Episode 235: Shawn Fowler on The Psychology of Motivation

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I am Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today I’m excited to have Shawn Fowler from RevenueReady join us. Shawn, I would love it if you would introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

Shawn Fowler: Thank you for having me today. My name is Shawn Fowler and last year started a company called RevenueReady with a couple of partners. Before that, I really had three careers. My undergrad degree is in philosophy which got me a great job waiting tables, so I went back and got a degree in computer programming and did IT and programming for a while and then ended up doing academic research before I went to grad school. After that, I ended up doing training at a startup and it was mostly the technical training part of the startup. People kept telling me ‘you should be a sales engineer’ and I kept thinking I definitely don’t want to be in sales, I think they’re bad people, and I definitely think I’m not that kind of person. Then I found out how much more sales engineers made than me and decided that I did want to be a sales engineer.

My first foray into sales was sales engineering at a company called Silverpop. We sold email marketing software and I loved it. Being a sales engineer was awesome. It took me a while to figure out how to be a sales engineer instead of a trainer because I think I initially was really training more than anything else and I had a few sales leaders and sales reps who essentially taught me how to sell instead of train. I did that for a while and ended up going into services sales and then went into sales enablement. I didn’t even know what it was but basically, I was told that I would be good at it when they were hiring their first sales enablement person at Silverpop.

After that IBM acquired Silverpop and I ended up being responsible for taking the Silverpop brand to market in Latin America, Japan, and China. For 2.5 or 3 years I was basically doing international sales and go-to-market. That got kind of old and I got tired of traveling so much and I had a young family. After that, I ended up going back into enablement there at IBM for our business unit before joining Salesloft, which was a wonderful place to work. I essentially got to build the sales enablement program there and got to teach salespeople to sell sales software to other salespeople which mean you get to study sales a lot. Then, a couple of years ago I joined a company called Attentive which was fantastic because Attentive has a sales-assisted PLF sales motion, so I got to learn more about that. That’s my background in a nutshell.

SS: I love it. You definitely have a diverse background. I want to dig in because you said you have a Ph.D. in educational psychology with a focus on motivation. How does this expertise give you a unique perspective as an enablement leader?

SF: It’s interesting. I didn’t even know enablement was a thing in 2012 and it actually sits at the intersection of what I really love. Sales, really when you get down to it, is applied psychology. It’s basically taking principles of persuasion, and principles of education and applying them in a real-world setting and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. My approach to enablement is a combination of what I’ve learned through actually selling and being in sales management and then what I learned through my education in graduate school studying educational psychology.

I think a lot about motivation and learning and how to create situations in which people come to the conclusions that I have come to because ultimately selling and teaching is kind of the same thing. You’re trying to get someone to see things the way that you see them and come to the conclusions that you’ve come to and a lot of people in teaching and a lot of people in sales try to push. They try to get someone to accept their opinions, they try to get someone to accept their approaches and this almost never works. In fact, it often creates resistance. A much better way to approach selling and a much better way to approach teaching is to create an environment in which people can see what you’re seeing and come to the conclusions that you’ve come to. I think a lot about that when I tried to create enablement programs, I think a lot about that when I’m actually leading a classroom and I think a lot about that whenever I’m selling,

SS: That’s fantastic. Now, what would you say though are potentially some common barriers to motivation that you’ve seen in sales learning programs, and what do you think is the root cause of some of those challenges?

SF: There are as many barriers to the success of enablement programs as there are stars in the sky, to be honest with you. One of my favorite quotes is the opening line of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy it says ‘all happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ and I think that’s probably true of most dysfunctional things, including enablement programs. The biggest obstacle to motivation and success and enablement programs is frankly that the reps don’t want to do it. They think it’s a waste of time, and there’s a variety of reasons they could think that. One is they just want to spend their time selling. Two, they might think that the thing that you want them to learn is not important or not something they need to work on. Three, a lot of times there’s a lack of buy-in from leadership, and a lot of times you have all three of those things going on at once and that’s not a very easy situation to approach.

The way around that a lot of times is actually getting buy-in from the start from leadership. Like, as collaborating with leadership on what specifically they would like to focus on in order to improve the performance of their reps. This is best done at the front-line manager level because you can sit down and have conversations about where the gaps are in performance and when you’re doing that you need to start with data like having very specific team and individual level data that you can use to say, hey, it looks like you’ve got a problem with creating opportunities for instance on your team. If you can increase your opportunity volume and get them up to speed with some of these other teams, it looks like you’re going to have much better outcomes as a result, you’re more likely to hit your number. These specific reps seem to be the ones who have the biggest problem with opportunity creation. Could be discovery, could be demoing, could be progressing deals that are late stage and closing whatever, but having the data that helps you identify where those gaps are is really the starting point because that allows you to prioritize. If you’re not having a data-focused conversation, you end up in this weird situation as an enablement leader where you’re waiting to be told what to do by someone who is having ideas, but those ideas might not always be the ones that are the most important and you end up kind of being a junk drawer as a result of that. Starting with the data, working with leadership is the first thing.

The second one is actually getting the reps to see what you see as well, and for that, it’s really useful to use tools like Gong or Chorus, or Salesloft where people can go in and see their own calls. I’m a big fan of self-scoring. Getting people to actually score their own calls and to score the calls of others with a guided scorecard, is really important actually, you have to give them a good focus scorecard because if you don’t, people don’t always pay attention to the most important things. But getting people to self-score is really important because it allows them to begin to understand where their actual gaps are and to think critically about how they’re conducting deals versus how someone else might be conducting a deal. Then, the final thing is recognition, and praise, like actually giving people the opportunity to be recognized for good work and praising people who are doing things well that you want other people to do. If you look at the research, money is necessary but not sufficient. People in sales typically like money, but a lot of times they like money because it’s an indicator of the fact that they are performing well. It is a form of recognition. Top salespeople typically like recognition from their peers and their superiors even more than money. Using that as an avenue to motivate people can be very effective as well.

