Rika Cuff, Senior Vice President of Scholastic and Champ Sales at Herff Jones, discusses the importance of sales leadership in sales culture development. She emphasizes the power of recognition and fostering a culture of trust and consistency. She highlights the impact of handwritten notes and personalized recognition on individuals and the overall company culture. Rika’s insights provide valuable lessons for sales leaders looking to create a positive and motivating team environment.
“Recognition goes a long way. What I have found is we’re just grown-up kids. People like to feel recognized and it doesn’t matter what your title is.” – Rika Cuff
- Consistency, accountability, and a commitment to recognizing people are key components for Sales Leadership that develop a strong sales culture.
- Recognizing and celebrating achievements are vital in fostering value and appreciation for the team. Acknowledging team members’ efforts also significantly impacts morale and performance.
- Building a culture of recognition requires discipline and commitment. Implementing regular recognition practices, such as starting meetings with recognition or sending handwritten notes, can help create a culture where recognition becomes a habit.
- Trust is essential when managing independent sales partners (ISPs) or contractors. Sales leaders must build trust by consistently supporting and advocating for their team, while also understanding and meeting the customer’s needs.
- Social media can be valuable for gaining insights into individuals’ interests and values. This information can help sales leaders personalize recognition efforts and strengthen relationships with team members.
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[00:00:05] Steven Rosen: Welcome to the Sales Leadership Awakening podcast. I’m Stephen Rosen with my wonderful co-host, Colleen Stanley, and together we tackle the age-old issue of bridging the knowing Versus the doing gap in sales leadership.
[00:00:26] Steven Rosen: Colleen, welcome aboard another exciting episode with a great guest. Why don’t you take it over?
[00:00:32] Colleen Stanley: We do have a great guest. I’m a raving fan, so I’d be called a groupie because I have to do it in full disclosure. I do know Rika from a prior career here, but I’m going to turn it over to Rika Cuff. If you introduce to our audience, basically your title, what you do, it’s a big role.
[00:00:48] Colleen Stanley: That’ll give some more context for our conversation.
[00:00:50] Rika Cuff: Sure. First of all, thank you, Stephen and Colleen for having me on appreciate it. My name is Rika Cuff. I am with Herff Jones and I am Senior Vice President of Scholastic and Champ Sales. What that means is I cover the K through 12 space on the Scholastic side.
[00:01:06] Rika Cuff: So anything to do with. Graduation for high schools, eighth-grade promotions, anything along those lines. The really exciting part of my job is a championship space where we deal with winners every day. It can be championships from football to single unit type of teams or giant all-star cheer squads.
[00:01:25] Rika Cuff: We take great pride in making sure we recognize and put a ring on every champion’s fingers. That’s what I do on the champ space as well.
Consistency and Trust
[00:01:32] Steven Rosen: Wonderful. It’s exciting. Hopefully, lots of champions coming up. Let’s get a little more serious here and talk about from your perspective on a scale of 1 to 10, how important do you feel the role of sales leadership is in developing a strong sales culture?
[00:01:48] Rika Cuff: You know, if there was a higher number than 10, Steven, I’d say it was higher than 10. Sales is a tough job. It’s tough. Everyone has an expectation and you have your KPIs. You’re always trying to track to something data sometimes against you, sometimes for you.
[00:02:01] Rika Cuff: You’re trying to prove yourself almost every single day. In sales leadership, you never stop leading, you never stop motivating and you don’t have the option of having an off day because it might be that someone needs you to be in that leadership role. I take it pretty seriously.
[00:02:16] Rika Cuff: I don’t think it ever drops below a 10 for me and if it does, I probably need to start my day over again. It’s a high priority as far as I’m concerned.
[00:02:23] Steven Rosen: I don’t think you can put it in any other higher priority. I remember a quote that I believe is, ‘Culture eats strategy every time.’ so culture is key.
[00:02:32] Colleen Stanley: Rika, I’m curious because we’ve known each other for many years, but we’re always really intrigued when we’re speaking to sales leaders like yourself. Was there a particular moment when you said, what culture is not an option?
