Peter Smith has more than 30 years of experience building wholesale and retail sales teams. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems.

Do either of these sound familiar? “Yeah, I’d love to do that but I can’t get my top salesperson to buy into it,” or “If I could just get my manager or buyer on board!”

It’s tough out there, no doubt. You’re probably dealing with some of the biggest challenges of your career and it’s hard to know which way to turn, what direction to take. You might know, intellectually at least, that you need to do something different, change the game somehow--but how, what?

While you may be filled with ambiguity about the degree to which you should examine all your current practices, what must be crystal clear is that once you have made your decisions, you had better get your team’s buy-in quickly.  

One might argue that there is nothing profound or new about that sentiment, but the demands on small business today do not allow for the luxury or the distraction of naysayers, bench players or Monday-morning quarterbacks. Everybody--owners, managers, salespeople, buyers, operational and administrative staff, etc.--had better be fully committed to the cause and free of baggage, bias or bullshit. The stakes are too high.

One of the most difficult things to do in business is to orchestrate change, real change. The tide of always having done things a certain way is a gravitational force that can keep us rooted to our old ways. As crazy as it may seem, there is a reason why addicts keep going back to habits that are killing them; there’s a certain comfort in the beast we know.

Canadian (hence the English spelling) neuroscientist Marc Lewis wrote in his book The Biology of Desire that “Automatisation of behavior frees up cognitive processes.” Think about that for a moment. If we keep doing the same things, the automatic nature of those habits basically gives us a free pass and we don’t having to think too deeply about it. It is, quite frankly, how we drive to work every day without really being aware that we are even doing it. And, regretfully, it is one of the reasons we have lost so many small businesses over the past decade.

Change scares people, and there will always be those on the team who are quick to point out how flawed the new direction is. They yearn for the store or business that used to be. They complain about the changes, lament the new way of operating, offer arguments about why something just won’t work. They can act, if we are being perfectly honest, as though they want to ride the Titanic all the way to the ocean floor, as long as the journey doesn’t ask them to change their approach or behavior.

At the same time, a leader in any business has an obligation to be honest about the size of the challenges. It is not fair or reasonable to expect the gravity of the situation to be understood by your team if you are not willing to communicate that information to them. They need to know why change is necessary, and, more importantly, the consequences to the business of not making changes.  

You should also be brutally honest if you yourself don’t have the answers. Tell them you need their help to write a new chapter for the business. If it is true that your people are your best assets, then any discussion of a new direction ought to include them. That doesn’t mean that you are ceding the decision to your employees, but their voices should be in the conversation.
A good leader should invite discussion and debate in an effort to chart a vision for the future. Once that vision has been established, it is critical that all members of the team buy in. The alternative is that they need to be invited to find someplace else to work.
An ideal setting would be to lay out the challenges ahead of time and invite the team to a meeting dedicated to discussing the problems. Be sure to allot the requisite amount of time, whether that’s an hour or even a half-day (this is your business we’re talking about!) Turn off the phones, put out the Do Not Disturb sign and ensure that everyone understands the seriousness of the meeting.

Beforehand, have each team member write out a possible solution or idea to be discussed. Do not bias the meeting by stating your own views at the outset and don’t undermine anybody’s contributions before they have been fully vetted by the group, as some great ideas originate from the most unlikely places.    

Once you have decided on a new direction (it could be product, marketing, changing hours of operation, new compensation plans, customer loyalty programs, in-store events, facility changes, upgrades, etc.), schedule a follow-up meeting to tackle the ideas of merit and elect a devil’s advocate.

That person should deliberately challenge the idea so that you do not suffer the consequences of group-think, where everyone too quickly embraces an initiative without challenging its merits. The debate might underscore the viability of the idea, dismiss it entirely or even improve upon it. No matter where you land, you will be better positioned for having led the process.

Once you have finally established your new direction, cement the plan and direct everyone (including those who were not particularly excited about it) to commit to driving it forward.

Remember, you are not looking for consensus; you are looking to demonstrate the courage and conviction to lead meaningful, oftentimes difficult, change. Sometimes the change is difficult enough that it means you will have to part ways with people who might have served the business well in better days.  

If any member of the team does not get on board after the decision has been made and the new direction adopted, first ask yourself if you were clear in communicating the plan to that person. If the answer is yes, then you have an obligation, to the team and to your vision, to be respectfully but assertively direct in establishing that embracing the plan is absolutely non-negotiable.

You should offer your support to the employee and agree to make reasonable accommodations to help him or her to get fully on board. That said, you cannot allow anyone to undermine the new direction. That kind of behavior, however admirably couched (“I’m just doing what’s best for our customers,” or “I just know that will never fly,” or the infamous, “I’ve been here a long time and I know that won’t work.”), needs to be stopped in its tracks. It is a cop-out, it is toxic, and it serves no purpose other than to delay or even derail progress.

Change can be so difficult for some people that, without even realizing it, they can invest tremendous amounts of time and energy fighting for the status quo.  Except, there is no status quo. You are either moving forward, evolving your businesses to meet the challenges of today’s crazy marketplace, or you are losing ground, grasping for relevance in a world that might be leaving you behind.

Robin Sharma wrote in The Leader Who Had No Title, “Leadership is about having unshakeable faith in your vision and unrelenting confidence in your power to make positive change happen.” A leader does not have to have all the answers. A good leader should invite discussion and debate, even heated debate, in an effort to chart a vision for the future. Once that vision has been established, it is critical that all members of the team clearly understand that they must buy in. The alternative is that they need to be invited to find someplace else to work.

If there are holdouts, it is not they who are responsible for the intransience, but the leader of the business. For it is he or she who must bear the ultimate responsibility to establish, without delay, that the decision has been made and that the business and the new initiatives will not be held to ransom for anyone.

Your future depends on it.

Peter Smith, author of Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent, has spent more than 30 years building sales teams at retail and at wholesale. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via LinkedIn.

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