Sales Leadership: The Problem of the Emperor’s Old Clothes

The Sacred Trust of Sales Leadership – Helping Resolve the Problem of the Emperor’s Old Clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes, a popular children’s tale, teaches many valuable life lessons.

Charlatans persuade a gullible, clothing-conscious emperor they can produce the finest suit from the most beautiful cloth. The suit has a special quality: it cannot be seen by anyone stupid or unfit for their position. 

The emperor doesn’t want to admit he can’t see the clothing – that he is unworthy – and his courtiers act similarly. Ultimately, when the emperor parades through town showing off his marvelous suit, a child proclaims, “But he has nothing on at all,” bursting the bubble.

Lessons learned include:

  • Our vulnerability to foolish behavior, even by leadership
  • The value of skepticism regarding new, untested ideas
  • The danger of “group think” – emulating leadership without thoughtful analysis
  • That sometimes it takes the fresh eyes of innocence to see the truth

As adults, these lessons inform our value systems, guide our behavior and protect us from obvious, foolish errors.

Unfortunately, not heeding these lessons – particularly the value of healthy skepticism – also can blind us to identifying and then resolving the problem of the “Emperor’s Old Clothes”: when is it time to change or discard old clothing? (Or when is it time for “New Clothes?”)

In business, a central leadership test is knowing when to make a partial or complete paradigm change. The downside of risky investments can blind us to the need to discard a dated paradigm – the Emperor’s Old Clothes.

Leadership’s resistance to change, engendered by skepticism, is usually magnified by the influence of vested interests – those who want to maintain the current system. This is the problem of the “foxes guarding the henhouse,” and a major reason you may need outside advice to help guide the process.

We know it’s time to discard the Old Clothes – to meet the future with appropriate “New Clothes” – when sales and profits decline consistently. Unfortunately, it’s often too late to respond effectively from within in an advanced state of business decline.

A classic example of a vibrant business declining – a failure to discard the Emperor’s Old Clothes – is Henry Ford’s commitment to the Model T in the face of changing demand, allowing GM to create its empire and almost bankrupting Ford Motor Company.

Professor Theodore Levitt of Harvard University wrote a compelling essay, “Marketing Myopia,” warning about the danger of focusing on product form versus market demand.

In this regard, consider IBM’s rejecting xerography, fearing the process would cut into its typewriter sales. Typewriter sales were destined to decline. IBM’s only real choice was would it participate in meeting the market demand with a new technology?

IBM failed this test, failed to discard the Old Clothes.

The challenge of the Emperor’s Old Clothes – when to discard the old paradigm and what to substitute – is complicated by uncertainty. We can’t know the future.

A central resolution to the challenge is testing and even creating the future – with a portfolio of future-oriented strategies. Strategies for “communicating with (and) testing the future” are identified and chronicled at length in the book Competing at the Edge.

These strategies include: improvising; strategic alliances; maintaining a portfolio of relentless low-cost probes into the future (research, test markets); involving futurists; and, finally: time pacing – leading the change in markets. An exemplary case of time pacing is 3M’s objective of earning 30 percent of its profits from businesses that didn’t exist five years earlier.

The best way to control the future is to create it. And a strong way to guide the process is to invite help from someone who has experience.

Everyone must engage in future-oriented leadership at some time – from the chairman of the board to a production worker. (The production worker has to “bet” on the right employer and its future.) The larger the organization, the greater is the impact of leadership’s decisions regarding changing the Emperor’s Old Clothes.

The sacred trust of top management is knowing when and how to discard the Emperor’s Old Clothes.

Often, top management acts on insight without tapping sales leadership. This can be a huge error, denying top management critical, necessary and available sales resources for resolving the problem of the Emperor’s Old Clothes.

As markets change, sales leadership has several tasks:

  • Extend and maximize revenue and cash flow from existing markets
  • Lead the charge into new markets
  • Time pace the change – make it happen faster to stay in control
  • Develop a pipeline of serious future-oriented conversations with clients and prospects to help develop and test new concepts. This will only happen in the context of a serious, ongoing and consultative discussion with prospects and clients.

When sales leadership is too busy – or too committed to the Old Clothes – to prepare the way for the appropriate New Clothes, you may want to invite outside expertise to help in the process.

Sales leadership – whether internal or external – can achieve a huge, low-cost impact by selecting the proper future-oriented sales process and sales management system – a process that facilitates “talking to the future.” Profitable sales increases of 25-50 percent or more are possible with limited investment in a future-oriented sales process. (It’s much easier to change a sales process than to invest millions of dollars in plant, equipment and inventory.)

This is sales management’s sacred trust: to achieve a huge sales impact with limited investment; to contribute to the “discussion with the future”; to make necessary changes in the sales process by knowing when and how to discard the Emperor’s Old Clothes and embrace the appropriate New Clothes.