The 20 Percent Rule

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 14.5 million people in the U.S. are employed in sales. Considering there are an estimated 153 million people employed in the country that would mean around 9.5% of workers are in sales.

While one out of every ten workers is technically in sales according to the BLS definition, the true number is much higher. I would argue the majority of workers are in sales in some capacity, whether it’s in their job title or not.

Daniel Pink does a deep dive on this idea in his book To Sell is Human. Pink says most workers are in sales because we spend a significant amount of time trying to get others to part with resources.

He performed a study of nearly 10,000 workers to better understand what people actually do on the job every day. He asked workers what their everyday tasks were and unsurprisingly, the biggest chunks of time were devoted to email, face-to-face conversations with colleagues or clients, and meetings.

But almost 40% of respondents spent a significant amount of time “teaching, coaching, or instructing others.” And nearly 70% of workers reported spending much of their day “persuading or convincing others.”

Even if you’re not selling a product or service directly to a customer, you still need to get people to buy into your ideas, opinions or theories.

The same is true of other aspects of your life. Finding a mate comes down to selling yourself to another person. Anyone with young children knows sales and negotiation is a huge part of everyday parenting.

Pink also describes how sales have evolved over time:

It’s long been held that top salespeople—whether in traditional sales or non-sales selling—are deft at problem solving. Here I will show that what matters more today is problem finding. One of the most effective ways of moving others is to uncover challenges they may not know they have. 

Problem finding has grown in importance over the past few decades as the global economy has shifted from product-centric jobs to service-related work. Without a finished product to demonstrate, service businesses need to find problems in advance to earn their keep. When selling intangibles, this is the job in most instances.

Problem solving is akin to a post-mortem where you diagnose after the fact while problem finding is more appropriate for the pre-mortem where you plan ahead for potential risks, needs, or desires in advance.

This idea of problem finding is also a wonderful way to advance your career. One of the ways people get stuck in a rut in their career can stem from an inability to sell themselves or even get noticed in the first place.

How many people get to that annual review with their boss but fail to convince the party on the other side of the table how valuable they are to the company?

Theo Epstein, current President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs and former Boston Red Sox GM, has some phenomenal advice for those who are having a difficult time selling themselves on the job:

Whoever your boss is, or your bosses are, they have 20 percent of their job that they just don’t like. So if you can ask them or figure out what that 20 percent is, and figure out a way to do it for them, you’ll make them really happy, improve their quality of life and their work experience.

If you do a good job with it, they’ll start to give you more and more responsibility.

Everyone assumes they deserve more money, responsibilities, or respect at work but most people don’t know how to sell themselves correctly or truly stand out from the crowd to get what they want.

This can be especially difficult for young people trying to shine when they don’t have very much experience.

Becoming a fixer for those people who already have the position or responsibility you crave in the workplace is a wonderful way to get noticed.

And the best part is this is a way to position yourself for upward mobility on the job without a focus on yourself. It’s a focus on those who are above you in the chain of command.

Being a problem finder is a useful way to sell yourself without actually having to sell yourself.

Further Reading:
Advice For Young People Trying to Break Into the Finance Industry