[00:02:49] Colleen Stanley: We hear, whether it’s LinkedIn posts, Facebook, or wherever else people are posting that they’re not enjoying their work. Sometimes, I think they’re blaming the company too much–let me put a disclaimer on that.
[00:03:03] Colleen Stanley: Knowing culture is so important, was there a point where you said that ‘this is non-negotiable, this is my awakening moment, and I am making this that 10 plus priority’ or is that just always the way you’ve been?
[00:03:14] Rika Cuff: It’s a little bit always the way I’ve been. I think the difference for me is when I felt like it became my responsibility because I came from a great culture.
[00:03:24] Rika Cuff: I’ve been blessed to work for many amazing companies, and I have spent some time at Varsity Spirit. When you talk about the encompassing company culture and the love of company and why people work there, that is everything about Varsity Spirit. So when you leave that world and you go somewhere else, you kind of expect that same culture, but you go back to why it was the way it was there.
[00:03:45] Rika Cuff: If you think about it from my perspective, it’s because people love what they did. A lot of times it came from a cheerleading background or dance background, and then we got to grow up and be adults and you can’t be a cheerleader anymore. But now you can work with cheerleaders and that passion drives through your profession.
[00:04:01] Rika Cuff: It creates a culture of something that you believe in, you love, and it doesn’t feel like work. When I moved over to Herff Jones back in 2017. It was very different.
[00:04:17] Rika Cuff: Not because one company was better than the other, but it was that accountability of culture that I believe Varsity Spirit has had for a long time was not present at Herff Jones. I took it as my responsibility. We had culture but it just wasn’t the right culture and, sometimes, it was no culture. I took it upon myself and my team, and we’ve been trying to drive what that means
[00:04:37] Rika Cuff: I took it upon myself and my team, and we’ve been trying to drive what that ‘our why’ because we’re in that business. Like I said, at the beginning, when you’re in sales, you’re constantly tested, constantly being challenged. You’re up against the ropes all the time. You’ve got to have that culture and that ‘why’ that grounds you to what you do.
[00:04:53] Rika Cuff: At Herff Jones, we serve the most important customer because there’s a student at the end of every single transaction that we do. Our reset button is that we’re not selling just gadgets out there for anybody. There’s a student who’s going to cross a graduation stage who has a story. I don’t know what that story is, but there’s a story behind every single student.
[00:05:13] Rika Cuff: Are we doing our very best to take care of that student? If we don’t have the best culture and we are not carrying our ‘why’ into our culture, into that end outcome, we are failing that customer who, in our case, is a student. It is a responsibility of culture for me and my team, my directors, my regional sales managers, all the way down to our independent sales partners (ISPs).
[00:05:34] Rika Cuff: It’s part of what I am working to build with; huge support from our executive team at Herff Jones.
[00:05:44] Steven Rosen: I love that. It’s about making every graduate or winner look their best, and feel their best.
[00:05:48] I think part of why we work for companies is we’re looking for purpose, that we’re making a difference somehow to someone’s life. I love the way you have tied that into your culture and everyone recognizing the importance of that so we can all reflect on that special day in our lives.
[00:06:05] Rika Cuff: It’s a milestone moment in most people’s lives. When you talk to people, they remember weddings, they remember high school graduation. For some students, they don’t go on to college so that is their graduation. It is their milestone, and we can’t ever take that for granted.
[00:06:18] Rika Cuff: It’s an important piece, and we have a responsibility to make sure, to your point, they look good, they feel good, and that they get to have that moment because it’s them themselves crossing that stage, shaking the hand, earning that degree.
[00:06:26] Steven Rosen: Beautiful.
[00:06:31] Colleen Stanley: Rika, you’re reminding me about something that I read about Jeffrey Bezos years ago and I don’t know if they still have this tradition but they have an empty chair sitting at their meetings, and that empty chair represents the customer. When you’re saying that at the end of every transaction, because we could sit there and you get used to selling, you forget there’s a person.
[00:06:54] Colleen Stanley: You reminded me of that best practice that when they were in meetings, because of that empty chair, every decision was being filtered to ‘Does this serve our customer? Are we still showing up the way we’re supposed to show up?’ I love that you reinforce that with your team. I think it’s great.
