The following job promotion ritual is repeated in numerous sales organizations every year:
Step 1: A sales management position is vacant due to growth, attrition, or the dismissal of an existing sales manager; Step 2: The top sales representative in the organization (or department) is selected to fill the vacancy; Step 3: The top salesperson doesn’t like to (or is unable to) manage the sales performance of other individuals, so he keeps focused on personal selling initiatives, but in doing so, is failing in his role as sales manager; Step 4: The cycle repeats itself.
Although sales representatives and sales managers both work within the realm of selling, many of the strengths required for success in the roles of sales manager differ than the strengths required for success in the role of sales person. Therefore, few top-performing salespeople will become top-performing sales managers. This is important to know if you’re looking to hire a new sales manager in your company, and you expect this individual to be successful filling that role.
This isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to selling. There are many highly-skilled and successful physicians, for example who are unable to effectively manage a staff of other physicians. There are many prized athletes who are not able to successfully coach a team of other athletes. There are skilled kitchen designers, plumbers, and attorneys who are unable to manage respective groups of other kitchen designers, plumbers, and attorneys.
Before I offer support for my thesis, allow me to confess that there are two situations where I will not argue with the individual who says the top salesperson in an organization will become a successful sales manager:
(1) The first is where where the new sales manager retains the responsibility for personally generating sales revenue. This individual is, in effect, either a part-time sales manager, or a sales manager in title only; (2) The second is when the sales manager’s role is to be almost exclusively a rain-maker (a generator of new business opportunities). That is a selling role that some sales managers play, but it is not a management role per se.
The following is a list of strengths (skills) that are required to achieve phenomenal success as the manager of a sales team (or any team, for that matter). However, none of these skills are substantially required for phenomenal success in front-line selling. This doesn’t mean that a top sales performer will never be a top sales management performer, but it means that the strengths required to fill the two roles are substantially different.
Strength #1. Delegating.
The sales manager certainly cannot do the front-line sales activity for his entire sales group himself. Meeting a sales quota requires the contribution of all members of the sales team. The successful sales manager must possess the ability to delegate responsibility to others so the group can achieve its goals. Delegating is quite a different skill than, say, closing skill, which is required of top sales performers, but the skill of delegation is not a skill which is typically required for top sales performance.
Strength #2. Willing to give up the top spot.
Top sales performers who become sales managers must be entirely willing to give up the position of top performer in a sales organization. For those who can’t, disaster awaits. Sales managers must be willing and able to put their top salespeople on pedestals so their egos can be adequately fed, while also keeping their own egos in check for the sake of the advancement of their team. In a larger organization there is still opportunity for competition between several or many sales managers, but a top sales manager has to be able to point to his top performer and give her credit for being the top salesperson in his group. He also has to encourage other non-top-performers to become top-performers. Since many salespeople have been ego-driven in their successful sales careers, this transition from achiever to encourager is critical. The skill of allowing someone else to be the top dog is not a skill required for success in selling, and in fact, can be antithetical to it. Many sales managers who have previously been a top sales performer who have been driven throughout his entire career to achieve “pedestal” status will not work tirelessly to put another individual on this same pedestal.
Strength #3. Focusing on others.
Sales management requires an outward focus on others’ sales performance, whereas successful selling requires an inward focus on one’s own sales performance. Being in control of your own sales is one thing; but it’s impossible to be in control of an entire team’s sales. Therefore, a loss of direct control of the sale is required in favor of a focus on the sales manager’s team members.
Strength #4. Supervising.
Sale managers must possess front-line supervisory skills. They need to know how and when to step in to discipline or change behaviors in an employee. They must possess wisdom about when to support subordinates versus when to discipline them. Top sales performers do not need supervisory skills to achieve top dog status.
Strength #5. Managing.
The key skill of the manager is to utilize every subordinate’s special strengths to achieve the goals of the sales group. Weaknesses in employees exist, but assembling a group of team members who have strengths in the right areas, and knowing how to put those strengths to work, is not required of top sales performers. It is, however, required of sales managers who wish to achieve top sales performance. These management concepts are described by Marcus Buckingham in his book “The One Thing You Need to Know About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success” (Simon & Schuster, 2005).
Strength #6. Coaching, training, mentoring.
Successful sales managers should be able to coax salespeople to improved performance, both in one-on-one coaching events and in classroom training environments. Although there may be some of these elements present in all selling top performers, these elements are crucial for top sales management performance.
Strength #7. Leading.
According to Marcus Buckingham, again in “The One Thing You Need to Know,” successful leaders have two key attributes: (1) They have the ability to create a vision for the future; and (2) They have the ability to get subordinates lined up within this vision, so that individuals’ efforts will support, and not hamper, the group’s progress. Successful sales managers have these leadership attributes. Leadership skill is not required of top sales performers.
Strength #8. Filtering directives.
The sales manager will receive many directives from her superiors. To be effective, she must know when to filter out or adjust these directives, and when to take them on with reckless abandon. This is a delicate balance, and not knowing when to do which one can wreak havoc in a sales organization. The wisdom to know when to embrace upper-management directives, and when to subtly give them secondary attention, will help determine the success of the sales manager’s team, and therefore, the success of the sales manager.
Strength #9. Hiring and Firing.