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The Importance of Purpose, Resilience, and Engagement: Nicki Harkrider Shares Advice in Podcast for The Center for Sales Strategy

The wonderful Nicki Harkrider, Local Revenue Officer at TEGNA, joined hosts Matt Sunshine and Stephanie Downs on The Center for Sales Strategy’s Improving Sales Performance podcast to talk about the importance of fostering a culture of engagement amongst your sales teams, having and maintaining your core purpose as a sales leader, and the power of staying “resilient through the fatigue of change. Be sure to tune in! 

Meredith Cunningham Published: October 21, 2022

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Full Transcript: 

Matt Sunshine: Welcome to Improving Sales Performance, a podcast highlighting tips and insights aimed at helping sales organizations realize and maybe even exceed their goals.

Here we chat with thought leaders, experts, and gurus who have years of sales experience in various industries. This season, we celebrate women in sales month by talking to some amazing women sales pros.

Joining me for the entire month of October is Stephanie Downs, SVP and Senior Consultant at the Center for Sales Strategy. She’ll be sharing her insights along with our fabulous guests. I’m your host Matt Sunshine, Managing Partner at the Center for Sales Strategy, Sales Performance Consulting Company.

Stephanie Downs: We’re so proud to celebrate Women in Sales Month for all of October. We have an amazing slate of women’s sales leaders who will be sharing their unique insights, from offering advice for sales managers, new or more experienced, to discussing the anticipated landscape of sales and years ahead when it comes to improving sales performance. These ladies know how it’s done. 

I’m Stephanie Downs, Senior Vice President at the Center for Sales Strategy, and I’ll be joining Matt Sunshine on the show for the entire month of October. Today our guest is Nicki Harkrider, Vice President and Local Revenue Officer at TEGNA. 

Nicki brings so many awesome points to the table, such as the importance of fostering a culture of engagement amongst your sales teams, having and maintaining your core purpose as a sales leader, and the power of staying resilient through the fatigue of change.

Matt Sunshine: Stephanie and I are so excited about this conversation this morning. We have our questions lined up, and we have an amazing guest. Stephanie, I’ll let you start it off.

Stephanie Downs: Nicki, thinking about the overall sales organization, what are four or five different things you look at to tell you that you guys are on track? That things are going the way you want ’em to be going?

Nicki Harkrider: I think what’s interesting about that question, Stephanie, is looking at it through the lens of the sales department. We have a dashboard that we look at. It’s basically all the areas that we have responsibilities in as a team. They’re KPIs. When I open that dashboard and see a lot of green, my immediate visual is that the department is healthy. 

But when you open that up and have a low percentage of sellers creating that performance, that can be tricky because it’s really about the depth. It’s about the number of sellers and the percentage of sellers that are all experiencing success. So the higher that percentage is in all their areas of responsibility, to me, is a reflection of the high bar that the sales department has. It’s a reflection of their team’s depth, which I think is super important. 

It reflects what a great place a new employee can come in and learn because you’ve got so many people to learn from. I think that’s super important today, and I think it’s a reflection of a great culture. I really do. 

I think when you see a dashboard with a high percentage of sellers with green, green, green, green, that’s a great culture. I think that with everything we’re going through, when you can have a great place to learn, when you have a high bar, when you have got a great culture, and you’ve got depth, that’s a healthy sales organization. They’re doing great work. When I look at it through the lens of the department, that’s really how I get a visualization of how that is. 

Stephanie Downs: Yeah, that’s right. You get a different perspective. 

Matt Sunshine: Let me follow up real quick. So every single station and every single market has the same dashboard, the same KPIs, and the same tracking across the board?

Nicki Harkrider: Yeah. It’s consistent. 

Matt Sunshine: I think that’s a big point, the consistency of measure going on across the board.

Nicki Harkrider: Yeah, I agree. I think to have consistency, there have been many times when you’re trying to identify and hire for a role – and I’ve always carried this with me from many years when I was at the station – you would identify what you’re looking for in that role and identify the questions you want to ask. The interview process feeds into that need. Having the consistency of those questions across all candidates really helps you see what you’re trying to see. 

So for me, in this role, the consistency of that across all of our stations is super, super valuable when you’re looking at the health of the organization in their local market.

Stephanie Downs: I like the word consistency because there’s a lot to that. What else should sales managers be paying attention to? What are some of the other high priorities or big rocks that sales managers should be paying attention to?

Nicki Harkrider: I’m going to say all those things we just talked about. We’re looking at all of that. But right now, I would be unbelievably focused on engagement. I think we are in such a difficult time. I have a ton of empathy for the local leaders in the marketplaces post-covid and for getting teams in our rhythm again. So much has changed. In our world, nothing is the same. As you’re trying to move forward in this different environment with different requirements in our role, you have gotta be more engaged than ever. And we’ve been separated. We’re not separated today, but there’s still this different type of rhythm and an engaged team that they must rebuild.

