When Jordan Belfort was building Stratton Oakmont, the legendary stock brokerage out on Long Island and the setting of the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, he was turning barely-average Joes and Janes into rockstar salespeople. He was essentially taking people off of the street who could barely pass their Series 7 broker exam and morph them into selling machines. In his books, Belfort states that it was common for even newbie salespeople to earn north of $100,000 in commissions per month after only a few months’ of work.
He says what it took was particular sales training and motivation which he provided himself. He developed his own curriculum. Belfort may be one of a very select few people in the world who experts deem a Natural Born Salesman. He’s been selling for as long as he can remember. Strangely and ironically, he never gave his ability much thought when he was crushing sales at other firms before launching his own. He knew he was good, and he thought there must be others out there that are good as well. With the exception of his partner, Danny, he did not find these other salespeople who were naturally gifted at his firm. That, and he had trained his partner himself, so he was killing it, too. But Belfort just couldn’t figure out why, when using the same sales scripts and training, he and Danny were earning tens of thousands of dollars in monthly commissions while the rest of the Strattonites were flailing working the phones.
The sales wisdom doors swung open and poured into me.
In a fit of frustration, he had a mandatory sales training on a Tuesday night in 1988 so that they could figure it out together. After going through the usual motions of determining prospect objections and overcoming them, Belfort had an epiphany, as he states, “the sales wisdom doors swung open widely and poured into me.” This moment of clarity happened while training his sales slackers. Belfort whiteboarded it out for them, explaining his successful sales methods using the metaphor of a Straight Line while stating emphatically and repeatedly, “Don’t you get it? Every sale is the fucking same.” He said it with absolute certainty. Nothing was clearer to him or easier to see. This emphasis was met with confused stares from his team.
After listening to his salespeople complain for awhile, Belfort determined that what they really lacked was self-confidence and personal belief in their ability to succeed. Most of his salespeople were young, early 20 somethings, never went to college, squeaked (and slept) through high school, as Belfort says, “a Motley Crew.” They were underdogs. Nobody believed in them, least of all, themselves. Seeing this through social intelligence as the subtext to their conversations and noting what needs to be done, Belfort would give them two daily doses of skill development and motivation: one in the morning before the stock market opened and one in the afternoon after it closed. Like a good leader, Belfort was constantly monitoring, assessing, and motivating his troops. He was not only there for them; he was in the trenches himself, working the phones from the boardroom, slinging $5 stocks to a particular audience. He believed and lived the maxim, “Never make your people do something you wouldn’t do yourself.” He worked the phones selling $5 stocks to rich people just like the others, and he was great at it. And before that, he was great at selling penny stocks to everybody. He embodied the message. There are no better teachers than those who do.
What the movie didn’t exhibit so well or was otherwise forgotten was how much belief Belfort injected into his salespeople. He believed in them and showed it over and over again, which caused them to believe in themselves. For nearly all of these young people, nobody had ever believed in them before. Nobody told them they could do anything great. Nobody told them they had potential. Nobody told them they could do whatever they want when they grew up. Nobody told them anything positive about what they could accomplish in their professional lives. Nobody told them to envision a compelling future for their lives. Then, here comes Jordan Belfort, the stock selling sales wizard out of Long Island who has figured out selling. So much so that he feels he can train anyone — anyone off the street in spite of their lack of education — and turn them into a sales pro making thousands and thousands of dollars in monthly commissions. What could be more seductive? What could build higher loyalty? He believes in me, will train me, and allow me to earn thousands and thousands of dollars each month? Sign me up!
It is one thing to be a sales superstar yourself. It is wholly another to teach others to be superstars as well.
The subtle yet important leadership lesson from The Wolf of Wall Street and embodied by Belfort not only in the movie but in his books as well is that he took the time to believe in his people. And he told them over and over and over again. He also taught them not only a better way to do their jobs, but the best way to do their jobs, maximizing their success in the process. Belfort focused on Best, and success followed. He taught others to focus on being the best, and success followed. His salesforce was a cantankerous, ragtag lot, and he turned them into sales superstars. It is one thing to be a sales superstar yourself. It is wholly another to teach others to be superstars as well.
A dedication to life-long learning is an excellent discipline to cultivate.