To Press or Be Pressed

How tough situations shape you as a sales professional & leader

What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make? How did it test you? Did you emerge from that moment stronger?

A few weeks ago, I came across an interview with Jeff Wilke, the outgoing CEO of Amazon’s consumer business.  He shared some thoughts about what he learned about leadership and what he calls Crucible Moments.

The term crucible has two meanings. The first is a container used to heat something to high temperatures. The second is a severe test or challenge, such as a big sale that is going sideways or customer that is switching to a competitor’s offering.

For Jeff, crucible moments are the periods of challenge and adversity where one learns the most about themselves and their ability to lead. Of these moments, Jeff says they are, “the fiery place with a healthy dose of inherent chaos.”

We have all experienced these moments throughout our careers. I can recall numerous times in my professional life when I experienced the crucible. There was the time when I had just been pushed into sales and one of my first solo sales meetings was with the CIO of Boeing. Another time I was asked to lead a bake-off to deliver a highly customized demo to over one hundred bank directors with only two weeks notice after the previous rep wasted the first two weeks, causing us to rush to the finish line.

All of these situations were moments of intense stress. There were tight deadlines, high expectations, lots of visibility, and significant impact on myself and others if I made the wrong decisions or delayed necessary action. These were make it or break it moments, and even though I did not wear the leader title, I still had to be the leader and own the moment.

A Harvard Business Review article talked about the characteristics of leaders needed to thrive under pressure. There were four common traits outlined:

  • Ability to engage in shared meaning - find common ground & see others views

  • Distinctive and compelling voice - influence & persuade others using words

  • Sense of integrity and values - speaking with the power of moral authority

  • Adaptive capacity to grasp context with hardiness - adapting & remain positive

Living through crucible moments is a transformative experience. The memories shape our views and how we relate to the world. They also inform our perspectives of leadership, the ways we engage with others, and our response to crises so that we can safely press through those crucial situations successfully and learn in the process.

There can also be a negative side of crucible moments when the pressure is being applied in an inappropriate, destructive, or humiliating manner. This tweet about the glorification of work culture is one such example:

I have often seen this bit of “whiteboard wisdom” pop up on LinkedIn. This makes sense on a platform like LinkedIn because everyone wants to project a persona of being the hard working and diligent professional. We want to be seen by others through the lens of the way we want to be seen, even if internally we are not as confident and industrious.

On Twitter, people tend to be more candid and critical. The reactions were particularly strong on the last part of the quote:

“Whenever you feel crushed, under pressure, pressed, or in darkness, you’re in a powerful place of transformation. Trust the process!”

This sentiment feels like hustleporn. It is the “no pain, no gain”, “work hard, play hard” mantras meant to one-up each other on the scale of workaholism. It is easy to let “trust the process” become a gateway for a toxic workplace where people over work themselves on the hamster wheel of corporate feudalism to the whims of management.

Workaholism has significant consequences. The World Health Organization found that 745,000 people died in one year from stroke and heart disease due to long work hours, mostly affecting people in SouthEast Asia and the Western Pacific. The situation worsened during the pandemic, with one study citing work from home leading to an average of six hours of unpaid overtime a week.

Last week I talked about doing the work. It is important to take ownership of the things we are responsible for as sales professionals. We own our number, the pipeline, the reporting, the account planning, the customer relationships, and training we need to stay top of our game. Those are table stakes to succeed in sales or management.

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Crucible moments are also an important mechanism for success. The struggle allows us to push beyond our personal limits and grow in experience and resilience to face tougher challenges ahead. On the other hand, it can become a morale crushing cauldron of despair that burns up any desire to excel.

This is the difference between pressing ahead and being pressed. Part of it is directionality and what is applying the pressure. When we can take ownership of situation, we have the agency to press forward. When it is some person unduly applying pressure, we lose that ownership.

The other perspective is time horizon. When situations are timeboxed, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel to a better outcome, or we can pivot. Otherwise, you have a sick system that locks us into toxic relationships rife with abuse.

For those of us that want to grow in our leadership capabilities, we should seek those crucible moments as growth opportunities. At the same time, we should be wary of workaholism and toxicity creeping into our lives and work.

In our professional lives, there will be times when we press and times when we are pressed. Understand the moment, the potential for valuable outcomes, and decide how you will lead through the moment.

Have an awesome week and let me know how you are doing!

Mark Birch, Founder of Enterprise Sales Forum

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The Enterprise Sales Forum is a professional community championing the practice of sales through monthly sales talks at chapters globally. Our chapters provide an open, collaborative and diverse environment to share new ideas, network and learn actionable insights for professional sales development.