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“Commander’s Intent,” Trust, And Sales Performance

by David Brock on December 11th, 2019

In military history, there has long been the concept of “Commander’s Intent.” Great leaders recognized they could never anticipate and plan for everything that might happen in battle. Rather than giving orders that might try to dictate what to do in every possible situation, commander’s intent focuses on the outcomes they are trying to achieve in a certain operation.

The goal behind this, and what makes it effective, is that it frees troops at lower levels to adapt and change what/how they execute, responding to the specific situation, but still focused on achieving the desired outcomes.

There are a couple of conditions of success in commander’s intent. The first is constant training, practice, reinforcement, and learning. They constantly conduct exercises, giving their subordinates the opportunity to learn, evaluate alternatives—all to improve their abilities and confidence in figuring things out for themselves, all while remaining focused on the commander’s intent.

The second, related thing, is trust. Leaders must trust that their people understand their intent, have confidence in the training/practice they have given their people to prepare them, and trust them to make the right decisions and do their jobs. Without trust and giving people the freedom to figure out how to achieve the commander’s intent, they will fail.

Commander’s intent had become the core of most modern military doctrine.

The same principles are important in sales and maximizing sales performance. I don’t mean to compare sales to modern warfare, but there are some things that we can learn and apply.

As leaders, we can never anticipate every situation or everything that will happen as our people engage customers. Each customer is different, each situation is different, and they are constantly changing.

If we are to maximize the success of our people, we have to make sure they understand our “intent.” That is, what is our vision and purpose, what are our strategies and priorities; what are we trying to achieve when we work with customers and as outcomes; how do we hold/value the customer; and so forth.

Then we have to train, coach, reinforce these principles every day. Both by the examples we set, in our review processes, and in the programs and support we provide them.

Then we have to trust that we have done everything we can to prepare our people to execute in the manner they should and give them the freedom to do their jobs.

Sadly, too much of what I see happening with sales organizations and pundit advice is going in the opposite direction. Too many managers don’t even understand their own intent–other than hit the numbers. They have no clarity of vision and purpose, strategies focus on react/respond, we don’t have clarity in what we want to stand for with our customers.

Instead of preparing them to think for themselves and figure things out, too many managers want to be completely prescriptive, dictating/scripting everything we do in our engagement process. They fail to recognize that every situation is different and the sales people must be prepared to adapt and respond.

Finally, they don’t trust their people to do the right thing–for the customer or with the customer. They don’t give their people the chance to fail on their own, then learn from that.

For too long, we continue to see declines in overall sales performance. We focus on the numbers, but don’t achieve the numbers. We dictate everything our people should do, but don’t equip them to figure things out. Then we fail to trust them to do their jobs, instead inspecting and micromanaging everything they do.

And it’s not working.

Perhaps, it’s time to look at things differently. Perhaps we can get some clues by better understanding and implementing Commander’s Intent.

Afterword: I’ve just read Secretary Mattis’ Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead. It’s has a great discussion of Commander’s Intent and is a fantastic leadership story.

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2 Comments
  1. Serendipity — I just returned Mathis’ book to the library and was on my way here to recommend it to you, after reading the headlines of your post in email.

    You are way ahead of me….

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