The Challenge of Change
[00:07:09] Steven Rosen: I think that’s amazing. It brings me back to a story when sometimes as a senior leader, you get stuck in the boardroom and you’re not out with customers as frequently as you can be, right? Some of your successes, as you’ve grown through organizations, come through building really strong customer relationships.
[00:07:25] Steven Rosen: So I used to joke and say, ‘Can we put pictures of our customers in our meeting room so I can know what customers look like?’ As a sales leader, you want to be out there with them. Rika, it sounds like you’ve been through several iterations of the organization, with this one buying that one. In the face of change, every organization’s been through tremendous change with COVID-19, but what strategies have you found to be the most effective in fostering a culture where recognition is a key part, and how have you tailored these strategies to suit the team or the different situation? Maybe you can give us some examples of how you’ve been able to bring that culture over and what you’ve done.
[00:08:05] Rika Cuff: Sure. I wish I could say I was an expert at this, but I’m not. It’s learning on the fly, but change, they’ve written so many books on it because it makes people uncomfortable.
[00:08:14] Rika Cuff: Sometimes, we’re not prepared for it and we don’t like it. What I have found is that consistency is key for me and recognition is key. There are two things that I can control. I can control how I consistently manage people, the expectations I set for people, and the accountability of people.
[00:08:30] Rika Cuff: I can control those things and then recognize behaviors. I tried to come from a place of the carrot versus a stick. I know that always sounds easier and it’s really hard sometimes because you just want to chase people at stick, but recognition goes a long way. What I have found is we’re just grown-up kids.
[00:08:49] Rika Cuff: When I break it all down, it’s we’re just grown up. People like to feel recognized and it doesn’t matter what your title is. It’s nice to feel like someone who recognized your extra effort or the little thing that you did. I have a great team that works with me and goes along with all my crazy ideas. When I want to recognize people, we make a point of having a director meeting every Friday that includes my direct reports.
[00:09:10] Rika Cuff: We do a meeting on Monday. We do 1-on-1s on Wednesday and our meetings on Friday. I try to do everything I can. I know schedules get crazy, but try not to break those meetings because it’s important for my team to know that they’re important and their needs are important.
The Power of Recognition
[00:09:24] Rika Cuff: We start every director call with recognition. It’s the first five to seven minutes and it’s hard sometimes when there’s like fires going on and all kinds of things happening. The best part about my team is, I’m leading that call every week. If I started on something, cause we were in the middle of what was going on, somebody would stop and say, ‘Hey, Rika, we need to start with recognition.’
[00:09:47] Rika Cuff: We’ve gone through this where they hold me accountable. They hold me responsible and we spend the first few minutes and everybody goes around and says, ‘Who do I recognize?’ It could be somebody from our plant workers, it could be a customer service person, it could be an ISP., it could be anybody and why.
[00:10:01] Rika Cuff: I always write that down then I make a point of sending out a note to that person just saying, ‘Hey, you were recognized today on our director call by this person.’ I did that because I wanted to create a culture of you getting through the long week and some weeks are better than others.
[00:10:18] Rika Cuff: You guys know this. Being able to level set with recognizing what we did well. What it turned into is a lot bigger than I ever thought it was. When that end person who gets that email from me that says you were recognized by this director on this call starts to respond to me, I realized how important it was to stop what we’re doing and recognize people.
[00:10:41] Rika Cuff: Everybody to our point around the student, everybody has that story and the people working for us do it too. I want to give a huge shout-out to my team because they are my accountability partners and they will remind me every time I forget what recognition is.
[00:10:59] Rika Cuff: Now it’s a habit and it’s something that we do and we will continue to do, and I would encourage people to do it because you have no idea until you’ve done it; the impact you can have regardless of your title of how much it means for someone just to hear a thank you because they could have had a worse week than you.
[00:11:16] Rika Cuff: That’s one thing that I’ve done, Steven. It’s not probably a great idea, but it worked and it continues to work for us.
The Cost of Recognition
[00:11:22] Steven Rosen: You know what, that’s what people are looking for. I know that through COVID. I coached many sales leaders and they’re very difficult. Sometimes, there are very difficult times when we have no idea when we’re going to be out of the woods and the importance of keeping people motivated through difficult times, through change, that’s very powerful. I don’t want to take away too much, but what’s the cost of what you do?
