What Sales Managers Can Learn from a Great Basketball Coach

Like many people, I couldn’t help but follow the exploits of the Villanova Wildcats in the most recent NCAA basketball tournament. And along with the rest of America, I was thrilled by the last-second 3-point shot that won Villanova the national championship. Their achievement impressed me so much that I decided to study up on Villanova’s coach, Jay Wright.

Wright has said that when doing recruiting, he looks for players who are both hungry and humble, and he uses variations on the motto “stay humble, stay hungry” as part of this coaching strategy.

I think the hungry part we all get. We all want players on our team who are driven to win and motivated to achieve great things.

But what about humble?

That struck me as odd. I’d have thought he’d want players who were perhaps bold and brash, whose self-confidence could carry them through tough times. But Wright has great insight. He says that if a player does not have humility, they won’t be coachable. And what good is a player who isn’t coachable?

Sales managers are increasingly telling me that they’re starting to pay more attention to “coachability” when they look for new hires—mostly because they’re tired of dealing with sales reps who refuse to listen to advice. When I ask sales managers in my training seminars what “coachability” is, most of the time there is confusion. A large percentage say they are looking for someone who has an agreeable personality and listens attentively, but in my experience, an agreeable person is not necessarily coachable.

Coachability is tied to personality traits such as a rep’s willingness to change, openness to feedback and ideas from others, positive acceptance of constructive criticism, interest in continued improvement, and the motivation to succeed and constantly strive for new challenges and results. They will not just listen to advice but apply it! If a rep doesn’t have these kinds of traits, your coaching will have little impact.

How can you tell if someone is coachable?

For a current employee, it’s straightforward—watch and see if a rep changes after you’ve given them advice (this means you have to follow up and inspect what you expect, something that sales managers aren’t always great at).

Perhaps a more important question is this: how do you determine during the hiring process whether or not a candidate will be coachable? To solve this problem, I recommend following the advice of Mark Roberge, author of The Sales Acceleration Formula. He uses mini-role plays during hiring interviews not so much to test the candidate’s skill but to see how well they could take and then implement advice. So he would say, “Let’s do a quick role play. I’m a Director of HR and I recently hit your website and downloaded something. (Then set up the scenario). Let’s role play your opening call to me. Your goal is to do some light discovery and set an appointment to discuss needs further. Please begin when you are ready.”

Following the role play, Roberge would ask “How do you think you did?” (this tests their ability to self-evaluate). In the candidate’s response, he would listen to see how reflective and analytical the candidate was about their performance. If the person said, “I think I did great” that was a bad sign. He wanted to hear specifics from the candidate about what went well and what could have been improved.

In his response after the role play, Roberge would outline a strength and give a few suggestions to the candidate for improvement. Then he would ask the candidate to redo the roleplay. A candidate who attempted to make changes is, as Coach Wright would say, humble and coachable.

Attitude Club

For years now, Wright has awarded points for what he calls the “Attitude Club” to players who dive on the floor, take charges, play hard in practice. And in a pre-Final Four interview, Wright said, “Motivationally, these guys are so fired up, they want to win. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][My job is] trying to keep them focused on basketball. Keep them focused on being humble. Keep them focused on reality.”

As I thought about this, I wondered what would happen if sales team leaders adopted some of Wright’s practices. What if sales managers talked more about the importance of a good attitude – and how important it is for even the most talented of players to be coachable. Personally, I think great things could happen!


Kevin Davis

Kevin F. Davis is the author of The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness”, which was named the 2018 Axiom Business Book Award Winner, Silver Medal. Kevin is also the author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!”.