Character to lead

10th January 2022 |   Nick de Cent

We interviewed Kelly Garramone and Phil Styrlund to understand how character is a key driver of organisational success in sales. They explained how sales organisations can take part in some ground-breaking research that will drive performance.

What is character science?

Pioneered by Dr Fred Kiel (amongst others), character science is a new field of study that was born out of the question of whether there is a measurable, predictable relationship between the character of leadership and the results that they deliver to the organisation. That starts playing to all sorts of other questions like, what do we mean by character, and can you change character?

Character is an individual’s unique combination of beliefs and habits that motivate and shape how they relate to others.

What is the definition of character?

The definition of character really comes down to the experiences and habits each of us have that influence and drive the way we interact with others. It doesn’t just apply to work, but it could be in any part of your life.

“Character is an individual’s unique combination of experiences and habits that motivate and shape how they relate to others.

What’s important about that definition is that it tells you what it is and, at the same time, tells you what it isn’t. It’s most decidedly not your personality – which is good news. If it’s not your personality (which is pretty unchangeable), this means that, if you end up learning that your character is not being very productive for you or your organisation, then you have a way of modifying it or growing it.

Why is character important?

Our research shows that character is the single most powerful predictor of an organisation’s total performance. It determines the senior team’s ability to execute on decision making, engage the organisation around their vision, realise their strategic focus, and instil a culture of accountability.

We say that it’s the return that you get on your character, because we have the evidence to show that, when there is a high character leader at the beginning of the chain, all the rest of these skills are quite strong. And they result in almost a five times difference in profitability when you look at the strongest versus the weakest in our study, plus much stronger workforce engagement, and lowered corporate risk (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Return on character.
Figure 1: Return on character.

We saw that there were certain people who were getting much stronger results with these higher character scores. We have been figuring out what made the difference: we looked at leaders’ character habits and the ways that they interacted with others. We tested more than 300 very specific behaviours and got it down to 27 on the character side that were most correlated with stronger business outcomes.

We found that people who had a high-character reputation were thought to be almost 20% more skilled than those who didn’t. They weren’t actually more skilled, but they were believed to be more skilled. So that tells us, if you’re going to spend one minute, one hour, one pound on your development, spend it on your character habits, because it’ll make your skills more accessible to others and lift your skill profile as well (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Character amplifies skills.
Figure 2: Character amplifies skills.

What are the key components of character?

There are four key components of character – integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion – identified by early researchers such as Dr Kiel (Figure 3). People who have strong responsibility and create cultures that take responsibility end up having their employees and customers have a lot of confidence in them. We built off the idea of a “keystone habit” to ask, “Now that we know about all these relationships with these habits, how do we help you identify your ‘keystone for growth?’”

Figure 3: “Keystone” character habits.
Figure 3: “Keystone” character habits.

Surely, most leaders want to have a good character.

There’s a difference, more often than not, between your intent – who you know yourself to be–and your reputation. Now, when there’s a difference between the two, the question is, why don’t other people know your positive intent? Why aren’t other people experiencing that good positive intent? What’s getting in the way? What’s missing? What we found is that when we approach people that way, and ask that question, why don’t they know you well enough, then they’re like, yeah, why not? Then they’ve rushed toward wanting to solve it, rather than feeling shame, or procrastination, or anything else to avoid it. What we’re trying to do is help your good positive intent match your reputation – that’s when the value really takes off.

Initial character research has been focused on CEOs, the wider business organisation and corporate results, so what is its specific relevance to sales?

It’s very relevant both to selling and to sales management. We’re taking that same taxonomy that has been articulated around CEOs, and now bringing it into sales. We’ve taken those four keystone character habits and intersected them with the four key sales mindsets from Dr Phil Squire’s research: authenticity, client centricity, proactive creativity, and tactful audacity. What we’re doing is trying to distil what are the keystone sales behaviours that are most linked to customer engagement, customer and company commitment, and overall sales results.

Kelly Garramone
Kelly Garramone
Phil Styrlund
Phil Styrlund

Our latest research is going to provide a new lens for sales leaders around developing themselves as leaders and developing their people in the frontline. We aim to identify exactly what these specific sales character habits are so they can be coachable and scalable (Figure 4). This is bringing hard science to what has typically been a soft topic, so we can answer these three questions:

  1. What are the unique character habits of virtuoso salespeople that accelerate performance?
  2. How do you scale these behaviours across your organization?
  3. How can sales use these insights to create a differentiated customer experience?
Figure 4: Investigating keystone character habits for sales.
Figure 4: Investigating keystone character habits for sales.

