Promoting your best salespeople to managers isn’t wrong – it’s just not enough16 min read

Apr 26, 2022

Promoting high performing salespeople to the level of sales management is both the most common way for sales leaders to hire new sales managers and, according to research, the worst one.

From 2005-2011, three professors from MIT & Yale analysed the performance +53,035 sales employees at 214 companies, during which time 1,531 were promoted to become sales managers (link) and found the following:

  1. High performing salespeople are more likely to be promoted to sales management (Doubling sales increases the probability that a worker will be promoted by 14.3 percent relative to the base probability of promotion)
  2. Sales people with high performance pre-promotion are more likely to have low performing sales teams as sales managers (doubling the new manager’s pre-promotion sales corresponds to a 7.5 percent decline in the sales performance of each of the newly-promoted manager’s new direct reports)

This is the Peter principle in action (link) and importantly illustrates the point that the skills & behaviour that made individual salespeople successfully as front-line executioners are not the same as those that will make them successful as sales managers, guiding and enablers others to succeed.

The best doers are not necessarily the best as helping others do

At the face of it, it seems to indicate that sales leaders shouldn’t promote their best salespeople to sales management positions, but this misses the important point about sales managers and leaders in general, seen from a company perspective:

It is something you learn not something you are born with.

The problem is perhaps not that high performing salespeople turn out to be not so great sales managers, but that sales leaders expect them to just naturally develop the change in mindset, skills and behaviour needed to work with performance in a different way.

From individual performance through own actions and grit to collective performance through guidance, enablement & motivation of others.

As sales leader, rather than asking how you might make better predictions about who might naturally perform well as a sales manger once promoted, ask

How might high performing people in my sales organisation perform as sales managers, if they were actually helped to do so?

In our work helping sales organisations put the right sales leadership development programs and management structures in place, we’ve found 5 things make the difference when getting the right sales managers in place and helping them succeed:

  1. Make high performers aware of their unconcious incompetence
  2. Make the journey gradual
  3. Have a firm Sales Mgmt. Operating Model for them to live into
  4. Teach them the key skills required to succeed in new role
  5. Involve sales leadership in sales manager development

Make high performers aware of their unconscious incompetence

The great advantage of high performing salespeople is that they are high performers, as shown through the work put in to make that happen for them at an individual level.

The big problem is that they are most often not aware (unconscious) about the incompetence they have in terms of the approach, skills and behaviours that will enable them to perform as a sales managers.

Perhaps even worse, they might think that what made them successful as sales individuals will make them successful as responsible for the performance of a team.

As a sales leader, the first step towards making high performing salespeople, who aspire to become sales managers, capable of performing in their new position, is to make them aware of the fact that what made the successful as sales individuals will not make them successful as leaders of others

  1. Instead of performing by doing, they have to help others do in order to perform
  2. Instead of putting themselves at the centre, they have to put others in centre and help them shine.
  3. Instead of spending most of their time with customers, they have to spend it on people who spend it with customers.

For sales leaders it is important to move potential future sales managers from unconscious to conscious about these differences between what makes sales individuals and sales managers perform to ensure they understand what the role entails and what is required by them to succeed in it, perhaps especially so for high performers.

Avg. or low performing salespeople likely do not believe that what made them sub-par as sales professionals will make the team perform better, but high performers might.

If your high performing salespeople identified for promotion to sales management level are not willing to leave the adrenaline kick of closing the deal themselves and leave it to others, they are likely not ready for sales management.

Make the journey gradual

High performing salespeople have a unique asset that makes them valuable as sales managers, that others apparently do not.

They have somehow cracked the code for what activities successfully leads to sales performance.

In one of the most extensive -and data backed research studies done on what separates great sales managers from the rest, Google’s project Oxygen found “key technical skills to help advise the team”, to be one of the significant indicators of high performing sales managers (link).

For high performing sales professionals aspiring to become high performing sales managers, this means they likely have key technical skills, that made them successful as sales professionals, that can be used to help others adopt similar behaviour.

For sales leaders wanting to test sales manager candidates, it offers an ideal possibility to put the high performing sales professional to the test with hands on sales management work, before making them sales managers by title.

A key activity for sales managers is coaching salespeople on their team, on what actions to take to improve performance, whether it be through pipeline coaching, deal coaching or account development coaching and, given the right tools and support, high performing sales people in the sales management pipeline can already start conducting these interactions with their peers before becoming sales managers (peer-to-peer coaching).

