Stop Reading Lists of Things Successful People Do

Who doesn’t love a “how to succeed” list? They’re fun to read and easy to share, which perhaps explains why there are so many of them. And the advice they give often sounds reasonable: The World Economic Forum published a post, in cooperation with Business Insider, listing 14 things successful people do before breakfast. It includes items such as drinking water and making your bed. A list that Forbes published claims every successful person shares this quality: “They know when to stay and when to leave.” This list, from Entrepreneur, advises readers to stop seeing problems, and start seeing opportunities; this one, from Inc., encourages readers to give up needing approval and fixating on their weaknesses.

But as palatable as these lists are, they can do damage. There are several reasons why they may be not only useless but also potentially harmful to decision makers, managers, and entrepreneurs.

Evidence is anecdotal. Most of the advice these lists contain is based on subjective interpretations of personal accounts, not on systematic, scientific analyses. Unless advice has been evaluated through evidence-based methods, you can’t judge its validity. In addition, half-baked analyses of anecdotal evidence often blur the lines between cause and consequence. Is someone successful because they avoided meetings, or are they able to avoid meetings because they are successful? A host of behaviors that successful people supposedly share — not caring what others think of them, avoiding meetings, putting first things first, saying no to almost everything — may be luxuries that only the extremely successful can enjoy, and only after they became successful in the eyes of others. Thus some behaviors are what success has brought them, and not the other way around.

Research doesn’t always transfer to different contexts. Some lists do draw heavily from research, like this 2011 one, published by HBR. But academic research is often very context-specific. Take the case of grit as a precursor of success. While psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research and TED talk on the subject are compelling, a recent meta-analysis on the effectiveness of the trait casts doubt on its extensive benefits. As often happens with complex problems, the solutions and their applications are more nuanced than the forms they’re presented in and depend heavily on the context and circumstances in which people find themselves.
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How to Improve Your Sales Skills, Even If You’re Not a Salesperson

At some point in your career, even if you’re not a salesperson, you’re going to have to sell something — whether it’s your idea, your team, or yourself. So how can you improve your sales skills, especially if you don’t pitch people often? What should you focus on first? And what should you do if you lose a sale?

What the Experts Say
Selling has a bad rap, says Thomas Steenburgh, professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “Very few parents say they want their kids to grow up to be a salesperson,” he says. His MBA students are no different. “Many of them tell me that sales is something they never want to do in their careers.” And yet, he says, “Sales is the most fundamental skill.” Scott Edinger, the founder of Edinger Consulting Group and the author of The Hidden Leader, says that the resistance to sales stems from an “antiquated idea that selling is pushing people to buy something they don’t want, don’t need, or can’t afford.” But that notion is outdated. “Selling is moving somebody else to action,” he says. And that is part and parcel of professional life. “If you look at things you do over the course of your day, from internal meetings with colleagues to clients calls, almost all of your interactions involve some form of selling.” Here’s how to get better at it.

Reflect
Getting comfortable with sales requires an “understanding of what selling is,” says Edinger. Move beyond the used car salesman cliché. “Selling is not about putting undue pressure on and talking incessantly,” all while “wearing a light blue polyester suit,” he says. Rather, selling “is persuading, inspiring, and leading.” Your goal is “to work in collaboration” with a client or colleague “to drive change.” To get into the right mindset, Steenburgh recommends reflecting on your past positive experiences as a customer. “When you think about the best sales interactions you’ve had in your life, it’s almost like the salesperson wasn’t there,” he says. The seller was just “a person who’d taken a genuine interest in your problem and was helping you solve it.”

Put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes
“People buy for two reasons,” says Steenburgh. They either have a business problem that needs to be solved or they have a personal need, such as a desire to move up in the organization” that your idea helps accelerate. It’s your job to figure out your customer’s motivations: “What would it take to get your boss to sign off on a project or to get your clients excited about what you have to offer?” says Edinger. Do your research by talking with the people you’re trying to win over, and others in the know, well in advance of making your proposal. Think about what information you need to uncover. “Be empathetic. Focus on understanding the other party — what they need to accomplish and how they measure success.” This will help you tailor your recommendations. Continue reading