Many sales organizations focus on promoting leaders from the ranks of their current group of reps rather than hiring management from outside. They do this because it can help create a stronger, more consistent culture in their organization, provide their reps with opportunities for advancement and also shorten new leader ramp-up time as products and processes are already known. While there are clearly benefits to promoting from within, it can also be hard to know which sales reps have the potential to become effective leaders.
Usually the highest-performing salespeople are first considered for advancement, as they've displayed the skills necessary to sell successfully, as well as perform at a high level. The data from our Through the Eyes of the Sales Rep survey supports the idea that top individual performers are the ones promoted, because sales managers' individual performer skills are consistently rated more highly by their sales reps rather than their management skills. However, strong individual selling skills may not make someone an effective manager. Indeed, our research indicates that individual selling ability is among the leadership skills least prized by sales reps.
Who is being promoted
According to our rep survey, sales reps rate their managers the highest in skillsets related to individual sales performer roles. Of the 1000+ reps we have surveyed, over 76% said that their manager had “strong” or “very strong” skills in the areas of product knowledge and industry/market knowledge. Conversely, a much smaller percentage of the reps surveyed gave their manager a “strong” or “very strong” rating in the areas of leadership (57%) or coaching (49%). This indicates that the wrong traits may be valued in determining who to promote. Whether someone was a knowledgeable salesperson may have little to no bearing on whether they will do well in leading other salespeople to succeed.
We also asked the sales reps to rate how strong the skillsets of their managers are in certain areas, as well as how important the reps viewed those particular skillsets to be. By comparing the ratings of the sales reps in these two categories, we were able to determine the skillsets where there were the largest gaps between the expectations of the reps and their ratings of their managers’ actual performance. The skillsets with the biggest gaps are (1) leadership, (2) coaching and (3) helping reps progress toward career objectives. Accordingly, it seems that the individuals who are being promoted into sales management roles are most lacking in these areas.
It is evident that the sales reps value their leaders’ ability to help them perform effectively. This is why their managers’ lower-than-desired skills in areas like leadership, coaching and helping reps progress toward career objectives represent a significant area of concern. If the sales managers do not have the ability to help coach and lead their sales reps to higher performance levels, and they are strong salespeople themselves, it is likely the manager will take over sales calls and meetings themselves. Indeed, in the open-ended questions we asked reps how their sales managers could improve and many said that they would like their managers to stop upstaging them on sales calls.
Who should be promoted
Knowing that strong coaching and leadership skills are not prevalent enough in today’s sales managers, it is important to place a greater focus on these areas when looking for tomorrow’s leaders. As you are building a leadership pipeline in your organization of the individuals who have the potential to ascend to management roles, look beyond who is the best individual performer to identify those individuals who have the skills to excel in helping others perform. As examples, keep an eye out for reps with these traits:
- The ability and desire to teach and share their knowledge with other reps
- Caring and concern for the needs of their fellow employees
- Supportiveness of other reps’ goals
- Recognition of other employees’ achievements
Overall, the most important thing is to identify potential leaders based on their demonstrated ability to help those around them perform. Watch how the reps interact with one another and note the reps that others naturally seem to gravitate toward. Above all, remember that oftentimes your best salespeople will not turn out to be your best sales managers and vice versa.
Learn about what really makes a succesful sales leader by reading EcSell President Bill Eckstrom's article in Top Sales World.