Originally published in Forbes
By Randy Illig
It’s shocking how many sales leaders have had the pleasure and the misfortune of learning almost exclusively on the job, through the school of hard knocks. Whether managers, directors, or vice presidents, most sales leaders were top individual performers promoted into leadership and simply told, “Go run a team.”
But leading a sales team is a different game than selling by yourself. Leaders need new mindsets, skill sets, and tool sets to excel; otherwise, leaders will revert to just telling people to do things the way they did—which fails for a whole host of reasons, including a team’s varying levels of experience, talents, confidences, and fears.
There are proven approaches to sales leadership. After working with thousands of sales leaders, I’ve found a few that distinguish the mediocre from the exceptional:
The sales leaders have played the game—but not necessarily at the highest level. To lead a sales organization, you need to have “carried a bag,” or you won’t have the respect of your team. That’s obvious. But often when promoting or hiring, we look only at the top performers … and individual performance is in no way, shape or form an indicator of sales leadership success. In fact, the path is littered with top sales performers who became sales managers and failed miserably, in part because some of the traits on this list weren’t present, either innately or available for them to learn.
Pick any sport: 99.9% of the coaches have played the game—but very few of them played it well enough to make a living at it, let alone earning fans, gaining celebrity status, or becoming a household name. Their strength is being a coach. Likewise, in sales leadership, you need to be relevant, but you certainly don’t need to be at the top of the scoreboard. If you’ve performed in the top two-thirds, you understand the game well enough. A lot of fantastic sales leaders didn’t earn President’s Club every year. What they earned is the wisdom, patience, and insight that come from hundreds of repetitions, resulting in valuable wins and invaluable losses.
They have the heart of a teacher and the mind of a pragmatic thinker. Sales leaders often have the mindset of a doer, and so instead of teaching they do. When they try to guide their team, they actually just tell: “Here’s what you need to do.” They subconsciously look at their team from the paradigm of an individual contributor, instead of a teacher. Teachers understand that people need to struggle and develop their own thinking, in order to learn and grow. “Telling reinforces dependency; coaching develops capability,” as FranklinCovey’s enterprise president Paul Walker says. Telling never creates an independent or interdependent high performer.
Author Robert Bramson defines a pragmatic thinker as “flexible, resourceful people who look for immediate payoff rather than for a grand plan that will change the world.” Good sales leaders realize that they have to win regardless of the circumstances. And so flexibility and resourcefulness are of paramount importance. The one alteration that I would make to Bramson’s definition is that sales leaders need to keep their eyes on the long game as well. While the role of a sales leader is to land a quarter and then a year, they have to do that within the context of the overarching strategy of the business. That takes a longer-term perspective.
They are facilitative coaches. Those two words together define the trait of a great sales leader better than either one of them by themselves. The sales leaders’ role is to lead, coach, and guide students through their process of solving problems while supporting them. When you’re a facilitative coach rather than a directive coach, you ask questions: Tell me what’s going on. What do you think should happen? What are some other alternatives we consider? Imagine that there were no barriers in your way—what would you do? Imagine that the customer would give you any information that you asked for—what would you ask?
Instead, leaders act like they have a big bumper sticker on them that says, “If it is to be, it’s up to me,” because everything rests on their shoulders. But there’s no leverage in that. Telling people what to do is the mark of a stressed and insecure sales leader.
They emphasize transparency and openness. One of the things that I’ve always liked about sales is that it’s a public performance. It’s one of the few professions where your performance is posted on a scoreboard that everyone can see. Great leaders use transparency to drive mutual accountability: here’s what I expect you to do and here’s what you can expect me to do.
Openness in this context means not having to be the smartest person in the room. As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to have been the top salesperson to be a leader, but you do need to be open enough to know when you need to take the advice of the top salespeople. Openness creates the dynamic that you want in a team, where people feel it’s safe to make mistakes, fail on the practice field, roleplay, explore weaknesses, and leverage strengths.
They don’t focus on the number; they focus on what it takes to make the number. Many people think of a sales manager as somebody pounding on their desk, being a hard driver. That constant focus on the number is tiring for everybody. And it’s actually not helpful—it just creates interference. You can’t do anything about the number; you can only do things about the lead measures, which in turn drive the number. Wise sales leaders understand that they must help people focus on the lead measures.
For example, everyone knows that when a salesperson stops prospecting for new clients and offering new ideas to existing ones, sales will decline in future quarters. While a great sales leader is working hard to close the quarter, they focus even more on helping their people pay attention to the pipeline. Because that’s what’s going to affect them making their overall number, not wrapping up the quarter.
They create their own weather. I’ve always loved Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s idea of carrying your own weather. Great sales leaders—great leaders in all professions, for that matter—create the environment where success can happen. To use an agricultural metaphor, the most important factor in soil is the pH—that’s what creates the plant’s ability to harness nutrients. But what do people pay attention to? The nutrients. If you have the right pH, the plant will find the nutrients. If you have the wrong pH, the wrong environment for success, no matter how many nutrients you put in, the plant can’t use them.
The good news is that all of these traits are teachable and learnable. Instead of replicating their own individual success, sales leaders will find that their ramp into leadership will be far more rapid if they focus on these traits first.
Randy Illig is global leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice. Illig helps to train, consult and coach leaders at Fortune 500 companies on how to win more profitable business and build sales cultures that win.