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So You Want To Be A Sales Manager...

You are a high performing sales rep. You've been at the top of the leader boards for a while now - and you're looking for what's next. Enterprise Sales? A lateral move? Often, the answer is a promotion into front-line sales management.

On the surface, the benefits and rationale seem obvious. You understand the company's value proposition, you have deep customer relationships with key accounts and you have a track record of success. You're admired by peers and leadership alike and, well, it's time to expand the team and who better to lead it?

Besides, you're tired of carrying an individual monthly quota - always against the clock and fully responsible for all of your own business. It's exhausting - especially the daily grind of prospecting and maintaining a pipeline.
Sales management promises to contain all the best parts of being a rep (attending pre-set client meetings, conducting presentations, closing deals), with the added benefit of an increased salary, a manager bonus and any risk to quota achievement spread out across 8-10 reps.

The benefits to the company seem equally obvious. Here's a high performer, with a strong skill set demonstrated by the ability to hit quota consistently and acquire new business. Sales is just about selling right? So, give the sales rep a promotion, a little guidance and they'll create a whole team of sellers - just like them...

Or will they?

While both sides realize that there is more to being a sales manager than closing deals and engaging in late-stage client conversations, they may not realize the full extent of the change in role that is about to happen. Transitioning from direct sales to sales management is not simply learning a different song, it's moving from playing the trumpet to conducting the symphony.

To illustrate this, let's imagine that we're playing a simple game.

The game goes like this: start on one side of a long table with a line of 30 quarters. Each quarter represents something you'll need to do in your new role. The object of the game: move the pieces from one end of the table to the other.

Easy enough, right?

Here's the caveat - you can only move one piece at a time, one inch at a time and you cannot move the same piece twice.

Oh, and by the way - everyone, and I mean everyone who comes by the table will have an opinion on which piece you should move and access to your teams results. They may not know how to conduct a symphony, but they can certainly hear when the band is out of tune - every week, on the sales report. And they can certainly move a quarter - I mean, how hard is it to move a quarter one inch?

This analogy is representative of the challenges that you'll likely face as a first time manager. Not to mention the fact that you'll now be leading a team of former peers, about which an entire separate article could be written.

"Now hold on," you may say. "No one told me about that. I had thought a promotion to sales manager would come because I can sell and they want me to teach other people how to sell. How hard could that be? I'm a good enough sales person. I know my team. They know me. What's the problem?

Unfortunately, in this case, ignorance is not bliss.

Let's start by discussing the composition of the team that you'll be leading. Statistically, this will not be a team of high performing reps. According to a recent study of sales teams across industries, you'll be inheriting a group of 10 reps, with 1-2 open headcount, 2-3 high performers, 3 low performers and the rest averaging between 80-95% to quota.

So, add deal-coaching, weekly win/loss reports, performance management and pipeline reviews to the list. With 90% of training budgets dedicated to front line reps, you're likely to receive little to no training on how to effectively conduct these skills and it'll be a system of trial and error to determine their correct cadence and metrics to evaluate. If you're lucky, there may be a strong network of successful managers who can help you to acclimatize. If not, or if you're one of the first management promotions, the role just got exponentially more difficult.

Even so, if we could stop the list there, you'd likely be okay, but there are many other roles that you'll be expected to perform - far outside of the realm of evaluating opportunities and conducting pipeline reviews. These include: recruiter, performance manager, contest designer, motivational leader, sales forecaster, presentation reviewer, compensation administrator and sales trainer.

Now, let's add to these roles the myriad of activities that you'll be expected to perform outside of closing deals - running effective weekly team meetings, designing and conducting engaging sales trainings, setting quotas, territory planning, enforcement of rules of engagement, people management, being the resident CRM guru, process expert, new hire on-boarding specialist and leadership team member.

There will be new reports, excel spreadsheets, management tools and performance review systems to learn and to administer in addition to all of the new tools and systems that are yet to be evaluated - and let's not forget that you need to find time to actually sell.