SS: Absolutely. One of your specific areas of focus in your Ph.D. research that we’ve spoken about this was around motivating in online educational environments. How does motivation differ based on the environment that the learner is in and maybe what are some of the unique considerations for virtual programs?

SF: I spent seven years thinking about this when I was doing my research. It is something I’ve thought about a lot. If you look at a traditional learning environment, like a classroom-based learning environment versus a virtual learning environment, obviously the context is the biggest difference and the thing that I drilled in specifically on was the difference in social engagement. That can be engaged with your professor or your teacher as well as engagement with your fellow students mostly in informal ways. I think we’ve all had experiences in college, for instance, where you didn’t really like a class, you weren’t into it, but there was somebody who you would go grab coffee with after class or talk to on the way to the next class or you had this study group that likes kept you going at it. These are kind of these informal social interactions that really do a lot to motivate and reinforce people because identity plays such a key part in motivation.

My research is based on self-determination theory, which clauses there are three factors that are necessary for motivation. One is autonomy, so do I have the ability to control how I spend my time, how I spend my energy, and things like that? Obviously, that’s within some level of constraint, nobody has absolute autonomy either in a classroom or a work setting. The second one is competence, so do I feel like I’m good at what I’m doing? The third one is relatedness, do I feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself? How much have I incorporated that thing into my own personal identity? The first two things, autonomy, and competence are pretty well researched, the relatedness one isn’t as well researched and that’s what I focused a lot on and that really is the fundamental difference between a traditional and a virtual classroom setting.

Figuring out how to create opportunities for informal engagement is really important in motivating students in a virtual classroom because they don’t have those informal opportunities. They don’t feel necessary like they’re part of a classroom, part of this larger thing that is really important when it comes to motivation. What’s interesting is I finished my Ph.D. research in 2018 and 2 years later, the pandemic hit and suddenly everybody’s experiencing a lot of these same things from a work perspective, because we had this situation where pretty much everybody in software at least went remote and it’s not going back. I think we’re seeing a lot of those issues begin to arise associated with remote work. There’s a lot of depression, there are a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re part of this bigger culture for their team or this bigger culture for their company and that’s a real problem because when you don’t feel like you’re part of it, then you don’t end up putting the same level of effort in and you create these kinds of fragile or brittle teams who don’t have the resilience to get through hard times because they don’t feel that same sense of connecting this. So it’s really interesting because that’s something that we as a society are going to have to figure out over the next few years as we begin to move more and more to a remote environment.

SS: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve had conversations around just the social disconnect that the new way of working has seemed to have created in the workplace, to be honest. Do you have some best practices may be around motivating reps in this virtual, slightly more siloed environment?

SF: There are a few things. One is creating opportunities for informal interaction. I mean I started doing this when I was at IBM, I had 80-something people on my team at IBM and they were spread literally all over the world across five different continents. People had never met in person, and likely never would meet in person, and I wanted them to feel like they were part of something. A lot of times in my meetings, like it’s 50% work, really kind of 50% hanging out now. I was never explicit about the 50% hanging out piece because then it feels weird because you’re being forced to hang out, but that’s really kind of what was happening. I, as the leader, tried to be as vulnerable as possible and as transparent as possible. If you are a leader, it’s on you to kind of set the tone for what the rest of the team can do, you’re kind of establishing what is okay in your team from a cultural perspective and so I would share parts about my personal life, I would ask people how their weekend was. I would have a lot of those conversations that you would normally have and I would have those in a virtual setting instead of in a break room or around the water cooler or wherever you would have had them in a physical setting. It takes a minute because people aren’t used to it, but after a while, people begin to open up and start to share some of those things and I began to see it kind of trickle down a little bit in some of the conversations they would have with each other as well, which I found very valuable made me very happy.

Another thing that I pretty much always do is a daily stand up and again with the daily stand-up, it’s only part work. I mean there is a focus on like, hey what are you gonna knock out today, what are some of your blockers, what did you not get done yesterday? There’s also a lot of like, hey how’s it going, like that cup of coffee conversation you have in the morning because I think that makes people feel like they’re part of something else. Another thing that I focus on a lot is spotlighting people. If you have a sales all-hands on a weekly or biweekly basis, like identify reps who are doing a really good job and spend 10 minutes interviewing them. Interview them with someone on how they perform well, but also give people an opportunity just to get to know that rep. Like where are they from? Where did they go to school? What do they do for fun? When you don’t have the opportunity to get to know people like that informally, you have to start to formally incorporate that into what you do.

SS: Absolutely Shawn, this has been phenomenal. Last question for you. In today’s world it feels like we want to be able to track everything, so how do you track rep motivation? Do you maybe have any tips on understanding how to correlate the impact of motivation on the effectiveness of enablement programs?

SF: It’s a tricky thing to track, there’s not like a good direct way to track it. I rely a lot on working with HR teams on engagement surveys. I think most companies now do at least a yearly engagement survey. I think many of them are also doing quarterly pulse surveys as well, and that’s really valuable because it helps me figure out how engaged are people, how motivated are people, and how much they feel like they’re part of their team in their organization. That’s one big factor. Another one is activity. People who are motivated do the activities that will get the outcomes. When you find people who are consistently engaging in those activities, you’ve got a motivated team. Those are the two biggest ways that I typically track that stuff.

SS: I love it, Shawn. Thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate the insights that you’ve shared with us.

SF: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there is something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know we’d love to hear from you.

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