Some B2B salespeople I encounter baffle me. My work brings dozens of them across my path each year. There’s a significant segment who claim to desire and expect productive careers but who show almost no sign of investing in themselves. I don’t get it.

Some behave as though they have all the essential knowledge and every essential skill that they will need for the rest of their careers. It’s done. They are done. So let’s slap two coats of quick-drying cement over it, eleven coats of marine varnish, and call it “good.” And I’m not talking exclusively about salespeople late in their careers who are trying to run out the clock while relying on an established book of “annuity accounts” to support them. “Annuity account.” There’s another term I really dislike. Do you want to be someone’s “annuity account?” Neither do I. But I digress.

There’s another subgroup that seems to expect their respective companies to deliver all the new capabilities and new knowledge they will need, prepackaged, if not predigested. These salespeople look to their companies expecting education comprehensive enough to insure that he or she will remain highly effective, at the top of his or her game in perpetuity.

There’s a third subgroup that suffers from a particularly sad form of what I call “Four-Walls Myopia” – the belief that everything meaningful happens inside the four walls of their own companies. These are the folk who dive into every new technology and every new capability that their company brings to market with single-minded devotion, with real zeal. They understand the capabilities, constraints, capacities, and technical applications of all their products and services in-depth. No need for sales engineering or other technical help for this salesperson, thank you. This one already knows the specifications for the fastest Henway in the industry, and that a virtual Snavitz Integrator is completely incompatible with a hybrid-cloud-enabled Reltnick.

The common denominator among all of them is that they ignore, or actively resist, the bigger investment necessary to sharpen themselves. That’s tragic because every top-tier salesperson I’ve encountered is a life-long learner. More than that, they are nearly all autodidacts – people capable of planning and managing their own continuous learning. The good news is that being a self-managed and life-long learner isn’t innate, it is learned. Everyone reading this is fully capable of managing her own learning.

The life-long learning vital to highly successful careers in B2B sales typically has three aspects or elements. Each one has a launching point. And each one builds into something self-sustaining. This does become a virtuous cycle once it takes hold, and that’s the incredible good news. Here are the elements:

Process into System At the outset, continuous and self-directed learning requires creating at least a simple process. What sources of learning, of new information and insight, are important? How are you going to gain access to them? How much access do you need, and for how long? How are you going to actually embed the information and insight into your thinking? That last question is key. Far too often I cross paths with salespeople who are exposed to great information and great insight, and who have no process for building it into their individual knowledge bases.

The current models of adult learning describe four to nine different preferred styles of adult learning. I won’t take the time to detail the different theories, handicap them, or name a favorite. But there is universal agreement that there are multiple preferred learning styles for adults. Therefore, you need to understand yours and adapt your own process to them.

You’re likely to find that you best learn different kinds of information and insight differently. Examples will help make that clear. Let me use myself for two of them. I’ve been a woodworker / furniture maker since I was in my early 20’s. I’m now in my 50’s. So that’s three decades of learning. What works best for me there is seeing a skill, process, or procedure demonstrated and then practicing it. While reading is a favorite way for me to learn other things, I don’t learn woodworking best through reading. But I can learn quickly by being shown, and that doesn’t always mean live. I began woodturning about three years ago, and the most valuable learning resource for me has been video. So my learning styles for woodworking balance both visual and kinesthetic.

For professional learning, it is a different story. The best ways for me to take in information are through text and graphics, and by listening. Those two methods are pretty much in balance in my case. So visual and auditory learning methods work well for me when the information and insight are conceptual rather than practical. One of the adult learning models describes me balanced between theorist and pragmatist styles. And that seems to fit.

In practice, that means that I read and listen fully engaged, and prepared to argue with what I read. One of the benefits of my particular undergraduate program was learning to synthesize multiple information sources into a cohesive understanding. Another benefit was learning to actively question and argue with what I read. That led to my particular method for reading. I read with a mechanical pencil and a highlighter in hand. (Yes, that means no one is going to want my personal library.) I make marginal notes, but I keep a Moleskin notebook at hand too. And I highlight not just for emphasis, but to connect related ideas and information.

Mine is certainly not the only or even the best method. But it is the best for me. And it is a process that’s been refined repeatedly to the point that it is now a system. It’s my system. Catch that? I experimented with processes until I created a system. It works for me. It enables me to interact with the information and insight in a way that embeds it into my thinking and memory, and integrates it into what I know already. It’s active and purposeful. And it does take effort.