All of a sudden the "easier, softer, way" looks less like a sure thing and more like taking all of the risk of being a rep, but multiplying it across 8-10 people and exponentially increasing the likelihood of you not succeeding.

Still want to be in sales management?

Don't get me wrong. Being a front line sales manager is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have in any organization, bar none. The moment you understand the fundamental shift from being a individual contributor to that of manager - everything else falls in line.

See, being a sales manager is not simply about being a master closer. That's a myth - and a myth that costs organizations a great deal of money.

As a master closer (and the best sales person on your team), your natural tendency will be to use your sales team to source deals for your group and you'll jump in at the demonstration phase and close the deal. After all, you're the logical choice to do so and well - it's just easier to close the deal than to teach someone to learn how to close the deal.

Your team loves you for it - at first. And your boss loves you because your team loves you - and sales begin to climb... Until they don't. Eventually they hit a stall point. And then something odd starts to happen. Your sales people start to leave. And they're not kind in their exit interviews.

What happened?

Let's take an illustration outside of sales management for a moment, but related to our discussion. The relationship between a professional athlete and their coach.

Consider for a moment that almost every professional PGA golfer has a swing coach. That coach doesn't try to outdrive the player. They don't hit the ball for them. Their role is to help the tour player to see what they cannot see when practicing - to instill good habits and to observe and correct poor form before it becomes ingrained.

It would be embarrassing and a bit ridiculous for Jordan Spieth's swing coach to walk on the fairway during championship play and 'take over' hitting the ball for him, simply because he 'just wants the ball to be hit, correctly.' And yet, isn't that what we often do, unintentionally to our sales team members as well-meaning, yet diminishing managers?

One of the lessons that I had to learn was that by being the "Master Closer," I was actually turning my sales team into appointment setters and business development reps. And while they initially were grateful that I closed all of their deals for them, they eventually became disincentivized to learn to close the deals themselves. I had created a system of dependence and it simply wasn't scalable. What I thought bred loyalty, bred instead, diminishment and resentment.

If all this is true, then why become a Sales Manager at all? I mean, you will almost always make more money as a high performing individual contributor than as a Sales Manager. You will likely receive more individual recognition. You will most certainly have more control over your own destiny. So, why then, go through this process at all?

In my opinion - it comes from a love of seeing the best come out in others. In seeing their successes and in helping them to become leaders. In teaching a new hire to sell, and then in mentoring them to mastery - of processes, products and eventually, of self. You'll be part teacher, part coach, part disciplinarian and mentor. You'll gain a deeper understanding of the sales processes and the common threads between all organizations and you'll begin to prepare for the next role within an organization. Manager of Managers.

All of this requires a large dose of humility - a word often misunderstood in the modern business world. In this sense, this character attribute equates to an honest evaluation of one's strengths and areas for improvement, followed by a willingness to continue to develop to the best of your ability. This is a lifelong journey and one that cannot be done with perfection, but can be done with increasing skill over many years.

As has been often said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." As a Sales Manager, your hard-won lessons can be turned to good purpose - for with knowledge of them, you can help others to avoid common mistakes and accelerate their own trajectories.

Like all leaders, I've had missteps along the way. Yet, these are the lessons that have brought insight and wisdom to bear upon each role I've had and from these experiences I've been able to help hundreds of individuals and organizations avoid these potential landmines.

I'm curious. What type of sales management on-boading plan does your organization use? How do you start to mentor rising executives within your organization and identify the key behaviors of potential managers?

I look forward to your responses and to meeting many of you along the path and trajectory of our careers. Until then, I'll continue to pass along the lessons as they come to me, and hope that they help in some small way.

All the best of life and success!


Raleigh Wilkins
Raleigh Wilkins

VP of Sales Enablement and Chief Sales Architect at Wheeler-Wilkins

January 08, 2018

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