GADs: mindsets, methods and models
28th September 2021 | Luke P Skinner
What makes a great global account director?
I began my Global Account Director journey five years ago, following my successful completion of SAP’s Sales Academy Programme. I started out working as an Account Manager alongside the Global Account Director (GAD) in developing new sales opportunities for one of SAP’s most important banking customers and subsequently have taken ownership of the account fully, running it myself as the GAD. Being relatively near the beginning of my career, I was keen to understand what makes a great GAD.
Typically, GADs are viewed as being responsible for managing a company’s most strategic customers. As one of my colleagues said, “As a GAD, you are looked up to by other salespeople, you are looked to as a leader of not only your account but for also the ability to lead others forward in their careers, and act as a point of reference of where a salesperson can aspire to become.” Given this view, I wanted to understand the possible methods, models and mindsets that make up great GADs.
What do we mean by great? Across both academia (Yip & Bink, 2007) and industry it is acknowledged that the main task of a GAD is to coordinate the sales and support of a company serving a customer that has negotiated global terms. Therefore, my definition of a great GAD is one who can consistently deliver new revenue from the same customer over an extended period of time. Spencer (1999) discusses direct revenue generation as the primary responsibility of a GAD but not the only role of the GAD, and I agree with him based on my experiences.
However, the reason a customer spends money on a supplier consistently is that they see value in the relationship, and it is the value derived from a company’s services that drives them towards their own company goals; therefore, the element of consistent revenue generation must be the key measure of success of a GAD. The second element of greatness is the time period: great GADs are able to generate revenue over an extended period (three or four years), not in one-off transactions, where there is a risk of drive-by selling (Skinner, 2018) and forcing the customer to do a deal from a contractual perspective.
The aim of this research is to understand the mindsets, methods and models required for a great GAD to drive consistent revenue from the same customer over an extended period of time.
Global account management
Initial research into global account management (GAM) as a subset of key account management essentially extends KAM for global customers. Much of the research looks into why a firm would implement a GAM program which is typically based on their view as the customer being a global strategic priority (Shi, et al, 2010) and the need for a single uniform point of contact for a customer with a consistency of service. This isn’t really the area of research I am interested in, as it’s a company view rather than individual GAM view.
The aim of this research is to understand the mindsets, methods and models that are required for a great GAD to drive consistent revenue from the same customer over an extended period of time.
Whilst the literature is sparse, Wilson and Millman are the two leading authorities on the behaviours of GAMs; their focus is on the need for a GAM to be a political-entrepreneur (Wilson & Millman, 2003). Their term political-entrepreneur comes from what they describe as a fundamental description of the global account management role, that of being boundary-spanning.
There are two aspects to the boundary-spanning: first, the internal interface between the global and national account management (and their teams) within a company (typically, where it is headquartered) and its subsidiaries; second, there is the external interface between the selling company and the worldwide dispersed activities of the customer.
Wilson and Millman acknowledge that, in order to juggle the sensitive nature of these interface relationships, they call the GAM a political-entrepreneur – the political and entrepreneurial skills that are required to develop and manage the relationship between customer and supplier. It is these skills that make a distinct difference between the KAM and the GAM. Wilson and Millman also add that to achieve the political-entrepreneur skill it is both an area of development for the GAD personally as well as through the development of the relationship with the global account. The foundations of the political-entrepreneur require two manager types: the analyst and global coordinator.
Wilson and Millman describe the analyst GAD as essentially the international sales manager primarily focused on sales. They are quite disparaging of this behaviour; however, in my opinion it is still the role of the GAD to drive revenue for the supplier and therefore the need for sales remains an inherent skill required for all GADs. The requirement to sell is the underlying fundamental trait that sits within a GAD and is inherent in what they do.
On a basic level this is where the GAD’s role, in its very nature of dealing with a global customer and typically sitting themselves in a global organisation, has to be able to coordinate the operational capabilities of the supplier to ensure the customer receives a uniform and global offering from the supplier. I see that this requires much wider pockets of coordination and reach than a typical KAM, and the development of both operational and behavioural skills to internal colleagues as well as external customers across the globe.
