Instead, communicate progress early and often so that you can continually improve sales enablement’s strategy and approach.

“Don’t wait until you’ve achieved the results or any sort of result to communicate back to the leadership team,” said Nahar. “Always communicate progress, trending metrics, any indication that what you’re trying to drive is having a positive and the right impact…Make sure that anything that you’re communicating is driven back to a strategic business initiative and the priorities and the metrics that you agreed on.”

When sales enablement is aligned to corporate initiatives, practitioners can design solutions that turn a strategic vision into daily behaviors and habits across revenue-facing teams. With a proactive approach to identifying key priorities, defining priorities, determining actions, and assessing outcomes, sales enablement is positioned to drive change on the business objectives that executive leaders care about most. In doing so, sales enablement can solidify its place in the organization as a strategic business partner.