So for me, if I’m a leader, I am focused on all those things we talked about before. But I am focused on engagement in a very intentional way, engagement with every person, and engagement on the team as a whole. 

Without really high levels of engagement and recruiting for people who can share that same level of engagement, with the right skill set that gives them the right opportunity, the belief in what we do, and retaining people with high engagement, without really pulling that through with new employees and retaining your star talent, I think that’s really challenging. You’ve gotta have highly engaged teams with the right people.

Stephanie Downs: You absolutely do. It’s always been important. That’s always been important, but it’s more important now than it’s ever been before. 

You touched on recruiting. That’s obviously a big need across a lot of different companies that we deal with. So I’m curious, you made a comment about how everything has changed, everything is different, and it is. We know the last two and a half years, things have changed drastically. 

When you think about a sales leader from three years ago, four years ago, and five years ago versus a sales leader today, what do you have to have in a sales leader to be successful today? What is so important about that role now?

Nicki Harkrider: I think the sales leaders have a lot on their shoulders. As you know, I’m a big person on purpose and really believe in having a strong level of core purpose in what you do. So I think that having purpose today is helping them drive their teams, themselves, et cetera, to the future because they are really committed. 

I think that that level of commitment that’s necessary from leadership today, you have a lot of people really needing that. They really need to see a strong sense of purpose, commitment, and belief in what our future can and will be. 

I do think because of the accelerated change and the uncertainty that’s happened in the world, that leaders have an important role today, more than they ever have before. They were leading people, leading performance and goals, and hiring people. But now, they’re creating a vision for the future every single day. 

Stephanie Downs: They’ve gotta be able to convey that vision and get buy-in on that vision and get people to come along with them. “Purpose” is a good word, and “committed” is a good word, but they’ve gotta be able to really bring people with them. And that goes back to the engagement conversation we were having.

Nicki Harkrider: And you two know that one of my favorite words is “galvanize.” I love the word galvanize. And I think that our leaders, I think the best leaders today, are resilient in the fatigue that has happened through all of the unbelievable change. They can galvanize their team through the right communication, a strong sense of purpose, and being truly, truly committed. They’re able to get everybody going to where they see there’s the possibility to go. I really believe that. I absolutely believe the future is very optimistic. I think that we absolutely can paint that picture. But it takes the mindset of a leader today to be able to do that. So there’s a lot of responsibility on leaders today because they have a higher responsibility than just skills and talents and goal performance. They have a responsibility to galvanize teams.

Stephanie Downs: I’m going to shift gears just a little bit. So if you were talking to a group of brand-new sales leaders in our business today, what advice would you give them? 

Nicki Harkrider: I have this conversation when I interview new leaders, and I think that an optimistic spirit is really important. I think attitude is really important with sellers and leaders. The advice that I give them is just to put myself in the shoes of a seller and in the shoes of what I loved as a seller, and also what I found success as a leader of sellers. 

It’s about seeing the role and earning their trust and their respect. I think there are a lot of things. You’ve got to have people’s back, you’ve got to earn respect. You’ve gotta show that you care about them and that they can trust you. As long as you can create that, if you’re a new leader, you have a team of people who want to run through that wall for you because they trust you and respect you. They know that you care about them and you teach them, you bring them value every day, then that’s the way to success. 

Matt Sunshine: I’ve been taking notes. Some of the things that I’m hearing you say is that you want to build a great place to learn, work and grow. You want to have a great culture. As a sales leader, if you can have a great place to learn, a great place to work, a great place to grow, you’re really going to have that culture. One of the keys to that is consistency. It’s not just a ‘Hey, I read an article, let’s do this.’ I mean, it’s more of a belief. 

The other thing that you said was that engagement should be the number one focus, and I love that every person and team needs to retain your star talent. I don’t think we can emphasize that enough. And I love the way you put that together – the commitment, the belief, and that sense of purpose that leaders today need to create, share and convey the vision.

Then the last thing that I took notes on that I wanted to highlight is being resilient through the fatigue of change. Boy, isn’t that the truth? Resilient through the fatigue of change because there’s been a lot of change.

Nicki Harkrider: Yeah.There’s no doubt, right? We can’t sit here, we’re not teaching anybody to say, ‘Oh, there’s been a massive change.’ We all know it. There’s nothing that’s really the same, honestly. I’m just a big believer that you have to accept that, and part of acceptance, I believe, is resilience, Matt. Then, seeing the opportunity in what’s ahead. It’s just critically important, and it’s very important. Leaders play a very important role in that.

