Developing Sales Leaders

Developing Sales Leaders

It’s natural for front-line sales managers to focus on sales team performance – drilling down on the numbers. The deadlines are immediate and the rewards are explicit. Sales managers spend their careers developing the required skills with corporations providing the necessary training and encouragement. Hence, in most cases all of the activities that are required to manage the numbers successfully lie within the sales manager’s comfort zone.

But what about carving out the time and making the investment in developing what it takes to provide leadership? Having the skills and attributes for leadership is just as important for sales managers as it is any other business management position. With leadership ability one can not only make the numbers – you can make a difference.

If the leadership developmental goal is to be reached, lesson number one is – start early.

In today’s complex B2B sales environment waiting to develop leadership skills until one becomes a sales manager probably is a case of – too little, too late. Rather, begin in the beginning when you are in a sales rep position – leading sales teams, working with customer buying groups, leveraging training opportunities and seeking out mentors.

So if the challenge is to be taken, what are the behaviors and skills correlated with leadership capability? What differentiates those that are successful?

Recently we came across an extensive McKinsey & Company research study involving 81 organizations and over 180,000 people that addressed just that question. Their research studied 20 leadership skills – a small subset of which accounted for 89% of the variance on leadership effectiveness – particularly among frontline leaders.

Since the McKinsey study focused on a wide variety of management positions, we translated the results to the world of Sales and added a few ideas from our observations working with front-line sales mangers. Let’s take a look – effective leaders:

  • Develop the ability to lead by influence rather than rely solely on position power. Your sales team will do what needs to be done when asked by you, the sales manager – but will they take the next step? Building salespeople up, communicating clearly, remembering that not everyone agrees with you, and providing value to your sales team are all part of the puzzle for developing the ability to influence.
  • Are adaptable. Today across industries companies are instituting transformational changes in their buying process. When buyers change how they buy, sales organizations need to change how they sell and front-line sales managers need to provide the leadership to make that happen. Whether you call it pivoting, leading change, or some other names, the most effective sales managers provide the leadership to adapt to change.
  • Operate with a strong results orientation. As the McKinsey study indicated “leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.” Clearly the aforementioned ability to manage the numbers is a part of this skill set.
  • Develop trust. Effective leaders take explicit action to build trust. We’ve witnessed too many sales teams where sales managers manage through dictates. The sales teams usually make their numbers. But the more important question is – do they reach the full potential of their book of business? Rarely. Sales managers that develop trust: make a personal connection, are transparent and truthful, encourage rather than command, take the blame but give credit, don’t play favorites, and promote organizational efficiency.
  • Solve problems by seeking different perspectives. As the McKinsey authors note: “This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance.” When considering sales management there are a variety of audiences to keep in mind. From those in your organization like Marketing, IT, Tech Support and the sales team to the extended buyer contacts that comprise your customer base.

Anytime there are disruptive changes occurring in your market, a new set of winners and losers will emerge. Part of the answer for organizations to be among the former is to provide your staff the pathways to leadership.

As the researchers at Mannaz and the Institute for Executive Development report – “the leadership development practices seen as the most powerful are interactive: coaching & mentoring, leaders teaching leaders, action learning, succession planning. Top down, academic, one-way teaching and generic programs not linked to business strategy are viewed as the least effective.”