Great Sales Performers Are Made Not Born - Part 4

In our last post in this series, we explored why leaders need to use training as part of a process and not a standalone event. In this post, we continue the journey with a walk through the third step to creating a sales success system that transforms performance. Enjoy.

Step 3: Engage in an ongoing process of deliberate practice (SPACE) designed and implemented by experts.

If you’ve committed to a sales success system that really appeals to you (Step 1), you have laid the groundwork for improvement in sales - though you haven’t necessarily separated yourself from your competition. If you and your solution provider make sales training part of an overall process rather than a training event, you will begin to realise benefits that are elusive to others.

In Step 3, you have a major opportunity to make steady advances that most others do not make - to move substantially past what others achieve. There is a field of study called the Science of Expertise and Expert Performance. It studies the deep-level mechanics of how people become really good at something - including sales. Before leaders in the field could conclude what is the difference that really makes a difference, they had to act as good scientists and test out many hypotheses.

Are some people just natural-­born salespeople? Were they born with the knack and the rest of us are condemned to mediocrity? Or is it true that anyone of reasonable intelligence who is willing to pay the price can rise to the top of their field? Let’s examine the research.

Do top sales performers have some innate qualities the rest of us don’t? 

Apparently not. The gifts possessed by the best performers are not at all what we think they are. Some researchers now argue that specifically targeted innate abilities are simply fiction. That you are not a natural-­born clarinet virtuoso or car salesman or bond trader or brain surgeon - because no one is.

The key point for the moment is that the concept of innate business talent is not looking like a very promising answer to the question of how Warren Buffet or any of the business greats became who they were.

Are top sales performers just smarter than the rest of us - do they have markedly higher IQs?

No again. Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers talks of an intelligence threshold - that once you are above a minimum standard (“reasonable intelligence”), being smarter isn’t the key factor that makes you better.

Geoff Colvin also weighs in: “In fact, in a wide range of fields, including business, the connection between general intelligence and specific abilities is weak and in some cases apparently nonexistent."

Does this trend apply to sales specifically?

In a study of salespeople (46,000 individuals) researchers found "If you ask salespeople’s bosses to rate them, the ratings track intelligence moderately well; bosses tend to think that smarter salespeople are better. But when the researchers compared intelligence with actual sales results, they found nothing. Intelligence was virtually useless in predicting how well a salesperson would perform. Whatever it is that makes a sales ace, it seems to be something other than brainpower.”

High IQ may give you a head start, however: “… even if high-­IQ people do better than low-­IQ people when first trying a task that’s new to them, the relationship tends to get weaker and may eventually disappear completely as they work at the task and get better at it.” In short, IQ (once past a minimum threshold) does not predict success.

What about personality?

Don’t some people just seem to have the gift of gab? People just seem to like them? They get along with everybody? Again, research shows top sales performers do not come from any one personality type. And a person of any personality type can be a top performer. The critical factor is more one’s ability to adapt to and create rapport with a variety of personality styles. When a person is willing, key elements of emotional intelligence are learnable. While some may be more motivated to learn than others, almost all are capable.

There is no proven correlation between personality and sales productivity. A person’s personality has no bearing on sales performance.
— Rod McKinnis, Sales is Simple

There is a widespread faith in the utility of personality assessment for selection, development, etc. This faith has been immune to arguments, supported by empirical evidence,  regarding the poor correlation between personality and performance in the workplace (these correlations rarely exceed the 0.2–0.3 level).

What about experience?

Won’t a salesperson with 10-years or more of experience be much more likely to rise to the top of the field? The answer depends on the nature of the experience - and unfortunately, for most the answer is no. “In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills … people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.” 

A 2008 Harvard Business Review article states that “While companies typically value experienced managers, rigorous study shows that, on average, managers with experience did not produce high-­caliber  outcomes.” And: “Occasionally people actually get worse with experience … more-­experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations."

It is not the number of years people spend in a given field; it is the amount of improvement they achieve in each of those years that equates to top performance. So why do some people continually improve while most stay the same or get worse? If IQ, personality, and experience don’t drive improvement, what does? What do top performers do that most do not?

Deliberate Practice: The secret sauce of great sales performance

From all of the studies in all of the fields, the factor that explained the most (not everything) about expert performance was the quality and quantity of practice. Because the nature of this practice was so substantially different than what most people considered practice, experts in the field of top performance gave it a name - deliberate practice.

Simply put, “The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice…. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.”

The concept and application of deliberate practice is rich and deep. FranklinCovey has applied this science to sales in The Five Steps to Mastery, captured in the acronym S.P.A.C.E.

S.P.A.C.E. is the key to improvement

  • Simplify (and Sequence): Develop mastery 5% at a time. 
  • Practice: Combine quality practice with massive repetitions. 
  • Apply: Develop conscious competence before, during, and after every real-­life experience.
  • Confirm: Get continual feedback from an expert/coach/mentor on how to keep getting better.
  • Expand: Push the envelope on how to develop at this skill. 

When you create SPACE, improvement is the result. If you keep on applying it, you can keep getting better for as long as you want. There are some profound implications. At FranklinCovey we hold the following to be true: 

1. Everything you need to be great at sales is learnable. Everything

2. What there is to learn is unlimited.
- How value is created is a moving target.
- Understanding and influencing human psychology and belief systems - ours and others - has no endpoints or boundaries.

3. What makes you better at sales positively benefits much of your life outside of sales.
- Growth in sales requires and results in positive growth as a human being.
- Growth as a human being can almost always translate into getting better at sales.

In the next post in this series we'll take a deeper dive into the SPACE model. We will also examine some of the implications for continually growing sales by continually growing your salespeople. 

Did you miss earlier posts? Here are the links:

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Throughout his long and distinguished career, Mahan Khalsa has been dedicated to helping people get significantly better at sales, and he continues to be instrumental in pushing the envelope on the mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets that make getting better both real and never-ending, both for individuals and for organisations.

Mahan is co-­author of Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play: Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship. He is the founder of the Sales Performance Practice at FranklinCovey and the originator of the Helping Clients Succeed body of work, employed by many of the world's top companies and taught in more than 40 countries and 10 languages. Mahan has worked directly with clients to help create and capture billions of dollars of value - and to do so in ways that lead to greater trust, better relationships, and increased future value.

Mahan has three key beliefs that drive his passion - personally, and with colleagues and clients. The first, garnered from his extensive research in the science of expert performance, is that everything you need to know to be great at sales is learnable - you just have to be willing. Second, the amount you can learn and the degree to which you can improve is infinite. Third, what you learn to be great at sales contributes immensely to who you want to be as a human being.

Follow this link to learn more about FranklinCovey Sales Performance Solutions or contact Ian J Lowe via

Credits: Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-­Class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group, 2008).

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Chris J. Jackson and Philip J. Corr, “Personality-­‐Performance Correlations At Work: Individual and Aggregate Levels of Analyses,” Personality and Individual Differences

Kishore Sengupta, Tarek K. Abdel-­‐Hamid, and Luk N. Van Wassenhove, “The Experience Trap,” Harvard Business Review,

Image Credit: Rocky Movie, 1976, Chartoff-Winkler Productions