It was back in the 1990s, at Versant, when my old (and dearly departed) friend Larry Pulkownik first introduced me to the phrase:
Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together
And its corollary:
Ask for Help at the First Sign of Trouble
Larry told me this rule from the sales perspective:
“Look, if you’re working on a deal and it starts to go south, you need to get everyone involved in working on it. First, that puts maximum resources on winning the deal and if — despite that effort — you end up losing, you want people saying ‘We lost the Acme deal,’ not ‘You lost the Acme deal.'”
It’s a great rule. Why? Because it’s simple, it engages the team on winning, and most of all — it combats what seems to be a natural tendency to hide bad news. Bad news, like sushi, does not age well.
Twenty years later, and now as CEO, I still love the rule — especially the part about “the first sign of trouble.” If followed, this eliminates the tendency to go into denial about bad news.
- Yes, they’re not calling me back when they said they would, but I’m sure it’s no problem.
- Those couldn’t have been our scores in the evaluation — everybody loves us — there must be some kind of mistake.
- They did say they expected to be in legal now on the original timeline, but I’m sure the process is just delayed.
- Yes, I know our sponsor seemed to have flipped on us in the last meeting, but I’m sure she was just having a bad day.
- Well I’m surprised to hear our competitor just met with the CIO because they told us that the CIO wasn’t involved in the decision.
- While the RFP does appear to have been written by our competitor, that’s probably just coincidence.
These things — all of them — are bad news. Because many people’s first reaction to bad news is denial, the great thing about the “first sign” rule is that you remove discretion from the equation. We don’t want you to wait until you are sure there is trouble — then it’s probably too late. We want you to ask for help at the first sign.
The rule doesn’t just apply to sales. The same principle applies to pretty much everything:
- Strategic partnerships (e.g., “they’ve gone quiet”)
- Analyst relations (e.g., “it feels like the agenda is set for enemy A”)
- Product development (e.g., “I’m worried we’ve badly over-scoped this”)
- Financing (e.g., “they’re not calling back after the partner meeting”)
- Recruiting (e.g., “the top candidate seemed to be leaning back”)
- HR (e.g., “our top salesperson hated the new comp plan”)
I’ll always thank Larry for sharing this nugget of wisdom (and many others) with me, and I’ll always advise every manager I know to follow it.