Starter or Sustainer? 3 Tips for Tapping Your Retail Development Talent


Janet is a sustainer. She enjoys a great rapport with her retail and brand customers and her reliability is beyond reproach. She's there when customers need her and no one is a better internal advocate for their interests. Sales for her accounts haven’t exactly been spectacular under her watch, but they’ve held steady. That’s no small feat in today’s retail climate (as Janet is always quick to point out).


Emily is a starter. You’re more likely to find her high-fiving coworkers in the hall after sealing her latest deal or volunteering to jump on a plane to pitch that new prospect. She’s a bit restless, but for every time that she’s cut out of a meeting early to catch a call, coworkers could cite several more instances where she’s brought a deal home faster than anyone expected.


Janet and Emily represent two personas that I often find in my clients’ companies. You’re lucky if you have examples of both on your team because with the proper hand-offs in place, they can drive a lot of volume. In my experience, companies get into trouble when they confuse the two, or when they expect one person to embody the qualities of both.

Expect Janet to start driving business acquisition and she’ll likely panic or shut down. Throw Emily into a client service role or challenge her to manage a client relationships for more than a few weeks and watch her sunny smile turn upside down. I’ve seen these dynamics play out more times than I can count, with a devastating impact on results when companies maintain the mismatch and accompanying expectations over time.

Of course, industries and companies operate in cycles as well, and starter leaders thrive in those that are undergoing extreme reinvention. These days that certainly describes retail, and yet sustainers still predominate in the upper echelons of many companies. Retail’s ranks promise to become more balanced if and when retailers like Walmart begin to promote the entrepreneurial starter-leaders they are inheriting through acquisitions, and as starter-led digital dynamos such as Amazon become the new standard for traditional retailers. Cultivating cultures of constant entrepreneurship may not come naturally in retail but these days, there are more templates to follow.


In the meantime, here are my three tips for supporting your starters while making the most of your sustainers:

1. Know the difference – Someone who takes responsibility for an account that was acquired through someone else's efforts isn’t a starter, but I’ve found that memories can be short. Who cares who gets the credit? You should, because it will make all the difference in how motivated your true starters will be to open new doors next time. I’ve seen misplaced sustainers develop elaborate smoke and mirrors campaigns designed to mask their lack of business development progress, and it’s surprising how many companies go on to overlook the obvious symptom, stagnant volume, until it’s too late. In these situations, unrealistic expectations are to blame, not "performance."

2. Realign your roster – As retail's reinvention marches on, it's never been more important to honestly assess your current bench strength, particularly if you’re attempting to implement new positioning strategies or significant shifts in focus. A sustainer-heavy sales team shouldn’t be expected to carry the day initially, but will be critical in later stages as your starters transition to new opportunities. After a one-day retail positioning boot camp last year, my client’s CEO asked me who I thought would be best suited to lead the charge as they implemented their new strategy. About 50 team members attended the boot camp and fortunately, they represented a nice mix of starters and sustainers. After he made the tweaks that we discussed, the CEO told me that team morale has never been higher, and that their pipeline is the fullest it’s ever been going into a new year. All of this was accomplished without making any new hires because everyone was empowered to operate in their zone.

3. Assign appropriate accountabilities – Starters should be held accountable for, well, starting things. It’s what they are good at, it’s what makes them tick and compensation should encourage it. The long-term commission arrangements that motivate the Janets of the world usually don’t work well for the Emilys (but acquisition bonuses often do). Sustainers typically enjoy the interaction and camaraderie that is inherent with longer-term account relationships, but assuming that activity and frequent interaction will lead to account growth is a common mistake made by managers. Even though it’s easier and more profitable to grow business with existing customers, sustainers usually require some support in order to make that happen. In many cases, a third strategic hand-off makes even more sense.


Lisa CarverComment