People.ai
sales Legend

John McMahon

John McMahon taught an entire generation of software sales leaders. But his own motto is always be learning.

This is an excerpt from our “Legends” series, where we profile the top sales and marketing leaders around the world, digging deep into their formative experiences and lived lessons.

John McMahon has a term for software salespeople who land a C-suite pitch meeting but then blow it by droning on about technical features and functions, rather than emphasizing the tangible business value. “I call it showing up and throwing up,” says McMahon.

That kind of raw assessment and blunt talk have earned McMahon a loyal following among a generation of sales leaders and CROs whose careers he personally shaped and launched.

During the past 30 years or so, McMahon has created some of the most successful sales teams at five public software companies, including BladeLogic, BMC, Ariba, Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), and GeoTel. As chief operating officer and head of worldwide sales at BladeLogic, he helped transform it from a startup to its $872 million acquisition by BMC. At GeoTel, he grew sales to $52 million prior to a $2 billion acquisition by Cisco. And at PTC, where McMahon first made his mark, sales grew from $1 million to $1.1 billion in nine years.

Today, McMahon sits on the boards of several companies, including the data cloud platform Snowflake and the cloud database platform MongoDB. To stay centered amid the hard work, he devotes a lot of time to yoga, weight lifting, and cycling; he does 25-mile morning rides around his Boston home, once biked across America and South Africa, and raced competitively.

McMahon’s approach to sales is similar to his approach to sports. He often refers to the playbooks of his beloved Boston Bruins or Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots to make a strategic point. “My motto in business is to always be a student of the game,” says McMahon. “Even when I’m called in as an advisor, I still learn from people around the table. That’s the mindset of being a student of the game.”

Too many companies think culture is ping-pong, foosball, and beer taps. Helping people win is a culture. Teaching them how to win on their own is a culture. If people aren’t learning, earning, growing, and being promoted, they’re not staying around for the pool table.”

Here are a few moments that have defined McMahon’s career and character. Here are some of his keys to success:

  • As a sales leader, McMahon says you should only recruit people who are smart and have their “PHD”—as in persistence, heart, and desire. “If they are smart, they’ll gain knowledge quickly,” he says. “And if they are persistent, they’ll have the determination to develop new skills, because skills only come with time.”
  • McMahon warns against mistaking today’s make-it-fun company culture for actual culture. “Too many companies think culture is ping-pong, foosball, and beer taps,” he says. What people want, instead, is to be proud of the company they work for, proud of the people they work with, proud of their leader, and proud to be winning. “Helping people win is a culture,” says McMahon. “Teaching them how to win on their own is a culture. If people aren’t learning, earning, growing, and being promoted, they’re not staying around for the pool table.”
  • It’s crucial for a winning sales team, McMahon says, to speak to the C-suite’s concerns. “When my teams message to the C-level, we don’t want to talk about product,” he says. “We want to discuss the company’s corporate objectives, strategic initiatives, business pains, and the impact we can have. The minute you start talking technical functions, you’re out the door. You get relegated to who you sound like.”
  • To win big $10–$20 million contracts, says McMahon, sales leaders must find a business champion on the inside to help, someone who thinks in terms of business value and solving major issues that can transform how a company does business. “A champion is someone who has access to power, access to the economic buyer,” the person who can buy your product, says McMahon. “To find a champion you need to ask around: Who made the last couple purchases? If somebody got hit by a bus, who gets promoted? Who are the rising stars? Who is the C-level putting in charge of new initiatives?”

Download the full interview