Today McNair runs a consulting firm in Winston-Salem, N.C. He’s the author of It’s OK to Ask ’Em to Work (Amacom, 2000).
WS: You started out in market research at R.J. Reynolds. You eventually became a top salesman at Douglas Battery and then moved into management. Did you shift from marketing to sales to advance your career?
McNair: Career planning is a matter of knowing what you’re good at. I’m a pure salesman. But beyond selling, I also wanted to manage other people to greatness.
WS: How did your sales skills make you a good manager?
McNair: You learn in sales to set goals. When you’re a manager, you need to be clear not only about your goals, but about what you expect from your employees in terms of activity and results. Once they understand what you expect, your team will work hard, make you look good and help you advance.
WS: What’s the difference between activity and results?
McNair: I might say to a salesperson, “I expect you to make 20 quality calls to top-line prospects today. Let me define ‘quality’ and ‘top-line prospects.’” That’s the activity. Then I might focus on results by saying, “I want you to produce a net 10 percent increase in top-line sales while maintaining margins with no increase in bad debt.”
WS: Don’t some employees chafe when managed that way?
McNair: They may become uncomfortable because they’re used to a cheerleader, not a manager. But I’ve found everyone is more successful when performance expectations are clear.
WS: Once you get employees to excel, how do you toot your own horn?
McNair: I’ve never been a self-promoter. My experience is, if you do a good job, you’ll get recognized. But the key is to treat your boss as a customer, to say, “I want us both to succeed. I’d like to make you get ahead in this company so that I can get ahead too. How can we move up together?” Of course, only say this to a boss whom you trust and respect. And if you’re lying—and you want to use your boss for your own self-aggrandizement—most bosses can smell a fish from 1,000 miles away.
WS: Do most bosses like being treated as customers?
McNair: Many bosses are put off by employees with naked ambition. But if you focus less on asking the boss ‘How do I get promoted?’ and more on ‘How can I help you?’, you become their partner.
WS: What would you tell employees who are disgruntled because they don’t get the promotions they think they deserve?
McNair: I’d ask them if they’re expecting a promotion for one outstanding accomplishment as opposed to a cumulative track record of outstanding performance. I’ve seen many people adopt a ‘piecework’ mentality where they do one project well and then demand an instant promotion. The people who rise build longer-term relationships with bosses.
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