Training to Be a Chief

Excerpt from “Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title” by Rick Miller.

Walking into a shattered workforce, it was clear to me that employee retention was a top priority. The sales force felt abandoned by the rest of the company. I learned that a notable exception was a small team of employees responsible for sales force education. A fierce level of loyalty had been created inside that team through the leadership of their Chief, Mary Slaughter. One of her team members, Jacquie Martini, played her own role in enabling the viral growth of Mary’s team of Chiefs.

Teams that reach high levels of performance do so for a reason. The team’s individuals are good at what they do, and together they reach high levels of success. If you watch an NBA All-Star game, you will see the best of the best on the court succeeding together at their individual objectives. These are high-scoring games featuring one spectacular basket after another. The substance of a successful team involves everyone working together on all aspects of engagement with a Chief who can combine the qualities of each such that the collective best can be expressed as a team.

Mary provided an exceptional level of support to her team and to the sales force she served. I decided to triple the sales education budget. Armed with adequate resources, Mary and her team played a major role in rebuilding the mojo of our sales force.

Mary Slaughter has that ability to support individuals in a way that makes the most of their contributions, as well  as their personal and professional aspirations. She combines the strengths and talents of each individual to create a great team. She is not a leader who demands unquestioned responses to her direction but welcomes—and expects—dialogue and discussion for problem-solving any situation. She recognizes that her team is filled with Chiefs who have valuable experience, perspective, and input; and she encourages everyone to have a voice, even if—especially if—it differs from her own. That experience became obvious during Mary’s team’s very first global sales forum.

Our company recently had renewed its investment in our sales force, and Mary was a huge part of the decision to bring the sales organization together for a three-day face-to-face event to launch the performance year with sales skills and knowledge that would help us meet the changing demands of our customers. These events were very high profile, keynoted by the CEO of the company, and with presentations from the leaders of the product and marketing groups.

At one of these events held in a large European hotel, Mary’s team learned one of its first lessons: that the boss’ idea might not be the best idea. After a long day of coordinating logistics for 2,000 salespeople, instructors, executives, and staff, it came to Jacquie’s attention that one of the keynote speakers was not available for the event.

Mary debated with the Jacquie and the team about how it could be possible that one of the  most  anticipated speakers  of the event not only was not confirmed for the engagement but also was not even in the country! Mary left the room with a clear directive: “Fix this problem, even if it means informing the audience of the program change by printing a flyer and putting it under everyone’s door.” So without question, Jacquie rallied the team to acquire access to expensive resources to create and print flyers, and they then proceeded to spend half of the night slipping notices under all 2,000 guest room doors. The next morning everyone was fully aware that there had been a change to the schedule and understood what new content options were available to them. Jacquie and the team were exhausted but ready to accept the praise that came with a job well done.

It never came.

Later that evening, in a command center away from the hub of forum activity, Mary sat Jacquie down. She asked only one question: “What made it such a good idea for us to incur the premium expense of hotel copying services and then spend half the night hand carrying messages to everyone’s hotel room?”

Jacquie was quick to respond, “Well, you did, Mary.” 

“And why did you listen to me?” Mary replied. “It wasn’t a good idea.”

As the leader  of  this  team, Mary knew  very  well  what  the end result should be, but she was not always the best  person to determine the way in which the problem should be resolved. Jacquie was the expert, the one most familiar with the management of the event and responsible for managing the budget. It was her responsibility as the team’s leader to look at the problem and address it meaningfully. But when Mary said, “Fix the problem,” Jacquie heard “2,000 flyers.”

“You are great at what you do,” Mary continued, demonstrating her support. “That’s why you’re here. You have the expertise and authority to determine what the moves for this team are. Even more than that, your opinions and ideas are really important to the success of all of us. I trust you all to fully step into your role moving forward.”

What Mary really said to Jacquie was: “You are not a soldier, but a Chief in training. You, your voice, and your opinion matter.” Jacquie   knew   she   had   to   act   accordingly.  That   experience, forever known as the “flyer under the door,” became Jacquie’s touchstone for not blindly following a Chief. The support Mary gave her that day was on a grand scale. She enabled Jacquie to be Chief in her own right. She taught Jacquie that power is not passed down from above. It comes from within us. We create our own power.

Very few people would argue that supporting other people isn’t essential to leadership. As the training team’s mission was to support others, it was even more important that they received a high level of support in kind. Mary understood that, and as Jacquie stepped into her role as Chief, she came to understand that, too. What resulted from that thriving sales support system was a thriving customer support system. Through ample support came success.

Mary taught Jacquie through that experience that there is always time to think through a resolution, to ask questions, and to rely on her own expertise. She would ask questions that made Jacquie and the rest of the team think beyond a specific task and, through self-discovery, they would realize the course of action that needed to be taken. Mary’s strength is in her ability to bring out the Chief in others. Jacquie has been a powerful Chief ever since.

Excerpt from “Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title” by Rick Miller.

Rick Miller is an unconventional turnaround specialist, speaker, servant leader, and expert in driving sustainable growth. For more than 30 years, he served as a successful senior executive in roles including president and/or CEO in Fortune 10, Fortune 30, nonprofit, and startup companies, including AT&T Global Services and Lucent Technologies. Throughout his career, he has been recruited from the outside to turn around poor performance in difficult times. His book, “Be Chief: It’s A Choice, Not A Title,” helps leaders at all levels achieve their true potential. To learn more, visit

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