THE PARABLE OF THE “PULLERS”
Lessons can come to you in elusive ways, sometimes from people that you never see again. Oftentimes, wisdom comes to you when you’re not looking for it or even ready to apply it. Such a tutorial was delivered to me when I was twenty-one years of age.
I’d only been in his presence once or twice, yet he provided me with the most impactful instruction in recruiting and training I’ve ever been given. His brief message was based on a sport I’ve never observed and was dispensed informally in a dark corner of a bar. The message UPSET THE ORDER of importance I placed on aspects of recruiting and sales training.
It was the spring of 1982. I was a sales manager with Pennsylvania Life. We hired people off the street to sell a $39 accident policy. These were people with no insurance—or even sales experience—but a clean enough record to apply for a state of California insurance license. Suffice it to say we had to hire a lot of people to get a few to stick. We wound up spending a mountain of time training people that never made it.
The Penn Life group I was part of was faltering. They’d brought in a consultant to help rebuild the agency structure. His name was Don. He was a semi-retired consultant. Don was a soft-spoken, dignified man of Norwegian descent, originally from Minnesota
He gathered together our small group of sales managers to have a discussion about what was and wasn’t working. Of course, as most of these ‘off the record’ discussions go, the conversation quickly degenerated into a bitch session. Most of our complaints centered around how much time we spent interviewing and field training people that would eventually leave.
He listened to us intently, absorbing our diatribes. We were on our third pitcher of beer when Don calmly cleared his throat to speak. He explained that he’d started a small company out of his garage. He began humbly, selling a line of pots and pans door-to-door with a small sales team. Eventually his business grew and he relocated into larger facilities. By the time he was in his late forties, he controlled a sizeable corporate enterprise with a large national sales force.
He related the difficulties his company experienced at one juncture. Some years earlier, the company’s sales started to flat line. Don was the best salesperson the company had, but due to their massive growth, he’d become ensnared into the role of C.E.O. He had no choice but to delegate the sales channel to others and trust they would continue to drive numbers the way he had.
Don’s sales management team convinced him that resources should be directed to areas such as profiling new hires with aptitude tests and the build out of complex training processes. It seemed the more money and time they spent in those areas, the worse new sales results became. Don leaned back in his chair, poured himself a brew, and related the following story like he was the camp counselor and we were scouts around the fire.
“I was sitting on my couch one Saturday afternoon in ‘79 watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I was mentally preoccupied and at a crossroads with my company, worrying a great deal about how to turn sales around.”
Jim McKay was doing an introduction of an event ABC was covering that day. Each year in March, men, women, and dogs from around the world converge on the state of Alaska to take part in what has become known as the “Last Great Race” on the planet, the Iditarod. The race began in 1973 and is a 1,049-mile endurance test for the mushers and the dogs that run its course.
Don became interested in what was on his T.V. screen when he learned that the current winner was a young man from Willmar, Minnesota, not far from where he was originally from. Rick Swenson went on to win a total of five Iditarod events, and eventually became known as the “King of the Iditarod.” Don soaked in the images from Alaska as the reporter shoved a microphone in the face of the tired champion and began the interview.
“The man conducting the interview asked a few questions about the weather and course conditions, then he asked his last question, which was a doozy. The interviewer probed him, ‘I’m sure our viewers at home want to know how you TRAIN all those dogs so well each year?”
I noticed that Don hesitated a few seconds before continuing his anecdote. He was checking to see who was listening. The other guys seemed more interested in their beers than the story, but I could tell that the story was important to Don and he’d drawn me into his web.
“So, Rick looks at the ABC interviewer like he has a screw loose. The champion cocks his head and replies, ‘Sir, I don’t TRAIN dogs. I’m not a dog trainer. I hook dogs up to the sled and I look for the PULLERS. I keep the pullers and work with them and I release the rest.’”
Don stopped talking, leaned back and smiled. I did a quick 180. None of my colleagues were really listening to what he had to say. One of the other managers had even left to take a bathroom break.
“I jumped off the couch when the winner made this statement. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Spending more money and time trying to pick the perfect candidate or wasting corporate resources to revamp training wasn’t going to change our sales results at all. I realized we’d gotten off course; we’d been focusing on all the WRONG things. I knew right then and there that I’d need to get back into the field and re-train our leadership team, get them thinking differently.”
“I realized that when we were growing sales by leaps and bounds, we didn’t have sophisticated interviewing techniques. We certainly didn’t have any fancy classroom training. It was just me and a few other guys in the field, having fun, working with the people that were ready to run hard along side us. We didn’t have time to spend with anyone that wasn’t ready to go to work. We released them. We let them go. We simply worked with the PULLERS!”
After Don’s couch epiphany that afternoon in 1979, he got back into the field and redirected the paradigm of his organization. He challenged sales leadership to move away from philosophies that were NEVER going to be productive. Selection and training processes are overrated if you don’t look for the pullers and redirect your focus on them. He asked his sales leaders to look into the hearts and minds of their sales people and engage with those that were ready to run hard. He implored them to connect to those people and help them get what they wanted. He then suggested that they gently release the rest, or at least not spend prime time trying to convince them to do something that they weren’t ready to do.
Of course, there is always the rest of the story. Don told us that the paradigm shift caused his company’s sales to triple in just two and a half years. Subsequently, a large conglomerate bought the company and Don and his family became multi-multi millionaires as a result of the acquisition.
Don’s story made quite an impression on me. I started thinking about my selection process for new salespeople. I was trying to PICK THE WINNERS using my gut instinct along with aptitude tests. Both methods were unreliable. In addition, I was spending equal field time with each new salesperson, trying to be fair. That wasn’t working either. You can educate a sales person until you’re blue in the face, but if they’re not ready to put in the hours, then all you have is an unmotivated professional student. I began looking for the pullers. I started spending prime field time with only those that were willing to do the work, those that had heart and grit.
As for me, I left Penn Life a few months after this eye-opening lecture from Don; however, I carried the seeds of this lesson close to me and eventually used the paradigm to create tremendous success. In fact, the message handed to me that night in ’82 was worth millions!
I learned you couldn’t pick ‘em. My mantra became “if you LIKE a person, and they’re trainable, hire them and give them a chance! I also learned to spend my valuable prime time only with people that were ready to go to work. People that were NOT ready to work got whatever time I had left over. Soon after, I connected this practice with the Pareto Principle, (the 80-20 rule) and realized that 80% of my production came from only 20% of my total sales force.
As for the other guys that night in 1982…I think they may still be sitting there, in that dark corner of the bar in Van Nuys, complaining about how hard it is to find and train salespeople, never having heard Don’s lesson.