CEO Adviser: Peak Performance


Has a customer, work environment or mountain ever told you no?

It’s natural to feel discouraged when you encounter a serious setback. Years ago, after 63 days of battling the cold, jetstream-force winds and snow, we couldn’t “close the deal.” Just 1,400 feet shy of the summit, we were forced to retreat. Two months of tough climbing, two years of relentless training while working in corporate sales and putting my personal life on hold, my dream of standing atop Everest that day was not to become a reality.

The act of climbing a mountain has long captured the human imagination as a metaphor for meeting life’s challenges. On the mountain, we must overcome harsh weather and physical barriers to reach the summit. In business, sales executives must overcome constant rejection and scarce resources to meet their bottom-line objectives and earn financial rewards.
In sales, we’re constantly bombarded with demands for our time. There are reports to fill out, hundreds of emails to answer, trade and news magazines to read, new products and industry trends to learn about and, most important, long-term customer relationships to build and maintain. 

Thanks to their ability to close deals, top performers are often promoted to positions of great authority. Many of our nation’s most successful companies are headed by CEOs who began their careers in sales and then rose steadily through the ranks.

Sales executives take on new challenges when they step into management. They must now help their team members develop the same knowledge and skills they acquired on their long and arduous climb to the summit of sales success. They must apply the principles of becoming a guide to inspire the next generation of top performers. In short, they must have a vision, a plan and the dogged perseverance to carry it through. They must teach their sales team to take every “no” as a “not yet,” to understand every rejection as a challenge to improve, innovate and persevere. And then, like ascending Everest, to return again and again until the account is won and the sale closed.

What about when the “no” comes from the environment, products or services? How do top leaders persevere to achieve success? Here’s John Wojick, senior vice president of global sales for Boeing Commercial Airplanes:

“In the first two weeks of January 2013, two battery failure incidents on the Boeing 787 led the FAA to ground the entire fleet. It was the first time an airplane fleet had been grounded by the FAA in more than 30 years. Boeing only had 50 of these airplanes delivered at the time and initially it was unclear what was going to be required to get the 787 back in service. With more than 900 aircraft on order by more than 50 customers, we worked diligently to assure them that we would minimize disruption to their fleet plans. Over the following three months, many hundreds of Boeing employees put in an all-out effort to design, test, certify, build and install a solution that enhanced the battery system and got us back in the air.

“During this time period, my sales team and I diligently and continuously communicated with all our customers to ensure they understood the situation and the effort Boeing was exerting to rectify the situation. It took amazing perseverance and skill for the Boeing team to develop and execute a plan and solution that would have taken a lesser team years to implement. At the same time, we worked to demonstrate to our customers that Boeing deserved their trust and would rectify this situation safely and efficiently.

“On April 27, the first 787 returned to service. We kept all of our customers; nobody canceled an order and all of our customers stayed with their commitments to the 787. By persevering and staying close to our customers during extremely trying and difficult times, we have built relationships that will last for decades.”

In business, as in life, if we persevere and stay focused, we will wake up one day and find we have achieved our loftiest ambitions. When we do, it will be time to project our next goal and begin the whole amazing process once again. A year after we were unable to stand atop Everest, we returned and reached the summit. It was a moment I will never forget, a dream finally fulfilled. 

Susan Ershler is a sales executive and motivational speaker based in Kirkland. She and her husband, Phil, are the first married couple to summit the seven highest mountains in the world. She is co-author of Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales: From Everest to Every Business, Achieving Peak Performance. Reach her at

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