As a sales leader, giving sales manager candidates responsibility for sales manager tasks before they get the title (and full responsibility), offers not only the potential sales manager to be a chance to learn gradually, but also the sales leader a chance to better assess the candidates ability to succeed in the role.

Have a firm sales management operating model in place, for them to live into

The biggest change for anyone assuming management positions (sales managers not excluded), is arguable around time, what it is spent on and how it is spent.

While high performing sales professionals might have been able to get by with a loose relationship to structured time management, sales managers can not.

If managers do not proactively decide what needs to go into the calendar and fill it up with those most important activities, someone else will.

This is the essence of having a defined operating model for sales managers in place, which details how the 50-60% of a sales manager’s time with team members (at individual & team level) should be allocated, with regards to

  1. What interactions the manager should conduct with their people on an on-going basis (e.g. pipeline & performance reviews, deal coaching sessions, co-visits & skills coaching etc.)
  2. What structure should be used in -and around these interactions to make them effective and efficient (coaching methodology, feedback approach, supporting tools & technology etc.)
  3. What frequency these interactions should take place with (daily check-ins, weekly pipeline coaching, monthly deal coaching etc.)

The comfort zone of high performing sales professionals (and their likely go-to-place as sales managers once pressured by time & targets), will be one of “putting out fires” and ad-hoc problem solving at the front-line, instead of taking a structured approach to time-management and using internal meetings behind the lines to drive performance.

As sales leaders, putting the right structure in place in terms of how you expect new sales managers to spend their time to drive performance (enabling behind the line instead of solving problems at the front-line), makes it easier for sales managers with an inclination to “just-do-it-themselves”, to more clearly understand their role and how to manifest it on a day-to-day basis through the interactions with their team members.

Teach them the key skills required to succeed in the new role

While most mature sales organisations are quite clear on the skills required to make their salespeople a success (prospecting, active listening, questioning technique proficiency, negotiation skills etc.) and structured around how to teach these to their people (formalised on-boarding and skills development programs), too many still take an ad-hoc approach to getting their sales managers equipped with the skills required for this specific role.

Given that competent sales managers act as a multiplier on the performance of the people on their team, that is of course unfortunate.

The skills required to succeed as a sales manager are vastly different from those required to succeed as a sales professional, because the role, responsibilities and activities are vastly different.

  • Coaching skills required to help people identify important challenges and opportunities to address to grow performance and activities to do so
  • People development skills, to help people understand strengths and potential areas for improvement and how to address these
  • Leadership skills to help motivate people, improve work engagement and strengthen team cohesiveness
  • Feedback skills, to help people broaden their awareness about themselves and take action to improve.
  • Business acumen skills, structured problem solving skills, interviewing and hiring skills etc. etc. etc.

While the list of skills needed to be a successful sales manager is long, they are skills that can be taught and should be taught to those responsible for assuming a sales manager role, exactly in the same way as its done with the salespeople on their team.

High performing sales professionals promoted to sales managers may need help understanding what these are and how to acquire them, but chances are that their drive to perform will motivate them to do the work required.

Involve sales leadership in sales manager development

Just like sales managers who help their people develop & perform through on-going interactions get sales teams that perform better & develop more (deal coaching, skills coaching, co-visits & feedback etc), sales leaders that help their managers develop & perform get sales managers that do the same.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), this means that sales leaders responsible for making the sales organisation perform & develop as a whole, need to get hands on to enable their managers to become good at doing the same for the people on their team.

  • Just like sales managers do co-visits to make observations and give feedback to sales, sales leaders join co-visits to see how managers give feedback and use this to help the manager improve
  • Just like sales managers run pipeline & performance coaching sessions with their sales teams, sales leaders run pipeline & performance coaching sessions with their management team
  • Just like sales managers help their people improve professional capabilities through skills coaching, sales leaders do the same through personal/professional development sessions with their managers.

For sales leaders this, and the previous 4 points mentioned in this article, means that whether or not one of their sales managers succeed in their role, is less about how they potentially performed when they were sales people (high performer or low performer) and more about how they as leaders set up potential managers to succeed before they are given the full responsibility and how they enable them to succeed, once they have assumed the role.

 Mikkel Bach-Andersen

Mikkel Bach-Andersen

Partner

 +45  40 41 13 31

  mba@kvadrant.dk 

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