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The Importance of a “Heads Up” Approach to Planning and Leading

senior sales leader leaning against a glass wall looking at the camera happy with the changes she is successfully leading her sales organization through as a result of the skills she built in the leaders leading change training program

richardsonsalestrainingMarch 24, 2014Blog

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Successful Leadership Isn’t as Easy as Riding a Bike: Now that the weather is warming up, I’ve been seeing more bicyclists on the road. I was talking to a cycling friend recently who told me something surprising.

He said that on long rides of 30 or more miles that require pedaling multiple hours at a time, it’s often not your legs that hurt, but rather your neck and shoulders.

This stems from maintaining a fixed posture for a long period. How do riders prevent that discomfort? By forcing yourself to look up, turning your head from side to side, rolling your shoulders and changing the position of your hands on the grips.

I instantly saw a connection between the cyclist and business leaders and managers — especially those responsible for sales. Too often, we work like the cyclist — with our heads down and legs propelling us forward. But what if we’re going in the wrong direction? Are we going too fast or too slow? Are things happening around us that we’re missing? Like the cyclist, you need to lift your head to flex those muscles to stay fresh and confirm that you’re on the right path.

My favorite part of this analogy is how very illustrative this very basic scenario is for organizations: the legs, which represent the workforce of the organization, keep moving you forward toward pre-established goals. (Sometimes, they’re struggling uphill or coasting down, which mimics the pace of your business cycles.) It’s up to the organization’s leaders, represented by the head and shoulders, to remember to look up, change direction or be confident in staying the course.

Common Triggers/Times to Look Up and Look Around

This begs the question: as a leader, how often do you look up, roll your muscles, stretch and reestablish your direction? There are a few predetermined occasions when all businesses do this, such as:

  • Annual planning and budgeting — What are our goals, who will accomplish them and how much are we willing to spend to reach them? How much do we need to reinvest in the business?
  • Annual performance reviews — Is your talent meeting or achieving the goals you’ve set for them? Are they developing as expected? Are your managers and leaders effective? Do you have a need to hire more people to fill a void or take advantage of an opportunity?
  • Quarterly and monthly reports — What do the numbers show? Where is performance on track, behind or ahead? How can you get lagging units and people on track? Can related business units keep up with those that are outperforming their targets?
These are each quite necessary steps within the business process and cycle. They are so routine that they’ve likely been scripted and planned to the point where a formula is followed for the sake of efficiency (which is fine — I’m not suggesting that it’s better to reinvent the wheel). Yes, it’s important to have structure and schedules, but with each of those triggers, you’re looking at specific things. Meanwhile, there are many other variables that go unchecked.

Scanning for Unscripted Threats and Opportunities

Going back to the cycling analogy, those planned, automatic triggers listed are the equivalent of a deliberate pit stop or catching a breather while waiting at a traffic light. Remember that problems arise when you’re moving without a break and need to prevent your muscles and joints from locking up.

Beyond the data you collect from those annual, quarterly and monthly rituals, you need to find a way to take a heads-up approach in order to remain healthy and competitive. What else should you look for? Here are some suggestions:

  • Competition — What are your peers doing? Are you still meeting them head-to-head in sales pitches, or have they shifted their focus elsewhere? Are they targeting a niche or aiming higher up the food chain?
  • Social Media — This is a no-brainer, but companies still fail to successfully use social media in their business. What a powerful way to get real-time feedback and interact with people who care about your brand. Yes, you risk spam and unruly loudmouths, but for each one of those is someone willing to tell you what they like or dislike, which you should listen and react to.
  • Innovations — Are there new technologies that influence the way you can do business or which have changed the way your buyers think about your products or services? Is there something you can leverage? Are there new threats?
  • Trends in related industries — Look outside your common peer group for ideas and inspiration. What might you be able to take advantage of? If you share buyers, how might a change in their habits be good or bad for you?
Successfully adopting a heads-up approach could lead to growth for your business or help you to introduce a new product or service. It might also give you an early warning of the demise of something no longer valued or needed.

With the glut of information overload, you might consider assigning specific leaders or groups within your business to be responsible for following these unscripted triggers and trends. Have them gather their intel and share it among the group in such a way that it is helpful and not merely an added task to their already overburdened schedules. The trick is to avoid having this become yet another routine.


A key message in this post is to be proactive, not just reactive. I’m not suggesting that you respond and react to every data point with knee-jerk decisions. You should of course be prudent and disciplined to not change on a whim.

But you must be aware and informed beyond what you expect to hear from your regular reports. Don’t get caught with your head down while your competitors are looking up. You don’t want to miss the opportunity to take advantage of an issue or situation or be caught off guard when a downward spiral threatens.

As you finish one quarter and begin the next, force yourself and your team to look up, look around and see what’s happening that you didn’t anticipate.

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