[00:11:43] Rika Cuff: Honestly, it’s nothing and it gives us everything back. We’ve taken that one step further even where we had cards printed out because of the art of handwritten, we talk about it all the time and what I did with our executive team as well as my team is we have cards that just say, ‘Work today, we celebrate you’ and we make a habit of sending out a note.
[00:12:04] Rika Cuff: I’ve encouraged my team and I’ve challenged our executive team to send one out once a week. I even sent a template in a Word format that you can run through your printer. It’s okay if you don’t have time to do a handwritten note, but you can run something through and sign your name to it and put one postage stamp on it.
[00:12:21] Rika Cuff: What’s the cost of that? It’s nothing. Somebody open up that letter, that just says you stopped and took the time. It goes so far. We’ve gotten away from that because, with everything with COVID, we’re all doing more than one job. Every business has slammed down.
[00:12:36] Rika Cuff: Everybody is having to reach in other areas and we forget to stop and recognize but at Herff Jones, we’re a recognition company. We’ve got to recognize from the inside out, or we’re hypocrites of what we say when we say that the student is the most important thing.
[00:12:51] Rika Cuff: It’s 2 minutes 9if you put that together. It’s 2 minutes. You can print that out, you can sign your name, and write their address out in 2 minutes and the best part about it is, that you will feel better before you do it. It’s not like a pat on the back, you put that two minutes. It’s like, you stopped to do the right thing for the right reason. You just have to assume that the person on the other end is going to appreciate that.
[00:13:18] Rika Cuff: I’ve never once had somebody email me or call me and say, ‘I can’t believe you sent me that note. It bothers me about you.’
[00:13:26] Rika Cuff: It is been a full circle, something that I thought was just going to be a practice to level set on the week for my immediate team has turned into something far bigger than us.
[00:13:34] Rika Cuff: Just a reminder that through change, through adversity, through all the things that are going on, we are human beings. We need to treat each other with respect and recognition goes a long way.
[00:13:45] Colleen Stanley: It’s interesting because when you listen to what you just said, I bet everyone joining this podcast today has heard the power of thank you notes and or even recognizing.
[00:13:56] Colleen Stanley: One thing I would ask maybe our listeners to take a look at. This is where you have to have the self-awareness to realize when instant gratification, like you said, you’re in the manufacturing, distribution business, you got fires burning over here, and so it’d be very easy not to go into delayed gratification and take two minutes that will produce big results there.
Getting Personal and Staying Present
[00:14:16] Colleen Stanley: I think it’s a classic case of knowing your why and having the integrity to follow it which leads me to the next question here. You lead what we call ISPs, some people might call them independent contractors.
[00:14:30] Colleen Stanley: As you’re creating this culture through the company being sold private equity, knowing the culture is important, what have been some challenges you face? I’m guessing, as you said, it’d be easy to take these Friday morning meetings and go, ‘We don’t have time for recognition’, but are there any other challenges that you can share with other managers that you faced and then that you push through? Does anything come to mind?
[00:14:54] Rika Cuff: I just go back to consistency. Like I said, I try to control the things I can control because so much is inconsistent and it’s coming at you and how you handle it. I tell my team a lot because our independent sales partners are their own business owners.
[00:15:10] Rika Cuff: We manage them by influence. You don’t manage them. They’re not employees. You don’t tell them what to do so trust is a really big part of that. They have to trust that I’m doing the best thing for them, that I’m fighting on their behalf with corporate to do things that they need to get, take care of that student, and the same thing back and forth. The corporate needs to trust that the ISPs are doing right by the students.
[00:15:32] Rika Cuff: In the sales role, we’re a little bit of liaison. We’re in the middle. We have to balance a really fine line between it and so trust, consistency, getting out there, making sure people know that, we make sure to maintain all that. It doesn’t matter what the title is. My favorite thing is being back in the school. I love being back in the schoolhouse, walking around.
