Do the best salespeople make the best sales managers? Almost unanimously, when we ask sales leaders this question, the answer is "no." Yet paradoxically, and too often, sales leaders look for candidates among the sales ranks and select the best salesperson for the manager job. They assume that because an individual was successful in sales, that individual will be successful in management too.
Of course, many great salespeople can and do become great managers. But this is not always the case. Too often, when a super-salesperson gets promoted to manager, one or more of the following happens:
- He (or she) can't let go of his old role. He takes charge of customer relationships and jumps in to close deals, undermining salespeople's motivation and confidence and weakening their relationships with customers.
- He manages by results only. He expects everyone to produce the same results that he got as a salesperson, but isn't good at coaching and giving people constructive feedback on how to get there.
- He avoids administrative responsibilities. He becomes frustrated by the many routine but important tasks that headquarters requires of him.
Before long, the salespeople he manages stop learning and growing. They become disenchanted, disengage from their work, and may even leave the company. Soon, district performance is in jeopardy.
What it takes to succeed in sales is different from what it takes to succeed in management. Salespeople succeed when they meet customer needs while achieving the company's financial goals for their territories. Sales managers also succeed by meeting customer needs and achieving objectives linked to company goals. But the manager is not the hunter, the playmaker, or the center of action. Managers contribute to customer and company success when their team of people is successful.
Managers are coaches, not players; they get satisfaction from achieving objectives through others. When a salesperson gets promoted to manager, it's no longer about "me" — it's about "the team." Managers help people grow by walking around with a watering can in one hand and a bag of fertilizer in the other.
Unless you select salespeople who have the characteristics it takes to do the next job well (not just those who have demonstrated success in their current job), your sales management team will be average at best.
What can you do to ensure that the right people get selected for the sales manager job?
Medical device company Boston Scientific has a formalized corporate program for selecting and developing internal candidates for sales manager positions. According to Chris Hartman, Vice President, Central Zone, for Boston Scientific's Cardiology, Rhythm and Vascular Group, "We seek candidates from the sales ranks who have demonstrated excellence not only by generating strong sales results, but also who have demonstrated success in teaching others to sell by acting as a mentor to new salespeople, and who have demonstrated success in managing through exposure to leadership opportunities such as a field training role or participation on a sales advisory board or steering committee. Our management assessment and development program tests and trains candidates on competencies such as coaching, performance management, interviewing, and negotiation. The program provides many opportunities for both the candidate and the company to evaluate fit with the sales manager job."
What should you do if an excellent salesperson who lacks managerial characteristics wants to become a manager and threatens to leave if not promoted?
Sometimes, just talking to the individual about what the manager role entails and what it takes to succeed in the job are enough to encourage an unsuitable candidate to withdraw from consideration on her own. If that doesn't work, test her in the role; say by giving her responsibility as a mentor or field trainer, in addition to her sales job. She may discover that the role is not something she enjoys. It's also possible that you'll find out that your initial assessment was wrong. If that's not the case, summon the managerial courage to tell the individual that she is most valuable as an individual contributor. It's better to lose one good salesperson now than it is to risk losing an entire district down the road due to ineffective management.
Cardinal Health uses dual career paths as a way to address the situation. "This enables our sales organization to keep many of the best and brightest salespeople who are most valuable as individual contributors," says Sandy Cantwell, Vice President of Sales Operations. "You can succeed by becoming a manager or by becoming a 'super salesperson.' We have a formal career road map for both management and individual contributor roles. Our top sales role, the Strategic Account Vice President, is roughly equivalent in level to a Regional Vice President on the managerial side."
Select and develop those salespeople who have strong managerial tendencies for sales management positions. At the same time, understand that success as a salesperson alone is not a good predictor of success as a sales manager.
Thanks to Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing / Harvard Business School
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