A GAD must facilitate cooperation among individuals around the world and overcome the inevitable frictions that emerge from sustained group interactions. When we look across all superheroes and adventurers, it is the strong leaders that implement both pre-emptive and responsive actions to ensure teamwork and collaboration (Rapp, et al, 2015).
Wilson and Millman describe how GADs combine diplomatic and linguistic skills with cultural empathy and knowledge of global business trends. Furthermore, they engage senior management from both their organisation as well as the customer during the GAD process and are adept at achieving objectives with influence and persuasion. Whilst the political role of the GAD can be viewed negatively, the ultimate and best-performing Politician GAD is one who facilitates achievement that benefits buyer, seller and themselves.
The entrepreneurial strategist
These are the GADs that operate with a fair degree of autonomy, have high levels of business acumen, and look beyond the traditional relationship between customer and supplier for business opportunities. They develop opportunities through combining the key assets and competencies of their own organisation with those of their customer. They are not afraid if this leads to them working with the customer in completely new ways.
Wilson and Millman summarise the ultimate Entrepreneurial GAD as one who seeks business opportunities and sees synergistic value potential to buyer, seller and self. They have a geocentric approach to identifying expertise and exploiting opportunities. I believe that a successful GAD must showcase entrepreneur-like traits in order to consistently drive value for both the customer and supplier; without this the GAD cannot continue to generate revenue; they must look beyond only products and services sales opportunities to expand the relationship.
Interviews – the who and the how
My plan was to recruit three types of people who would be able to provide me different perspectives on what makes a great GAD, broadly broken down into the following areas: individuals who have worked for/with GADs, those who have managed GADs, and GADs themselves. My interview approach was not to have set questions but to have general themes to cover off during the session. This allowed the conversation to flow and to deepen into areas that seemed to be of more interest to each individual. If the conversation did become stuck, I knew the next general area I wanted to probe into by referring back to my themes. I was looking for the traits of great GADs in the way they interact with their customer, their team, and their management.
I created a baseline of foundational characteristics and values required in the GAD role, I then moved on to discussing what I see as the leading characteristics that differentiate the best GADs.
Foundational characteristic 1: Integrity
Integrity is at the core of a great GAD and is certainly a foundational value that was discussed in many of the interviews. This value encompasses a leader who is thought of and acts in an honest manner, has a sense of duty and strong principles (Rapp, et al, 2015).
All persons who interact with GADs (Customer, Team and Management) spoke of the importance of integrity when looking at a key characteristic of GADs because it is these GADs who will make sure that the “right” action is done even when it is seemingly difficult to do so. Integrity was important to the members of a GAD’s team because it impacted their ability to build trust in the GAD; they knew that the GAD would follow through with the agreed actions that they had discussed in planning sessions. Furthermore, from a customers’ perspective if the GAD has or lacks integrity then that perception permeates throughout their team as well. When speaking with GADs and former GADs (especially those who went into management) they all spoke of their long-term success and the success they see in GADs with integrity as an important factor in their relationships with customers. Customers are looking for GADs who follow through on the actions that they say they will do, and if what they’ve said will happen does not happen, then they do not expect them to just talk their way out of it. Fundamentally, I think integrity transcends not only a value that makes up a great GAD but also a good sales leader, salesperson, and businessperson.
Looking at what makes a great GAD, I could summarise them in three key characteristics: the Ambitious Visionary, the Player-Coach, and the Politician.
Foundational characteristic 2: Empathy
Empathy encompasses an individual’s ability to identify with and understand others and their situation, feelings and motives; it is the capacity to recognise others’ concerns and see things through their eyes (McBane, 1995). At its core, empathy allows a GAD to develop meaningful relationships with their team, their customer, and their management. It is a balancing act to be able understand, manage and meet the requirements of all these interfaces. From a leadership perspective, it is important that the GAD understands the challenges of his team and ensures they don’t suffer burnout from overworking. From a customer perspective, empathy is required by the GAD to fully understand the needs of that customer, how far they can be pushed and where their limits are. Empathy with the customer allows the GAD to match the needs and requirements of his customer with the assets and abilities of his company.
