5 Stages of Success… From Unconsciously Incompetent to Constantly Vigilant

Posted by in Books, How the Top 10% Do It!, Self-Management Strategies for Optimal Performance

There are 5 levels of competency on the typical path to becoming one of the top performers in your field. The first one is unconscious incompetence. What that means is that when you go into a new job, you don’t know what you don’t know. In my case, I went from being a critical care nurse to Xerox Canada in Toronto without any prior business knowledge. My sales manager took me under his tutelage. Still, he was concerned about me because I knew nothing about sales, even though I managed to sell my way into that job. Looking back, I now know that walking into that role I truly had no idea what I didn’t know.

I came face to face with the next stage of competency a few months after I joined Xerox… I began to be clear on what I didn’t know. In other words, I became consciously incompetent. For instance, one of the words I didn’t understand in business was ‘amortization’. I had no idea what that meant until someone explained it to me this way:

Do you own a house? Well, the mortgage on that house means that you’re going to be paying for it for twenty-five years…that’s amortization.

Each day, my competence level rose and rose until I became quite successful. However, it still took me a year or so to move out of the second stage and into the third stage of learning.

Typically, salespeople who have been in the trenches for a while are stuck in the massive middle, and are unconsciously competent. This is a state where they do not know how to pinpoint what they still don’t know. They consistently achieve anywhere from 75% to 100% of their sales plan. They have consistently achieved a certain level of success and are now going with the flow, as it were. Many salespeople who are underperformers or average performers have the capacity to move into the Big Game Hunters and Closers realm, which is reserved for the top performers. A lot of the time, what is missing is their skills, not their attitude; they just aren’t consciously aware of what, exactly, is missing from their skill set.

What does it take for an average performer to become a top performer? Most salespeople don’t really know—at least not consciously. They endure, study, practice what they learn, and succeed. Then they become over-the-top successful, and year after year they make their budget. Their openness to new ideas and practice-improvement does not decrease as their success increases. In other words, they become consciously competent, where they know why they win and why they lose the deals. They don’t have the typical high level of fear, doubts, and insecurities that an average salesperson has, however, it is often difficult to teach this salesperson new skills precisely because of their apparent success. I say apparent success because although they generally meet budget, they could perform at a higher level than they do—if only… But, if a top performer doesn’t know how to prospect for new business because it’s been years since they needed to, and a few big clients merge or go out of business, the consciously competent wind up back at square one: unconsciously incompetent.

A sales manager who has had great sales success will often take one of his salespeople out on a call and say, “Watch what I do”. This is not an effective method of training. The salesperson next to the sales manager must interpret all their behaviors and watch the dynamics, as well as try to listen to the sales conversation and then splice it all together. The sales manager is practicing unconsciously competent behaviour, as they cannot create systems and processes to teach new recruits. Sometimes, this is because they themselves took to selling like a duck to water and enjoyed some success; but getting to the top echelon of sales performance is quite another matter!

Working with top performers in the fifth stage of development, constantly vigilant, is a truly awe-inspiring experience. They are the outliers who reach 150% to 200% of plan. They are the benchmark of success. They are the top performers, yet they are open to learning and growing. They are often driver-analytical in personality with a focus on success. They are not averse to building relationships with their clients, but their main agenda is to constantly provide solutions that meet a myriad of needs. They are in the top 1% of their field whether it be sales, tile installation, or plumbing contracting.

Someone who is consciously vigilant knows what it is they do, why they do it, and how to execute on a micro level. They know how to use all the various aspects of their sales process to obtain the level of success that they enjoy. These kinds of people make ideal sales trainers because they understand logic and reason, and can measure their behaviors and then facilitate the transfer of these skills to others. These kinds of people make great sales leaders because they don’t just advise their salespeople to look at what I do. They sit and hold a strategy session and show their salespeople how to take whatever actions and tactics necessary to move the sale forward. They’re able to go on calls with their salespeople. They create metrics and then track them to test and modify as necessary.

The ideal state for a salesperson is one of conscious vigilance. It is important to realize that you cannot really achieve this level of sales success and become a trusted advisor if you are a perfectionist; the path to becoming a top performer is one of learning. To learn, you must be a constant beginner. A perfectionist has the belief that they can’t do what they don’t know how to do. A consciously vigilant salesperson looks for challenges, for things they don’t know how to do, and then steps into those unknown realms and closes the gaps, all the while embracing their mistakes along with their successes.

This article is an excerpt from my upcoming publication:

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Sara Haynes, P. Eng.
Sigma Solutions

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