Originally published in Forbes
By Randy Illig
I’ve been a successful sales leader for a long time, and I’ve worked with literally thousands of sales managers, many of whom I met when they were first getting their job. And that climb is a steep one. The traps can catch you off guard…especially for the first-time sales leader.
Most first time leaders begin their reign without a playbook and essentially feel their way around or rely on the skills and instincts that got them the promotion in the first place. But being the leader your team deserves requires a whole new set of skills and a different outlook.
Here are four essentials that I believe first-time sales leaders need to master immediately:
Before you know it, you’re consumed with urgencies. Welcome to the hamster wheel. Every day becomes the same grind, focusing on the same things that are right in front of your nose. It leads to the obvious: without concerted effort to focus on things that aren’t urgent, but are important, those activities will fall by the wayside—and they’re the very things that will make all the difference in putting the team on an upward trajectory. The number-one killer of new sales leaders is a total attention to urgencies, which—even if they were accomplished—wouldn’t help the business grow.
2. Establish a weekly 1-on-1 cadence. Be a hero—the day you start, cancel all the team sales meetings. They’re a complete and total waste of time. Just ask any salesperson: they don’t pay attention, they’re not committed, they don’t care what you or others talk about. The only thing they’re interested in is the email they’re answering and how soon they can get off the phone or out of the room.
Why are most sales team meetings a waste of time? Because most salespeople are like professional golfers. It’s just them. They’re playing the course. They don’t care what anybody else does. It’s not like they’re basketball players, dependent on the other members of the team to score points. There are no dependencies, so there’s no or low value associated with weekly team meetings.
What’s far more impactful is spending one-on-one time with each of your direct reports even if only for 20 minutes. In that time focus on what’s important to them, what needs to happen on their turf and their business for them to be successful, and what they’re going to do this week to move the needle. Help people focus on the lead measures that will create future peak performance. For most salespeople, that means new opportunity pipeline.
3. Leave your office and see customers. This is a bit of a sleeper—it sounds obvious, but most new managers focus internally. You should break that paradigm immediately, and get your butt into action.
Join prospecting customer phone calls, virtual meetings, in-person meetings, and observe your sales people. Look at the quality of their relationships and their dialogue with customers, their depth of understanding about their customers’ businesses, what makes their customer successful, and the way they ask questions and interact.
Resist the urge to take over, because many new sales managers shift into first gear and start to climb the hill when it’s not going how they think it should go. You can’t do that. Just let it go. You’re there to contribute on the margin and debrief afterwards: What did we plan to do? How did it go? What did you think went well? Where do you think you could’ve done better? You’re not there to do anything other than help that person understand how to improve their own performance.
When you DO get a chance to talk to the customer, focus on how you can help them achieve better outcomes, what you could do better for them today that would lead to new things tomorrow, and if they’d be open to hearing new ideas from your firm.
4. Hire slowly, fire quickly. It’s tough for a new manager to deal with performance issues. Often it’s an internal promotion and they know these people, so they’re potentially friendly. It’s difficult to go from a friend to a hiring and firing manager. Do a realistic assessment of the team, using three criteria: will, skill, and current performance.
Will is their willingness to participate, to do what needs to be done, their attitude. Are they negative about everything, or are they more like, “Hey, put me in coach. I can do it. I just need a chance.”
Where are their skills now? Not whether they can pass a test about what sales is, but the manifestation of their skills, (which is why you need to observe them in action). There’s a difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, almost in all cases, whether it’s music, sports, sales, or anything else. So getting out in front of customers with your people will help you sense the manifestation of their skills.
Lastly, what’s their performance? What’s their current performance? Not if they had a great year three years ago—how’s it going now?
I do believe in that old adage: there are no bad salespeople, just bad sales managers. So if there’s some team members who are in the middle on those three criteria, it probably makes sense to continue to invest. And if it doesn’t, don’t belabor that decision—take action.
Conversely, if you’re going to hire, hire slowly. You don’t need to rush. Make sure that the candidate is the right fit for your team.