Talking Leadership with Coach Petersen


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Within the University of Washington Sales Program, every guest lecture or sales leadership panel emphasizes the need to demonstrate strong leadership skills. Recently, the Sales Program put together an evening for the graduating class of 2021 focused on, you guessed it, leadership. Yet this conversation on leadership looked a little different than usual. Students were lucky enough to have an engaging conversation with the Foster School of Business’ new Fritzky Chair of Leadership, and former University of Washington head football coach, Chris Petersen.

Coach Petersen shared his insights on leadership through the lens of a distinguished career in coaching. As surprising as it may seem, the takeaways Coach Petersen emphasized were beyond applicable to the world of sales – most notably his “paradox of leadership” and notion of “performing in the storm.”

Your team will rise to the level of leadership you bring.

Paradox of Leadership

One of Coach Petersen’s main insights that drew strong parallels to sales was the paradox of leadership. This is the idea that there are two primary rules defining leadership that are both necessary yet conflicting messages. The first rule is that leadership is about others. At its core leadership is your ability to empower and motivate others and being there to help others accomplish their goals and aspirations. Despite leadership being about others, rule number two illustrates the paradox. Rule number two is that leadership is only about you. The second rule demands that you bring your most authentic self to the office, stadium, or wherever you may be, every single day.

Viewing Coach Petersen’s paradox of leadership through the eyes of a salesperson, the commonalities are clear. In a career that requires so much self-motivation and perseverance, it is critical each member of a sales team brings their best selves to create an environment where people can do their best work and thrive.

As Coach Petersen said, “your team will rise to the level of leadership you bring.” Sales managers are not the only leaders, a rising tide lifts all boats, and salespeople who bring this level of leadership and elite belief system create a more dynamic, supportive, and driven sales team.

Performing in the Storm

Coach Petersen used the analogy of “performing in the storm” as the ultimate test of leadership. He shared that whenever you watch a championship team, no one ever says that the journey to success was easy or smooth. The first remarks are always about the team’s resilience and perseverance.

Just as championship teams go through the storm, sales, perhaps more than any other career, is all about the ability to persevere and be resilient. When the prospect is not interested, the presentation does not lead to another meeting, or stakeholders object to your solution, the need to draw on the skills of leadership is heightened. Just as championship athletes and teams need to have toughness, salespeople must rely on their most authentic traits to serve as a guide out of the storm.

Leadership is about others.

At the end of this academic quarter, 165 University of Washington Sales Program students will graduate. The paths of each student look different, representing every branch of our university community and each individual, like Coach Petersen said, has their own authentic gifts and experiences. As they prepare to go into the professional world, they will take these authentic gifts to enhance the organizations they will work for, the families they will start, and the friends they continue to support.

Ann Thompson • Ashley Tan • Kate Miller • Kellen Foster