[00:15:48] Rika Cuff: Then you get to recognize the ISP in front of the principal for what they are doing, and it’s a little bit of a bragging moment, but they get to feel that. That spreads fast. It’s hard when you do a great job, and you get a promotion, and you move up, and that’s all fantastic. We all celebrate that.
[00:16:03] Rika Cuff: But sometimes I miss the days when I was just in the schools and I could just sell things and be there. I make a point of doing that. I make a point of being out with my ISPs. When I’m in the office with the principal they say, ‘Oh, we got to be done by this time because the bell’s going to ring.’
[00:16:15] Rika Cuff: That’s when I want to be in the halls because just feeling that energy of the students and teenagers these days, they’re different than when we were in school. You have to get past the fact that they look different, they act different. They’re a whole different generation.
[00:16:29] Rika Cuff: But it’s who we serve. I don’t know that I have the secret sauce calling for that but what I think is to understand your end user, and understand your customer. In my case, I have two, I have a customer that I serve who’s an ISP and I have to give them everything they need. Be the very best in the field.
[00:16:46] Rika Cuff: Then I have a customer, so I have a dual customer. They wish that student so the closer I can get to that student and the principal and what they need, the closer I can get to the ISP and what they need, I can bring back to corporate to make sure that we’re all collectively working on our why.
[00:17:01] Rika Cuff: Through change, it doesn’t matter which private equity group owns us or who the president is. None of that matters if we consistently keep our mind on that ‘why’ and why it’s important to do that. I take a lot of responsibility for that because if I’m not doing that, why would my team do that? I tend to kill myself a little bit out there and my team does it as well.
[00:17:22] Rika Cuff: I never walk away from a day in a schoolhouse where I feel like it was a bad waste of a day. It always feels good. I learned something about the students that we serve, the principals, and the needs that they have now that are completely different because they change so fast.
[00:17:35] Rika Cuff: How can our company best support administrators in their efforts to ensure that principals have everything they need to take care of the students? They have a huge responsibility as well. What I would say is consistency and just being present and trying to be a constant learner of who I serve and never making the assumption that I know what they need.
[00:17:57] Steven Rosen: That’s beautiful. Our goal is to provide some very insightful tips and I have to say, Rika, some very insightful tips are probably very easy if you’re disciplined to execute. Colleen, I’d love to hear your take as to what your takeaway that you can share in terms of all the wonderful ideas Rika provided us.
[00:18:15] Colleen Stanley: I’m learning to write these down now, but one that I almost laughed out loud was, we’re just all grown-up kids.
[00:18:23] Colleen Stanley: You remind me of a story years ago. I bet this was 12 years ago back when I was working with a commercial real estate company. There’s this gentleman who had just received a 60, 000 commission check. That’s not chump change
[00:18:39] Colleen Stanley: I happen to be sitting in his office and that came up in the conversation. Here’s what he said to me. I said, ‘Congratulations. Wow. What a great check’. He goes, ‘Yeah, I’d sure be nice if the president could get out of his office and walk down the hall and congratulate me’.
[00:18:53] Colleen Stanley: Now, two things there. One, he’s a grown-up, this is a bunch of cash and he still wanted that recognition. To your second point, you have to get out of your office because there’s nothing like hearing it, seeing it firsthand, and recognizing those people.
[00:19:07] I would say that theme, grown-up adult, the recognition and the consistency and that’s a discipline. I think that if you unpack that, the consistency comes from ‘I believe this is important’ because if you’re doing something you believe is important, you’ll do it. You’ll figure out a way to make it happen.
[00:19:22] Colleen Stanley: I know your schedule is crazy and you’re still making the time for these important recognition tools and building culture. That’s what I got, Steven.
[00:19:30] Steven Rosen: Okay. Mine is similar. I’m a big believer in handwritten recognition. I think that’s a lost art, especially given the computer, our phones, that we can text people. There’s nothing wrong with sending an email, there’s nothing wrong with texting somebody, and recognizing them if you’ve seen them but taking the time to write something by hand and put it on a card shows thought. It shows you’ve taken the time and it’s very powerful. That’s my first takeaway. Two, I do believe there’s a discipline. You’ve given some great examples of one. If you don’t bring it up at the beginning of your Friday meeting, someone reminds you, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we take time to recognize everybody’ or everyone to make a recognition and for some of the senior leaders is once a week.
