How The Experienced Sales Manager Takes Over A New Team (Jeans)

Two similar stories crossed my screens this week about winning ways to take over a new team. Yesterday’s is from the all-conquering Arsenal football club under the early Wenger years. Today’s is from a supposed ‘turnaround’ at denim pioneers Levi’s.

So denim sales seriously declined around the start of the century. Manifold causes combined to hammer what was for a long time the chosen uniform of rebellious youth, happily maintained throughout life.

Cargo pants, sportswear and outdoor activity clothing each chipped away at denim’s one-time ubiquitous dominance. Then new trendy brands bringing new takes on traditional plain jeans hit the established players, along with updated takes such as elasticated waistbands, all combined with the emergence of end-of-season discounters that aggressively undercut everyone with designer labels at knockdown prices.

Failing to keep up, the typical complacency led demise story infected longtime leaders Levi Strauss.

They took on a boss previously selling gentlemen items they did not need in the name of male grooming. Six years on he’s credited with completing a ‘turnaround’. I contend that the numbers do not fully back this view up. Yet Levi’s at least remain the biggest single brand by volume in global denim sales.

Knowing an attempted turnaround was under way, and recalling fondly my own younger days living in 501s, I ventured to buy a new pair.

I was sorely disappointed.

Their price was unjustifiably higher than competing choices. Their retail experience was average. And perhaps worst of all, the workmanship on my new jeans was shockingly shoddy. They will not be seeing any more of my money. So for this reason also I struggle to believe the hype.

But there was an element of the new regime that I can admire.

Page One of the turnaround handbook for any new broom writes you should make a big statement sacking straight away. Or in this case, fire most execs you inherit. Chip Bergh did this with gusto. The cull seems to have included nine of his eleven direct reports. Along with a total two-thirds of his larger senior management cohort. Brutal. But always necessary, the teachings say.

Before he did this comes the lesson for any new-in-post Sales Manager.

He set up hour long meetings with each of his top sixty execs. Beforehand he sent them a small list of questions to come prepared to discuss. He knew quite early what needed to be done as a result. Here’s a taste of his work (from various tv interviews and mag profiles);

What are the three things you think we have to change?
What are the three things that we have to keep?
What do you most want me to do? (& What one thing do you want me to change?)
What are you most afraid I might do?

I was reminded of a famous 80s car maker’s turnaround. I heard the main protagonists outline his march in a b-school lecture. When he parachuted in it was known the ‘investors’ had a few million to put in. He recounted how when he then first met each member of the management team individually, they all made a case that they alone should have said cash splashed on their sole domain.

When taking over any new team where performance needs lifting, it could be the top dog you need to chop, the keen but forever bottom you must cull, or any points in between. There’s something about this advance questioning set-up that I feel can truly help you determine which and where in the short order you’ll most definitely require to act inside.


I couldn’t possibly leave this theme without mentioning the obvious sales campaign parallel.

Whenever a solution sell is on, there is a change. A change that can often be perceived as big. A change for which you can gauge where people’s perception of it sit by deploying a version of this upfront questioning – but maybe not so sent-in-advance.

For instance, I like a conversation starting point similar to ‘what’s currently in place that you, mister prospect, would like to make sure stays in situ?’ Given their reaction you can then judge how far down the scything path you travel.

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