What Makes a Highly-Effective Sales Culture? A Tiger Mom Might Have the Answer.


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On Sunday, the Oscars awarded The Wolf of Wall Street nada. Bupkus. A big goose egg. Too bad there wasn't a category for Best Movie about Selling. It might have won the honor.

The Wolf of Wall Street revealed two important realities about how sales organizations operate: “You can’t build a culture in a comfort zone, and there is a dark side in the drive to be first,” as Cliff Oxford wrote in The New York Times. The movie brilliantly executes a believable drama based on a true story. Take a group of egotistical people, and feed them a motivational diet rich in high-octane hype. Focus them on a single goal—make money, and subtract morality. The audience knows from the get-go the incendiary mix will create a bad ending. “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride,” as the song goes.

It’s not hard to identify what makes the sales culture in The Wolf of Wall Street highly dysfunctional. But figuring out what makes a culture highly effective proves much more challenging. The answer comes not from a heavy-hitting, quota-busting Sales VP, but from another formidable authority—Amy Chua,Tiger Mom.

Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld are back in the news after publishing a controversial new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. In the book, the authors express their views about what enables certain cultures to achieve disproportionately higher success compared to other cultures. “The reality, uncomfortable as it may be to talk about, is that some religious, ethnic and national-origin groups are starkly more successful than others,” they write. The authors point out three values:

1. Superiority complex—a deep, abiding belief in their exceptionality.

2. Insecurity—a feeling that whatever you’ve done isn’t good enough.

3. Impulse control—based on a sense of awareness, future-thinking, and common sense.

We can save for another day a spirited discussion about the validity of these insights, and their ramifications for society. But in my experience, these same elements are consistently present among the best sales organizations. The best have embedded a firm belief not only in the great power of their products and services, but in their organization, too. The best have ingrained an ambient insecurity that fosters urgency—an “us against the world” attitude. And the best refrain from knee-jerk impulses by placing high value on methodical strategies and disciplined action.

But these three don’t complete the picture when explaining what makes sales cultures effective and successful. We’re missing ethics, particularly noteworthy because its absence lies at the root of a growing problem. As The Economist reported this week in an article, The Enemy Within, a Kroll study found that 70% of the companies it surveyed were affected by fraud in 2013, up from 61% in 2012.

While the Kroll study reported on all cases of corporate fraud, the issue has always had a strong presence in selling cultures as well. As I shared in a recent blog, Announcing the Winners of the 2013 Sales Ethics Hall of Shame, when corporate leaders lose sight of the right thing to do, confidence and trust are damaged immeasurably. Few business risks are more corrosive to executing strategy than bad ethics.

Which of these four elements was present in the The Wolf of Wall Street sales culture? Superiority—check! Insecurity—for a while, check! Impulse control—no! And ethics—emphatically, no! Had the latter two not been utterly smothered, The Wolf of Wall Street, too, could have had a highly effective sales culture. But few would want to make a movie about it, and even fewer would be interested in seeing it.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Andy,
    Now I need to go see the movie! Love to see the formula applied as well to Boiler Room, a little known film that I loved about guys hawking fake stocks.


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