Agnihotri and Krush (2015) discuss the direct effects of a salesperson’s ability to empathise with both their customer and manager, which in turn culminates in revenue. They show that empathy and ethical behaviours ultimately build trust, and trust is required from a situational aspect to generate sales.
Integrity + Empathy = Trust
There are many different ways to articulate how trust is built and earnt, yet what was evident during my analysis is that those who show integrity and empathise were able to build trust or create trusting relationships with their team, customer and management. A fundamental need of a GAD is to build trust, because without it, a GAD will be hard pressed to sell to a customer, lead a team of people and have a management team who entrusts them to deliver results.
Foundational characteristic 3: Customer-Centricity
In line with much of the academic work, including Squire’s (2009), there is a fundamental requirement for a GAD to be customer-centric in their approach to the account. It is a baseline requirement to ensure that the services and proposals they bring to their customer are relevant and tailored to their customer. The GAD must be well versed and genuinely interested in understanding their customer’s organisation and acknowledge that it takes time and dedication to deliver large global deals. This may not mean it fits with the timeline and desires of the GAD’s own organisation.
I believe all GADs must demonstrate these foundational characteristics in their role in order to be successful. I found the following characteristics present in the best GADs.
Leading characteristic 1: the Ambitious Visionary
Whilst the theme of vision did not feature heavily in the literature review, much of the wider academic literature (Gittomer, 2016) on leadership and sales talks to the need for leaders to build a compelling vision, which they can effectively communicate to their followers in order that everyone is working towards a common goal. Every individual that I interviewed spoke of the need for a GAD to define an effective vision for his customer and team.
“The great GADs lay down a vision that is big, audacious and ambitious for the customer, stretching the goals of the team and the customer.”
There were several elements that were specific to a GAD on what they are trying to achieve with a vision. Firstly, the vision at its core must be long-term, lasting somewhere between three and five years. A GAD cannot be solely focused on short-term results; this is because by their nature short-term results will be based on tactical deals and tactical deals are only solving point problems for a customer.
A GAD’s vision must elevate from the tactical to the strategic by widening from individual solutions and take the best assets of their organisation and align them with the strategic imperatives of their customer. This vision relies on imagination and creativity to take it beyond your standard buyer-seller relationship. This vision must inherently be based on value because the customer needs to understand the “why” of actioning against the vision. The vision must always be asking “so what?” and therefore must be delivering value back to the customer. Through building an inherently value-based vision, the customer can understand how this will drive them towards their goals.
Not only must the vision the GAD build be based on value, it must also be a “game-changer” and be audacious in its outset; the GAD should not accept the status-quo. Building upon Squire’s (2009) work, it was noticeable through the analysis that there is a need for a GAD to be Tactfully Audacious in their vision for the team, the management and their customer. This outstanding value integrates with the visionary aspect of the GAD to create the Ambitious Visionary characteristic. The Ambitious element implies an action-oriented approach as the GAD will be spearheading their new vision and strategy, which by being audacious in its nature will inspire the team and management to get behind the project as well as bring imagination and creativity for the customer to meet their aspirations.
Leading characteristic 2: the Player-Coach
A fundamental theme of my analysis that emerged again and again was the idea of a Player-Coach.
“The ideal GAD is a player-coach, team leader, primus inter pares or one amongst the troops. They need to be comfortable discussing strategy at the top but also getting their hands dirty in the trenches and actually helping the team out with the work.”
The interviewees stressed the importance of the GAD being able to simultaneously lead a vision, strategy and be an escalation point for their customer, but also the importance of doing work with the team as well, to roll up their sleeves and drive the vision forward.