I was talking about the role of that galvanizing and all that we just talked about. Those that have a lot of intuition or really great instincts have a very special way of leading that vision and leading their people in engagement today. Because it is reacting in this environment is just not healthy. So understanding what’s going on with someone when they haven’t even said it. 

Why are they struggling with activity in the environment today? What’s getting in their way? The ability to connect and have great instincts with people for leaders today is absolutely critical in helping them solve their problems. Helping them grow, helping them learn. 

Stephanie Downs: We know strong leaders have that just natural intuition. I think it’s also important that leaders put some sort of routine or process in place to uncover some of that information as well. You know, it can happen in one on ones each week. It can be that they stop down and have a formal process where they’re asking very specific questions to learn what people are thinking about, what’s important to them, where they wanna go in an organization, and what their growth goals are. There needs to be a process in place to help support that as well. Don’t you think?

Nicki Harkrider: Yeah, I totally agree. I don’t say it a lot because I can’t imagine not doing it, but listening is just as important as asking the right questions. When you’re having a one-on-one, we need to understand what’s going on with our people. There is body language, and I think there’s a stat that 80% of what you’re feeling or saying is actually through body language more than words. So picking up on that in person is another way. When we’re trying to be intentional about engagement, our connection with our people is important. Listening and asking questions. They don’t have to be really complicated questions.

Stephanie Downs: Not at all. They shouldn’t be complicated.

Nicki Harkrider: It’s really understanding, listening, and being intentional. The more you can unlock what’s going on with the individual, their challenges, what’s taking over their mind, their calendar, their worries, and their successes, the more you’re able to unlock the best in people. 

Stephanie Downs: I’ll add a thought to that, and then I’m gonna ask you a final question. But I think it’s once you listen and you learn you have to respond to it and react to it. You can’t just hear it and not do anything because that would be the opposite of engagement. 

Nicki Harkrider: May I add something before you get to your last question? I’m actually in Atlanta and was with the Atlanta team last night. One of the things that we were talking about is great leaders today, and something you really have to be intentional about is we have to be more clear on setting expectations. We’ve had roles and responsibilities. We all know what the expectations of a position are. But I think in our environment today, and as we’re challenged with lots of different ideas on what creates success, they should know the behavior, the activity, what you’re looking to see, what the cadence, what the process is. All of that needs to be crystal clear. Clear from the very beginning and agreed upon in that commitment area that we were talking about.

Let me tell you all the expectations that are about the agreement. Sure. Here’s what creates success. I’ve seen it. I know it. Here’s what the role is, and are you highly engaged? Are you all in, are you fully committed to doing that? Because I’m responsible for making sure I set you up for success. And you’re responsible for making sure you are. Expectations really, really need to be key because nobody wants to go into a role, and the expectations of anyone to be false because that doesn’t help anybody be successful. That doesn’t help our organizations be successful. So it’s really important to set expectations correctly.

Stephanie Downs: I think we could have an entire podcast about that. 

Final thought. We know there’s been a lot of change. Captain obvious, right? If you look out 3, 4, or 5 years, how do you think sales departments will evolve over the next handful of years?

Nicki Harkrider: I absolutely am excited. I absolutely believe that we are going to be even more advanced and more proven in being outcome-based selling. I think that is the way of our future. I think we have the opportunity to do that, and I think it’s super exciting. So if I look forward to that, I’m just excited to continue on that road. I love how that ties back to our purpose of really helping businesses and brands grow. Having proof of the outcomes of that is so rewarding. 

And what better job could you have that you’re actually able to help change people’s lives? So having that tied in, in an even further, more consistent, and more powerful way is an awesome part of what I think the next three to five years.

I would also say, as we’ve all gone through a transformation – and some of our sales organizations have gone through that very effectively and very fast and are continuing to grow in that – I think three to five years, you can’t still be challenged with that. You really have to be all in. 

Then you’ve gotta really be able to look in the mirror at your department and say, We’ve got the people and the purpose in all the things we’re trying to do. We’re not still trying to transform. We’re always going to be transforming, but we need to get through that hurdle for sure. 

Matt Sunshine: Nikki, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. 

Nicki Harkrider: Thank you, Matt Sunshine. For anyone that’s listening to this, I really hope all those things for all of our competitors and all of our companies in this industry, I think together we can really create an amazing industry together for the future. Together we can be stronger for what opportunities we have in our communities.

Matt Sunshine: Absolutely. Rising tides lift all boats. Exactly right. We look forward to seeing everyone on our next episode of the Improving Sales Performance podcast.

Nicki Harkrider: Awesome. Matt and Stephanie, as always, thank you for having me, number one, and thank you for sharing those passions that we talked about today. I really appreciate you guys.

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