It’s important because character brings some moral rigour to the globalisation of the sales profession. Moreover, character is the fuel of trust – and trust is the fuel of sales. It’s very simple: top talent wants to work for high-character people. I always kiddingly say to sales leaders (it sounds simplistic), but would you want to work for you? That question matters a lot in today’s labour market, shall we say.

How do you plan to take this forward? I understand that there’s a new research project that sales leaders can take part in.

We’re looking for individuals to take part, and also for organisations to bring us some cohorts of at least eight people.

Individuals: Each individual who participates will get two reports. They’ll immediately get a report that is benchmarked against our current executive management data. Then we’ll give them a second report when all the sales data are collected and re-benchmark it. This will provide fresh insights for them really targeted for sales. It also includes some of our predictive analytics to help them figure out which are the top two behaviours to focus on to achieve a keystone effect to enhance performance. So, for individuals, just in exchange for your time and effort we will give you these reports – it’s free.

Organisations: If organisations would like to get some kind of aggregate view of what it looks like in their sales team, we need a minimum of eight participants so that we can offer anonymity and confidentiality for them. If they can involve as much as 10% of their workforce, then we can really be predictive about what we see in the culture of their workforce. The fee for that is extremely nominal: for eight to 25 individuals, it’s $2,500.

How do you sign up for the research?

Visit or scan the QR code below.

Return on character for sales

Once you’ve collected all the sales data, what next?

We’re working with SAMA, the Strategic Account Management Association. We’ll produce a “state of the nation” report for each company. On the developmental side, our goal will be to hopefully publish a book focusing on Return on Character for Sales.

Character case study – “Daniel”, sales leader, financial services

Daniel was the CEO of a small financial services subsidiary. He had been the CEO for three years. Originally the business unit had grown substantially due mostly to Daniel’s own sales performance. However, market conditions had changed, and growth was stalled.

Daniel’s boss said: “Daniel needs to move up to the next level – from being the best sales guy to being the leader of the best sales guys.”

On meeting Daniel, he was clearly not having fun. He was feeling the stress of the stalled growth of his unit. His answer was to work harder, to sell more if he could. This had been his “winning formula” for several years, but now he was finding that it wasn’t working so well. He had hit a wall.

He had a mantra of “I can’t ask anybody to do anything I’m not willing to do myself” and “I can’t ask you to work harder than I’m willing to work.” That worked fine to get the flywheel started but wasn’t the way to keep it going.

We surveyed and interviewed his team plus several individuals lower in the company. The results of the survey and interviews were presented to Daniel in a lengthy insights session. The data were not pretty: his team were about to jump ship. They said that Daniel was never around, always on the road. He hadn’t really provided any leadership to his team. The results of the survey showed that almost everyone in the company thought that Daniel didn’t care about them: his only interest in them was to help him drive sales upward.

After a period of self-reflection, Daniel realized that he was not living in the way he thought of himself. He intended to treat people as people – not production units. We applied our predictive analytics tool to help him identify his “keystone focus” and from that to choose his “keystone habit”. The tool predicted that, if he focused on developing new habits based on the keystone focus of caring about people and their personal goals, his whole organizational performance would change.

This led him to do a number of things. First, he went public. We facilitated a team meeting at which he came clean: he showed the team his survey ratings and spoke from the heart about how this was not how he wanted to be seen. “I really do care about each of you.” Then he asked for their help. At that meeting, you could tell that his people were sceptical. The rest of the meeting focused on his vision for how the company would grow and asking for each of his team member’s input and ideas. By the end of the meeting, they had the outline of a plan for growth.

This clearly meant that Daniel needed to travel less and instead spend time helping each of his team members with their goals – personal as well a professional. He began holding weekly one-on-one meetings with each of them to discuss their goals. He identified dozens of key relationships he had with the firm’s customer base and began to hand these off to his individual team members.

His new habit of “focusing on each team member’s individual goals and needs” really energized everyone. The team began on a monthly to assess their results against the goals they had established as part of the vision for the new company.

It worked (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5: Sales were dipping but then climbed after the change in approach.
Figure 5: Sales were dipping but then climbed after the change in approach.
Figure 6: How character drove success.
Figure 6: How character drove success.
Founder of the International Journal of Sales Transformation | + posts

Nick de Cent is the founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Sales Transformation. A business journalist for over 35 years, he has been covering sales since the mid-1980s and has been a strong advocate of enhancing its professional status. He has freelanced for the Financial Times and edited the Sales Performance supplement in The Times. He also writes and edits extensively on behalf of corporate clients, including a Big 3 management consultancy and a top four global executive search firm.