Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Executive Education

Leadership: Managing Your Sales Leader

You might be managing the first sales leader in your company’s history, one you inherited, or someone you selected yourself.  No matter the situation, you lead the leader. What should you know about the person in this all important position?


Most likely, the current sales leader (sales manager, director of sales, or vice president of sales) was once a successful sales rep, possibly even a superstar.  It makes sense.  Why wouldn’t a salesperson with a track record of excellence eventually seek out a leadership position?

But there’s a downside – success in sales has little to do with succeeding as a sales leader.  The two jobs scarcely resemble each other:

Salespeople Sales Leaders
Self-motivated Motivate others
Set personal goals Achieve company targets
Loyal to customers Represent company’s interests
Call on customers Accompany reps on calls
Enjoy the recognition of winning Let reps shine, taking little credit

Salespeople work for the customer, sales leaders for the company.


They probably haven’t had any.  Most sales leaders receive little to no formal sales management training, though they’ve probably gotten sales training along the way.   But the two are decidedly different.

Forward-thinking CEO’s frequently understand the value of and provide formal training for new sales hires.  Ironically, most recoil in horror when the sales leader, a person ultimately responsible for many times the revenue, asks for training.

Reasons for this run the gamut.  CEO’s say things like, “I can’t afford to have him out of the office for a week.” Or “She was a great salesperson – our very best.  She’ll be fine.”  Or “The reps have such respect for him.  They can’t wait to work for the guy. It’ll be fine.”

Sales management training, not seen as a necessity, doesn’t get put in the budget.  Company leaders expect sales leaders to move seamlessly from rep to manager.  It happens all the time.


Typically, newly appointed sales leaders take over their position, and then manage in a somewhat random fashion. They use a combination of what they saw their former managers do, and what they’ve read in books.  Then they toss in a few ideas of their own.

Lacking a formal methodology, most new sales leaders:

  • Expect reps to sell the way they sold
  • Provide little in the way of coaching / mentoring
  • Assume what motivated them motivates the other reps
  • Attend a lot of meetings
  • Manage through the CRM

First-Time Sales Leader

If you hire or manage an inexperienced sales leader, sign them up for formal sales management training right away — before they start their new position if possible.  Miraculously, both the company and the reps survive without them for a week or so.

By providing training you make an investment in their career and, frankly, your results.  New sales leaders begin their tenure feeling more confident and organized, with a framework for doing their job.

Experienced Sales Leader

No matter how many years they’ve spent managing reps, if they’ve never had formalized training – sign them up.  Don’t listen to any excuses or objections.  They need the exposure to and the discipline of a formal methodology.

If they have had the benefit of formal training, provide coaching from an independent professional.  They’ll profit from the regular interaction, support, and new ideas.

Provide Good Information

Have all of the reps reporting to the sales leader take an on-line sales assessment.  This gives the sales leader an objective and credible summary of each salesperson’s strengths and challenges.

The neutral, specific information about each rep saves months of trial and error, allows targeted coaching, and enables the sales leader to create an individualized development plan for each rep.

Assess the Leader

If candidates for the sales leadership position didn’t take a pre-employment sales management assessment during the interview process, have them do so now.  For sales leaders who’ve been in the position for some time, ask them to do so as well.

Just like with the reps, having this unbiased information helps you better understand and provide coaching and support to the sales leader.

Sign them up

Offer to pay for their membership in a sales leadership organization and encourage them to attend local meetings whenever possible.  Many CEO’s make sales leaders feel guilty about the cost of membership dues and regular meeting attendance.  They express concern about the sales leader spending time away from the reps – and that’s too bad.

Though I benefited from some great formal training, a lot of what I learned about supervising salespeople came from casually chatting with peers before and after organization meetings.  We shared tips and exchanged suggestions with one another.

Send them away

At least once a year, send the sales leader to an off-site sales management conference.  These meetings give them an opportunity to talk with other sales leaders from all over the country, listen to world class speakers, participate in workshops, keep pace with management trends, and learn about new technology.

In the case of both sales management organizations and off-site conferences, many CEO’s avoid sending their sales leader for fear they’ll use it as an opportunity to job hunt.   That’s just an excuse.  Your sales leaders will return from these activities refreshed, motivated and full of new ideas.  Sponsoring their participation in these events gives them less of a reason to seek employment elsewhere.

Time In

CEO’s meet regularly with their sales leaders to discuss pipelines, forecasts, contracts, budgets, and customer developments.  Be sure to set some time aside for the sales leader as an employee.  Ask questions like:

  • What can the company do to enable the reps to increase sales?
  • How can I help you do your job more effectively?
  • In what way have recent changes impacted your ability to lead?
  • What difficulties are you experiencing lately?
  • What would you like to do / learn / accomplish this year?

While you may or may not have managed reps yourself, as CEO you have a lot of business and people experience.  Be careful to not jump on the sales leader when they raise issues. This inhibits future discussions and keeps you from sharing you vast knowledge.  They will appreciate the advice and mentoring.

Provide motivation

While their responsibilities have changed, their basic make-up has not.  Sales leaders remain salespeople at heart.  They still have a competitive drive, enjoy the thrill of the hunt and want to achieve the group revenue target.  They may accomplish these goals through others now, but still need to be motivated just the same.

Maybe your company deals with eroding profit margins or increased turnover within the sales staff.  Perhaps achieving the year-end sales revenue goal has resulted in a mad dash to December 31st, leaving everyone stressed and exhausted for the New Year.

Whatever the situation, contests provide a positive way to pump sales leaders up and motivate them to address problematic issues.  Create several contests for the sales leader separate and apart from their base salary and bonuses tied to revenue.  Ideas include:

  • Increasing profit margins by an agreed upon percentage
  • Improving turn-over within the sales staff
  • Reaching the annual revenue goal before December 15th

Offer incentives such as gift certificates or items from a catalog for reaching these goals.

I get a lot of pushback on this.  CEO’s say things like, “That’s their job, why should I pay extra for that?”  Because success in sales, whether in management or at the individual contributor level, involves motiving people and making that extra effort.  Always has.  Always will.

Making the Effort

Some CEO’s question the worth of everything I’m suggesting.  But I assure them these gestures pay big dividends.   Sales leaders receiving training enjoy longer tenures with their companies.  Those encouraged to join organizations and attend seminars have a consistently more positive attitude.  Contests targeted towards personal goals help them through some of the more difficult days as a manager. New ideas and time away help them lead more effectively and reach their revenue goals.  Ultimately, that’s what you want to see.

Suzanne Paling
Suzanne Paling, a recognized leader in sales management, has over 25 years of experience in sales management consulting and coaching. She has helped more than 55 companies improve their sales performance and processes. Clients include product and service firms in the manufacturing, software, publishing, distribution, medical, and construction industries. Docurated selected Suzanne’s blog as one of their “Top 50 Sales Management Blogs.” She writes for and American Business Magazine, publishes a monthly newsletter and was profiled in The New York Times Small Business column. Suzanne is the author of two award-winning books The Accidental Sales Manager, (Entrepreneur Press) and The Sales Leader’s Problem Solver (Career Press).