Here is an all too familiar story: A sales organization needs to fill an open position for a frontline sales manager and decides to promote its brightest, best performing sales professional into this position. Unfortunately, after three to six months it becomes apparent that the sales rep isn’t able to get the sales management performance from the team that was expected. To make matters worse, the team has lost their best hunter because this person is now spending his or her time trying to figure out how to motivate, lead, recruit, manage and coach their team. The new sales manager’s days are numbered if he or she isn’t able to quickly improve performance, and in the meantime, the organization struggles to hit its numbers.
So, what happened here? The organization promoted a top performer based on his or her strong performance as an individual contributor and then expected these skills to transfer over to being a sales manager. They optimistically (and somewhat naively) expected the top performer to navigate this first significant career pivot – moving from being an individual contributor to managing a team - without a roadmap or the appropriate training support. Unfortunately, the skills, knowledge and expertise necessary to perform as a great frontline sales manager are fundamentally different than the skills that made the individual excel as a sales professional -- yet we often fail to appropriately equip the new manager with the tools and skills to do the new job.
Selling vs. Managing
Consider the specific selling skills that top sales professionals excel:
- Asking questions
- Building rapport
- Presenting solutions
- Handling objections
- Gaining commitment
While a sales manager must be proficient in these selling skills, ultimately the sales manager must excel at achieving results through others. This requires a completely different set of skills, including:
- Recruiting and selecting the right team members
- Setting team goals and priorities
- Managing performance
- Coaching and developing selling skills in others
- Leading and motivating
These management skills are not obvious to the new sales manager or easy to develop on their own. That is why making this first major career pivot is so challenging for many sales managers.
This is similar to the phenomena in sports where the best athletes in the game do not necessarily make the best coaches and managers. There are numerous of examples in every sport where the greatest individual contributors become mediocre managers, often because they lack the skills and aptitude necessary to make this career pivot. This is not to say that star performers can’t become successful managers, but we shouldn’t assume that the transition will be automatic based on exceptional performance in a different position.
Making the Pivot
Sales managers face numerous challenges making this first major career pivot. While in some cases the new sales manager will have a good mentor or senior manager to teach them these skills and they can emulate their behavior, this is usually the exception. The new manager is more likely to use trial and error to develop their own repertoire of management techniques that enable them to achieve a reasonable level performance from their team members. Hopefully the manager is able to develop these skills quickly enough allow them to keep their position and become proficient as a manager.
If the organization decides to procure training for their sales managers, they may find that many programs marketed as Sales Management Training are actually retooled sales process training programs designed to go along with a proprietary sales methodology also offered by the training vendor (e.g., “here’s how to manage the steps of the sales process we just trained your reps on”). They may also find generic management and leadership training programs that are lacking sales specifics, such as training on the key behaviors, skills, performance indicators and sales coaching conversations necessary to manage a high-performing sales team.
So how can a sales manager successfully make this first major career pivot? What is needed is a training program designed to develop the specific skills needed by the sales manager, conducted over a period of time necessary to practice, adopt and perfect the new skills. It is not enough to send the manager to a one or two day workshop – the training needs to be integrated into an ongoing sales management development program.
About Ray Makela