The GAD is unique in that they are likely to be the only member of the team who solely works on that specific customer. Therefore, when delivering and defining proposals they can help ensure the team’s message is articulated in a way that the customer will respond well to. They can coach, manage and provide feedback on the work delivered by the team. The GAD is the point of authority and holds the responsibility for the relationship of the account, and therefore is deemed the senior member of the team; they are viewed by the customer as the manager of the team and his team’s work
From many of the conversations, the GAD does not have direct managerial authority over their team. Therefore, they rely on influence and persuasion to gain the authority to lead the team. This indirect management of the team is gained through the ambitious vision the GAD sets out for the account, which means that individuals want to join the GAD on the journey as well as their desire for success across the team and not only themselves. The best GADs have the ability to ensure the team as well as themselves are successful in their endeavours with the customer.
Leading characteristic 3: the Politician
During my interviews it was made clear to me that, in order for a great GAD to achieve the vision they set out, they need the skills and characteristics of an adept politician. This idea builds upon my literature review on Wilson and Millman’s (2003) work with the GAD needing political skills to navigate their interactions within their different interfaces, the customer, their own management, and their team.
As mentioned previously, the GAD relies on use of influence and persuasion to achieve their aims, and these skills extend beyond that of getting the team to work on the account. To deliver revenue for their organisation, they require influence and persuasion with the customer in order to manage and progress the vision – as well as individual opportunities – forward to end in a deal. Furthermore, to ensure that their customer receives the attention required, the GAD needs to use their abilities in influence and persuasion to get buy-in from their senior leadership team that this customer is worth investing resources into.
“The CEO calls me from his cabana on the beach ten minutes before our meeting with the customer exec…. He asks me is this call important and do I need to be on it…. I’ve got the next few mins to bullet-point explain what the call is about, what he needs to do and say and why it’s important.”
Like a politician, the GAD must also be a great orator and communicator. They need the ability to speak comfortably with a range of different people from the technology folks of the customer and support members of their team through to the executives of both customer and company.
“The GAD must be able quickly switch and be involved in the details of the requirements of a developer and then quickly articulate it in executive speech.”
They must also have the ability to deliver messages simply and succinctly to ensure that it is understood by all and what is needed to move the relationship forward.
A great GAD must be able to manage the political landscape of their customer and their own organisation in order to achieve their aims. It is important that GADs are able to find the people who can get things done efficiently and quickly within their team, the customer and their management. This means being meticulous in selecting their team to make sure the full range of capabilities is covered to meet the customer requirements.
They must ensure they do not spend too much time “spinning wheels” with the customer and find the people who are willing and want to transform their business. Thirdly, as an Ambitious Visionary, the GAD will inevitably be looking to build new business models and stretch the capabilities of their own company and the customer; therefore, they must also find those executives within their own organisation who understand the value of the vision and are able to get things sorted that go against the status quo.
The GAD as a politician knows there are a multitude of benefits to achieving their vision. Building upon their integrity and honesty, they are aware of multiple benefactors to their relationship with their customer. At its core, the aim of their vision is to move the customer forward with their strategy and ensure they receive benefit from the relationship and that deals conducted deliver value; without this there is no relationship and no buyer/seller transactions. The GAD facilitates the achievement of relational and financial goals that benefit the buyer, their own organisation (the selling entity), as well as their self.
“Good GADs tread the tightrope between being customer-focused and company loyalty well; they push the boundaries of both but never too much.”
Much like a politician, the GAD has their own personal ambitions and financial aims; the relationship they develop between buyer and seller will in turn achieve their own goals. The best GADs have the ability to maximise and manage all three elements including the successes of their team. Looking at what makes a great GAD, I could summarise them in three key characteristics: the Ambitious Visionary, the Player-Coach, and the Politician.
This research aims to provide the reader with some guidance on the kinds of characteristics that customers, their team and management are looking for in great GADs. Through tracking our own experiences and autoethnographic analysis, I believe GADs can see for themselves if they are showing both foundational and leading characteristics within their day-to-day work as well as through the end results of their work. Those that hire GADs can use different scenarios during an interview to stretch and test these qualities in a candidate, additionally extending a candidate’s references to team members they have worked with to pick up on these characteristics.