How I learned not to fear the Reaper

- - Leadership, Sales

As you go along in life, there are some aphorisms that stick in your brain, sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Other times, it’s because they resonate in a variety of situations, and because of that their meaning seems to deepen as time goes by. I have a few of these that I carry around with me. One is, “Don’t fear the reaper.”

It’s actually a line out of a 1976 song about death and eternal love by Blue Oyster Cult, but the way it got burned into my brain was through business, so I’ve always associated it with that.

The phrase first came into my consciousness back when I worked at Accrue Software running our midmarket business unit, which was a bunch of standalone companies we had acquired. Our main business was selling web analytics software to websites, and business was booming. This was back in the dotcom era, when ecommerce sites such as Webvan and Pets.com were flying high. We were caught up in all that craziness.

We were a publicly traded company, also flying high. At one point we had a valuation north of a billion dollars, and our highest quarterly revenue was somewhere in the $15-20 million range. The dot bomb hadn’t happened yet, and there was a very fearless, celebratory culture, especially among those who had never seen a bust. Yet, with a market valuation that far out of whack with revenues, I think it’s fair to say that death was always somewhere in the back of our minds.

Toward the end of every quarter, stress levels in the office would ratchet up because expectations were so high. The sales team would get everyone amped up with leaderboards, and late night parties tending the fax machine. They would make sure it had paper and toner, and grab the contracts as they came in, check the signatures and run them over to legal. We would go to the ends of the earth to chase down people who bought the software to get them to download it so we could recognize revenue.

Every leader was fueling this end of quarter activity, making Krispy Kreme and pizza runs to make sure we were all there supporting the deals and dealing with escalations and no one had a reason to leave.

And, there was music. Every inside/outside sales pair got to pick a song that was their fight song, that expressed the personality of the team, and we would make an end of quarter CD. During all this donut and margarita fueled chaos, our CEO Rick Kreysar would walk around and talk to everyone.

His take was, “Listen, if you you’ve followed the sales process and articulated value and you understand who needs to sign and what their schedule is, and if your forecast is up to date, don’t worry. You’ve done all you can. What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen.” His song was “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

I thought his thinking was spot on.

After the dotcom bust, as I moved into sales leadership, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” kept coming back to me, but in a slightly different way. That boomtown scenario that happened at Accrue was fading. Software was shifting to the cloud, where you don’t have to make sure a customer deploys it right away to recognize revenue. Because it’s subscription based, it became less about closing that one huge deal and more about finding those ideal customers who are going to find value in the service and renew their subscription year after year.

There’s an element of fear of the unknown when one process ends and a new one is introduced. To me, it felt similar to that end of quarter fear in sales. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” started to be more about embracing the ways in which the sales process was changing, instead of fighting against it.

Some things were easier to let go of than others. I didn’t miss listening for the mechanical sounds of the fax machine delivering a deal, but I thought we might be losing some old-school person-to-person relationship building skills because of overreliance on email blasts. But, overall, I felt like the sales process got better and more efficient. I saw a lot of my colleagues fight the changes that were happening, but kept reminding myself that the less you can fear the reaper and embrace new things amidst fear and uncertainty, the faster you’re going to acclimate to the new reality.

That view was tested when I took a sales role for SAP in Asia-Pacific Japan. I had been working for the company in North America for a few years and had become very much part of the SAP machine and culture, and was completely bought into their very specific way of doing things.

Then I landed in Asia. Even though it was the same company, everything was different. One of my bosses and sponsors was a guy named Sanjay Poonen, an Indian who was educated in the states. I remember him telling me, “Kurt, it’s going to be different. You have to embrace it. If you try to make it like it is in the states, it isn’t going to work.”

I thought, “Yeah, that’s common sense.” But it was harder than I thought it would be, since Asia is a very diverse region culturally. When it came to forecast calls and end of the quarter activities, the reps in different countries weren’t doing the things I was familiar with. They were doing things that seemed puzzling to me. I couldn’t be everywhere and it would take me years to understand the nuances of each country.

I had to recognize that I didn’t really know how to sell in Japan, and I had to take a leap of faith and trust that the people on the ground there had done all they could, and were following the right process for how sales are closed in Japan. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was very much on my mind.

Change is hard. I get it. Sales people are an interesting sort of animal. When they find something that works, they don’t want to disrupt it. If there’s a certain process, or ritual or song that they think helped them make sales, they just want to rinse and repeat. But aren’t we all like that?

If you live long enough, you realize that life is change and more change. It’s important to recognize that while it’s the death of something, it’s also the birth of something new. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” to me has come to mean don’t fear change, whether that’s in business or in my personal life. Whatever it is, be prepared, keep doing your best work and trust the process, and it will be a lot less stressful. Trust yourself that if you do all that, you will come out of it OK. Or, maybe even better.

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