When You’re a Sales Manager, You’re a Leader

It’s not uncommon for good salespeople to be self-directed and accountable individuals, which makes them naturally effective at being the ‘leaders of their own lives’. Good sales professionals are highly results-driven and competitive. These natural traits tend to see them focus on their individual performance, often with little consideration for team results. The fact that the individual success of high-performing salespeople delivers the results required by the company makes them a valuable asset, but they are not necessarily working as part of a team to achieve these results – that was surely my experience when I was enjoying my greatest success in sales. As a sales manager your ability to lead these unique individuals, and achieve synergistic outcomes is what will define your success.

Management is about doing things right, and leadership is about doing the right things.

The above definition from management guru, Peter Drucker does provide an understanding of the difference between leadership and management, what it doesn’t do is highlight, that to be a successful sales manager, you need to do the right things, and you need to do them right – you are both leader and manager.

As a leader you provide direction, short and long range focus. You answer the “what and why?” questions. You translate the strategic direction of an organisation (where to play and how to win) and establish the all-important culture and environment that will allow your team to be successful. Without direction, focus, clear communication and the right culture, businesses struggle to succeed in today’s market. But for your sales team to be successful, you must also answer the “how to?” You need to help your team develop sales strategies and plans, and provide the support and coaching required for your team to achieve their personal and business goals.

When promoted into my first sales management role at the ripe old age of 21, I understood little about management and less about leadership. I was now managing those who I had worked alongside, shared the jokes and the gossip. Having no guidance into the role of manager I made the mistake of seeing my role of one of authority and this did little to help me gain the trust and support of my team. I needed to understand that to get the best out of my team I needed to be more of a leader and less of a manager. To be a leader I needed my team to be willing to follow and to do this I needed to make changes, especially to myself. I needed to understand that each member of my team was different – different personalities, different work ethics, different goals, different sales skills and experience. To be able to lead my team to achieve the goals required by the business I needed to be able to influence each member of the team toward achieving an agreed goal.

“Leaders who treat people as they are, will keep them as they are; but leaders who treat them as they could be, will cause them to grow, and become more than they would have been.”
H. James Harrington, The Improvement Process

There are many theories on leadership style, and one of the biggest challenges to being a successful sales manager/leader is knowing what to apply and when. This was a lesson learned from bitter experience as that young, novice sales manager. Understanding that there was no single effective way in which to manage each individual in my team just added to the pressure I was under and made the learning curve that much steeper. With the help of my mentor I learned that the essence of good leadership was for me to adapt my management style to fit the needs of the individual, and to understand that these needs may change from time-to-time. To achieve this I needed to understand the development level of each individual in my team – their skills, knowledge and self-confidence in relation to their performance goals. Obviously each team member would have a different development level and that level may change depending on the specific performance goal or task they were undertaking. It was then up to me to determine the style of leadership that was most suited to the situation and adopt this in an open and genuine manner. To the inexperienced sales manager that I was, this was no easy task and it helped to share my approach with the team so they understood how I was working with them.

Now, many years later and having enjoyed a successful career in sales, management and consulting, I have found that the most successful sales managers are good leaders who share similar traits. Good leaders make good sales managers and:

  • Are results oriented
  • Do not accept the status quo
  • Have strong inter-personal skills
  • Know their own strengths and weaknesses
  • Are creative and innovative
  • Set goals that are clear, challenging and realistic
  • Empower others

The power of good leadership cannot be underestimated – the performance of the businesses led by leaders with these traits were always above average. This is supported by 2010 research by Zenger-Folkman who found that poor leaders (bottom 10%) lose money, good leaders (the middle 80%) make money and the extraordinary leaders (top 10%) make double the profits of the other 90% combined. The business (and particularly sales) world is littered with the corpses of poor managers and this is usually a result of a sense of entitlement, poor communication, lack of vision, poor governance, taking imprudent risks, lack of integrity or simply being dishonest. These are not the trait of good leaders and successful sales mangers.

If you are like me, you will no doubt find your development and experience as a leader and manager, frustrating, scary, distressing and nerve-wracking at times – on the other hand, it will also be enjoyable, energising, exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. It’s a challenging but rewarding role.

This article by Wayne Moloney was originally posted on Linked In