If you intend to become an effective autodidact, a self-directed and life-long learner, you’re going to need your own system. You’ll get there by starting with a simple process and experimenting. Trust your gut. See what you’re able to recall, and keep those tools and methods that help you do that.

Discipline into Habit At the outset, this is going to require some self-discipline, even if the subject matter is fascinating to you. That means that you’re going to build this into your weekly schedule. Every single week. Habits are built through applied discipline. It’s been repeatedly said that applying the self-discipline to do something every day for 30 days will create a sustainable habit. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. But what I can tell you is that if you do something every week for a year, and in the same pattern, it will certainly become a habit. And that’s why self-discipline is essential.

My schedule doesn’t allow me to slate time for developmental learning every day. So I build it into each week instead, and don’t beat myself up for not making that investment daily. It’s my system anyway. But this did take time and effort to build into a habit.

Early on, one of my two primary sources was print. So I created the habit of taking important reading with me to lunch three times a week. And it turned out that sitting in a restaurant with my reading, mechanical pencil and highlighter worked really well for me. And what a range of luncheon companions I enjoyed. Peter Drucker and Theodore Levitt were early ones. So was Regis McKenna. To that I added a couple of hours two evenings a week. The payoff was considerable. For years, I’ve read between 30 and 50 books a year, in addition to the other print sources (periodicals, mostly).

That discipline enabled me to apply my preferred learning styles to the content and media that works well for me. Now, understand that I’m not a Luddite. I do considerable reading on my iPad now. So I’m not endorsing either a print-focus or print-primacy if that’s not what works for you, or if the information and insight you want to gain comes from non-print sources. The point is this: A system married to a habit is incredibly powerful if you tailor it for yourself.

Focus into Expertise The objective is to take the content on which you focus and to turn it into practical expertise that you can apply. In most cases, you’re going to apply that expertise by creating unique value for your customers or clients. And that ties the effort directly back to a substantial career payoff for you as you capture a portion of the value you’re creating for others, for those who are doing business with you.

One of my early areas of focus was building an understanding of how color works. I wanted to understand color theory and color reproduction better than anyone. It led me to dive into the science of light and the biology of vision. It held the promise of benefit to my customers, of course. But I found that learning color theory and reproduction paid off in several completely unexpected ways.

A few years later, I found myself teaching color theory and color reproduction to budding art directors and designers. Initially, my sole motivation was to give back by sharing something I found endlessly fascinating. But I also found myself introduced to potential clients well outside my original sphere of influence. And guess who arranged the introductions: former students who were now junior art directors trying to help their agencies and design firms solve knotty color reproduction problems.

So what’s worth sharpening yourself enough to master? I’ll give you a handful of places to start:

  • Financial Literacy Few B2B salespeople can make heads or tails of the financial condition of current and potential customers even when the information is readily available. And being able to understand basic financial statements for yourself can give you fast clues about what’s going on and what’s important inside an organization. I’m not talking about financial accounting, I’m talking about management accounting.
  • Business Models Do you know how your customers actually make money? Do you understand how they create enough value to thrive? Understanding business models, and being able to recognize different business models in use, can also help you understand what’s going on inside a customer’s business, and what’s likely to be important to them.
  • Brands A brand can represent from 20% to 50% of the value of a company. The roles that brands play has changed substantially, and they’ve become much more important in the B2B space. An understanding of how brands are created and developed can give you a great lens through which to understand how a company creates value.
  • Marketing I’ve said before that the war between marketing and sales is over: everyone lost. B2B business development is a single, continuous process that includes both marketing and sales. So make the effort to learn marketing. That’s essential if your customers are marketers, and if your products and services support their marketing. You need to be able to walk the talk.
  • M&A Acquisitions are always being made. I’ve never seen a “merger” because someone is always acquiring someone else. It’s likely you or one of your customers has been part of one in the last three years. Understanding why they happen and how they happen can equip you to anticipate things that your customers may not.

Information is expanding rapidly enough that what you know now will be obsolete within five years. If you’re counting on what you know now to fuel your career, and to enable you to earn and deserve relationships through social selling, you’re delusional. You’ll earn those relationships when you, personally, have something to bring to the table – when you can create value for your clients directly. If you fail to invest in sharpening yourself, I have no idea where that value will come from. Do you?

What do you think?