We love strong leaders. It’s a noble role that seems in short supply some days. Even without stirring speeches or Churchillian charisma, the best ones inspire us with passion and vision to succeed. Yet when it comes to sales leadership, where are Zig Ziglar and Mary Kay Ash when you need them?
There’s no doubt that sales leadership is one of the toughest jobs, with the greatest impact. A recent survey of over 400 sales leaders by the University of Southern California revealed that more than two-thirds of salespeople who exceeded quota rated their sales manager as being excellent or above average. And, more than half of the sales reps who rated their sales organization as excellent also rated their sales manager as excellent.
For the best sales managers, leadership is not just about being in charge. It’s about putting the interests of the team ahead of their own. Understanding this dynamic and the specific competencies needed to be successful is critical, but often lacking. Companies with the best leaders foster a culture where sales development is valued, and individuals at all levels know that taking the time to learn and grow is completely encouraged. Without this, it’s hard to fill the gaps, but not for trying.
Great sales leaders are not born that way
A respected peer recently shared on LinkedIn the fascinating state of sales enablement job descriptions he’d been reading, many requiring the function to “work directly with salespeople to improve performance” as a core tenet of the daily routine. Dozens of responses roared in. “That’s crazy,” “Why just focus on salespeople? Why not the frontline sales manager?” “What exactly are managers doing if they’re not driving the performance of their own reps?”
Well, the truth is that most sales managers aren’t coaching, nor are they necessarily leading. Why? For starters, we know sales managers have a lot on their plate. They work long hours, manage endless reporting, go to meetings, and hire and fire. With less time and constant change, the added task of leadership and coaching can be profound.
As we know, sales leaders frequently get promoted because they can sell. But being a top salesperson vs. a successful coach and business strategist are very different things. Just because you can close, doesn’t mean you can lead. This is exceedingly evident when a sales team is underperforming – and the leader doesn’t know what to do about it.
Add to this that we don’t properly invest in developing our sales managers. The paradox here is that they’re responsible for managing diverse teams, requiring them to be consummate managers of people. Shifting their mindset from knowing their reward no longer comes from their own individual contributions, but through the success of their team, can be challenging.
To be fair, from the moment a professional gets started in sales, they’re judged by the numbers. So if a new sales leader is developed in an environment where that’s the focus, they will probably be best at managing by the numbers. You get leaders adept at getting transactions done, instead of learning to motivate and lead others.
According to the Sales Management Association, companies are twice as likely to focus their developmental programs on their reps exclusively. Too many companies make the flawed assumption that after training is done, sales managers – because they were at the same event – will pick up the ball and run with it. Yet, we know most training efforts fail to reach their objectives in the field because they lack management reinforcement and coaching. For one company faced with budget constraints, instead of sacrificing the quality of their rep training, they channelled their limited dollars into management development. Out of necessity they changed their thinking, and achieved a better result.
Making better decisions through data
Great sales leaders also understand the need to bring personalized approaches to coaching. They adapt their style to suit each individual on their team against a defined sales process. Emerging technologies can help, making it possible to gather real-time data and readily document what reps are prepared to bring to any sales interaction. These tools deliver valuable “people metrics” that help managers continually calibrate their investments in coaching, and provide early warning indicators to facilitate corrective action to change the revenue trajectory.
Conversely, they can use the insights to explore the characteristics of team successes and take actions to boost sales effectiveness, such as combining teams to leverage strengths across territories. The data helps to verify that reps, no matter how they seasoned are, are actually the best people to sell the company’s products effectively.
The bottom line
Leadership may seem like a simple concept, but it perplexes even the largest organizations. After all, it’s more than just unbridled charisma, rah-rah speeches and a persuasive approach, just as sales management is more than simply assigning quotas and reviewing performance reports. In all businesses, sales organizations depend on their leaders to blaze the trail to productivity.
Tackling the sales leadership problem is the only way to fix sales team performance for the long-term. Like all good things in business, strong leadership starts at the top. And, the best companies will be focused on developing people in general. In the words of Zig Ziglar, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”