[00:20:16] Steven Rosen: Others may just book off some time to spend some time for recognition. I always believe the more personal you can make it, for example, calling the gentleman who made 60 grand. He knows the number and the money gets spent, but taking the time to congratulate him on that big sale or sales and be specific to the address or to the market share gain they had, or to the student that sent in a picture saying, ‘Hey, this was a great graduation.’
[00:20:44] Steven Rosen: I think that there are some really exciting things that anybody can do. It’s not due to lack of ability. Anyone can do this.
[00:20:51] Rika Cuff: That’s right. It does take a discipline. One of the things you said, Stephen, really reminded me when I think I want to recognize somebody, I go through a three-stage thing.
[00:21:00] Rika Cuff: I’m like, I want to write him a note. However, I travel a lot, and a lot of times when I’m in airports I’m like, ‘Okay, I didn’t bring the notes with me. I ran out of them.’ Then option number two is I want to send them an email. If I can’t do that, I send them a text. I go in that order.
Leveraging Social Media
[00:21:14] Rika Cuff: The note card is always my first choice, but because people can say, ‘I don’t have time to do an email, I don’t have time to do a note card.’ You can do a text. If you make a discipline that you’re going to do it, you will find a way of one of those three, because the person on the other end isn’t going to care how you deliver the message. They’re just going to take, they’re going to appreciate the fact that you took the time. I think that’s one thing. The other thing that I do a lot is a lot of people are down on social media. I know social media can be used for good and bad.
[00:21:41] Rika Cuff: I use it for both, I would say. One thing that I love is I love to look at what is important to people. You can learn a lot about people and what is important to them through their posts, then you can tie those into your conversations. I don’t have the luxury of getting to know everybody the way I would love to know them, but social media allows you to have a little bit of a glimpse.
[00:22:00] Rika Cuff: You can say, ‘Hey, congratulations on your first grandbaby.’ That goes a long way for me. Everyone’s schedules are nuts, but if we make a decision that it’s going to be a discipline for us, then there’s nothing to stop us from that.
[00:22:17] Rika Cuff: You can use technology, you use social if you need to, you use email and text if you need to. If you can’t get down to that, face-to-face or note card. I think we just need to remind ourselves of that because this is not anything new I’m sharing. It’s just a discipline that I’ve tried to do, and I’ve not regretted any of the time that I’ve spent doing it.
[00:22:37] Steven Rosen: I’m going to add one thing before I wrap up. One of the things you shared with me when we spoke earlier was the one thing about the handwritten cards; people put them on their refrigerators or people put them on their bulletin board.
[00:22:50] Steven Rosen: For me, recognition is critical, it doesn’t cost you anything, but there is power and having a piece of paper because holding it in your hand, showing it to your spouse–I think there’s an added power there. The recognition puts you as a top company.
[00:23:04] Steven Rosen: If you want to be a top leader, spend the time to write it out–just my personal opinion. Use technology if you have to but there’s a real power. People save those for a long time.
[00:23:12] Rika Cuff: I think I shared that with you, Stephen. I had a spouse who said to me at a sales conference that the note that I sent her husband was on their refrigerator.
[00:23:21] Rika Cuff: I would have never expected that, but that just shows how important it is. You are a 100% right. We should all be able to take that two minutes to do it and there should be no excuse for it. I just know that, in reality, sometimes days are busier than others, but absolutely to your point.
[00:23:36] Steven Rosen: Thank you. As we wrap up another great episode, I think you’ve shared some implementable things to improve culture, recognition, and performance. To me, you’ve helped bridge that gap between knowing what to do and doing it.
[00:23:52] Steven Rosen: Culture is key, recognizing people in culture is fantastic. Make sure that you don’t miss out on any future episodes as we continue to awaken sales leaders with tools, techniques, and disciplines that can help you transform yourself into a great sales leader.
[00:24:11] Steven Rosen: Thank you, Rika. It was fantastic. Colleen, thank you as well.
[00:24:14] Colleen Stanley: Absolutely. I told you I’m a groupie!
[00:24:18] Steven Rosen: I’m on board now! Thank you.