Building a Cohesive Sales Team: Is Your Rainmaker Actually Doing More Harm than Good?

February 14, 2013

Building a sales team? You may want to avoid rainmaker reps. Relying on any top salesperson too heavily can be a detriment to the team.

On ESPN Radio, the co-hosts of the show “Coach and Company” recently engaged in a seemingly ridiculous conversation: Are the Boston Celtics better without Rajon Rondo?
Amazingly enough, they were serious.
We’re talking about Rajon Rondo. One of the best five point guards in the NBA. The engine behind the Celtics’ offense. The inarguable superstar on a team full of aging has-beens.
Better without Rondo? Ridiculous.
Unless maybe it’s not. The Celtics won seven straight games after Rondo went down, and that included victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and defending champion Miami Heat. Yes, they lost to the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday, but everyone has an off night every once in a while.
So why am I joining the Rondo debate on a blog about expansion-stage technology companies and growing sales teams?
Because, maybe you should ask yourself if your company would be better off if it didn’t have a sales team dominated by one rainmaker. Yes, rainmakers and sales superstars can be hugely valuable, particularly if they happen to also be great leaders who encourage everyone else to step up their game.
But rainmakers — like diva superstar athletes — can also be destructive and inhibitive (see: Rodriguez, Alex).  When that happens, those rainmakers can actually hurt the performance of the rest of the team and, in the grand scheme of things, cause a net loss for the company.

The Danger of One Bad Apple

In a great post for the Wall Street Journal, Robert Sutton cites some fascinating research that just might apply to the Rondo debate, and the question of how much value a diva rainmaker really brings to a sales team.
In fact, according to Will Felps, Associate Professor at Rotterdam School of Management, a recent study found that one “bad apple” can significantly impact overall team effectiveness — dropping performance by 30 to 40 percent.
When it comes to sales, that’s a hell of a lot of revenue.
Then again, losing a rainmaker who contributes to a big chunk of your annual sales is also problematic. If you fire a disruptive top-performer, will any of your other sales reps step up enough to replace that revenue? Or will you be able to hire a reasonably capable salesperson to cover that loss of production?
Ultimately, that begs a pretty important question.

Are Rainmakers Too Important to Fire?

Sutton goes on to write in his article that leaders who believe that destructive superstars are “too important” to fire often underestimate the damage they can do.
For instance, Sutton shares one story about a clothing retailer that fired a top-producing salesman who was a pain in everyone’s ass. When he left, no salesperson sold as much as the departed superstar had previously, but the store’s sales went up by nearly 30 percent.
In other words, firing the diva rainmaker ultimately proved to be addition by subtraction. Because that person was no longer around to drag everyone else down, the rest of the sales team felt empowered to do its best.
What does that last sentence remind you of?
I’m not saying Rondo was actively or purposefully bringing his teammates down, but with him running every play it did often look as though there wasn’t room for the rest of his teammates to flourish. Now that he’s gone, they’re raising their games and the team, overall, is performing much better. Players who were averaging zilch are now putting up double-digit points-per-game.
Now, it’s a bit of a leap to put that all on Rondo’s injury. But my point is that rather than having one superstar rep dominate your sales team, you might be better off building a team of solid players who work well together and feed off each other.

Want to Avoid this Problem Entirely? Don’t Make Your Success Totally Reliant on Any One Individual

The temptation in most expansion-stage sales organizations when building a sales team is typically to hire as many sales superstars as they can attract. That’s a great strategy – until those salespeople get lured away by a bigger company with a bigger budget and heftier compensation plan, or those rainmakers turn out to be destructive personalities.
The better strategy is to create a sales process and team structure that is bigger than any one individual. That way, you never have too much invested in any one person, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
How do you do that?
As SEOmoz founder and CEO Rand Fishkin writes on his blog, the solution is to create team-wide redundancy. You want everyone to feel and be replaceable. Until that’s the case, you’ll never be able to sleep peacefully knowing that your business will be okay if your highest-performing salespeople jump ship (or you decide to ship them off).
Creating that redundancy is harder to do for a team like the Celtics, of course. Without superstars like Rondo (and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, for that matter), the C’s would look a hell of a lot more like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Charlotte Bobcats – the two NBA teams with the worst records and the least potential to do anything worthwhile.
For your expansion-stage sales organization, however, it’s the only way to function. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t recruit, hire, and develop sales superstars. It just means that you should never elevate them to the point of being irreplaceable.

Have you had experience with a “rainmaker” who brought the rest of your sales team down? Do you think top salespeople are too important to fire?

SVP Marketing & Sales

<strong>Brian Zimmerman</strong> was a Partner at OpenView from 2006 until 2014. While at OpenView he worked with our portfolio executive teams to deliver the highest impact value-add consulting services, primarily focused on go-to-market strategies. Brian is currently the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at <a href="">5Nine Software</a>.