the ceo magazine, leadership qualities,
Kevin F. Davis, Founder & President, TopLine Leadership, Inc.

I’ve seen it time and again, and I’m sure you have too: a high-performing rep is promoted into sales management but never becomes as successful as a manager as they were as a rep. Why does this happen?  The core issue is an irony that has gone undetected too long: certain sales instincts which contribute to a salesperson’s success are often the exact opposite of the what will help them succeed in sales management.

Coaching your sales managers to fight these instincts and replace them with better leadership mindsets will determine whether a promoted sales rep flounders or flourishes as a sales manager. Here are three examples.

1. Avoid conflict

Avoiding conflict with a customer is a sales skill that all great salespeople have. The best salespeople design their presentations to prevent objections from coming up. In this way great salespeople are actually rewarded for avoiding conflict with customers.

But when that great rep becomes a sales manager, the “avoid conflict” instinct translates into a manager who is reluctant to have difficult conversations with under-performing sales reps. And before they know it, they’re tolerating mediocrity on their team.

The more effective mindset as a leader is to deal with problems head on. A phrase we like to use in our sales management seminars is that what you don’t confront, you condone. And the last impression we want our salespeople to get is that poor behaviors are condoned! The key is to help sales managers understand that the sooner they address a problem with a rep, the less negative emotion is involved in resolving it. By avoiding a problem, they’re allowing it to fester and get worse.

2. Never give up

Winston Churchill, the great British leader during World War II, was widely revered for being an inspirational figure during some very difficult times. British citizens heard Churchill’s inspiring message to “never give up” even during the darkest days of the war.

That kind of tenacity is very valuable in salespeople; it makes them persist and win more deals. But when present in a sales manager, a potentially damaging effect occurs when a sales manager hangs on to low producers for far too long. Recently I asked a group of sales managers for a show of hands, “If you knew then what you know now, is there anybody on your sales team that you would not have hired?” 90% of the audience raised their hands. Then I asked, “How long have you known this?” Answers varied from a few months to, in some cases, one or two years.

Answer me this: how do the poor performers on a team think about the worst performer? As “job security.” As long as that worst performer is allowed to hang on, the poor performers can be pretty sure they won’t be the next people fired! This is true even in companies with dispersed workforces: salespeople still talk with each other, and they know what’s going on across the team.

What should senior leadership coach sales managers to do instead? Sales managers need to establish a standard method for evaluating performance, and then cut their losses sooner rather than later. Recent research shows just what a terrible mistake it is to keep someone with a poor attitude on a team: Just one bad apple on a team can reduce the overall team performance by 30 percent [1]

3. Leave peak performers alone

Almost every sales manager came up through the ranks and was promoted because of their success at selling. When they were peak-performing reps, they wanted to be left alone so they could do their magic without anyone watching over their shoulder.

So it’s natural that when they become managers, they take a hands-off approach to the rock star sales reps on their team. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

There are two problems with this mentality. First, a rock star left alone often turns into a prima donna—self-centered and demanding with a rules-aren’t-made-for-me attitude that can become toxic to the entire sales team.

Second, by not coaching the rock star, a sales manager is bypassing an opportunity to create a positive role model on the team. When a rock star is more fully engaged with their team and is coached in such a way that they don’t go down that prima donna path, they can become the team’s informal team leader, a positive success example for the team

Either way, rather than leave a peak performer alone,  a much better mindset for a sales manager is to consistently enforce standards for the entire team, and to make sure that the more accomplished reps share their insights with teammates. That’s the best way for the entire team to progress.

Developing leadership mindsets

Leading a sales team requires a completely different mindset and skillset from selling. Sales directors and VPs need to help their sales managers understand that what got them into their new position won’t help them stay there. So help your sales managers to use positive confrontation with underperformers rather than avoid conflict; and make sure they do it sooner rather than later so they don’t keep the worst performers around too long. And even if they wanted to be left alone when they were a rep, they need to see the positives to working with peak performers. Developing these mindsets is what will make them as successful at managing as they were at selling.

[1] For example, see Robert Sutton’s “How a Few Bad Apples Ruin Everything,” The Wall Street Journal (October 24, 2011), which cites a number of studies.


About the Author

Kevin F. Davis is the author of "The Sales Manager's Guide to Greatness: 10 Essential Strategies for Leading Your Team to the Top". Kevin is the founder and president of TopLine Leadership, Inc. which provides customized sales management development programs and services.

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