It happens all the time in sales.
There’s an opening for a frontline sales manager position and the best sales representative — the rockstar closer, the one who regularly reaches 200 percent to quota — is tabbed to lead the team. On paper, it seems like the right call. They’ve generated the most revenue, they have a grasp on the product and customers, and may even be seen as a leader on the team.
But then they’re thrust into a manager role and team performance falters. The reason often comes down to the sales leader equating individual success with managerial readiness, said DeJuan Brown, former VP of sales at Fringe and current director, solutions specialist for state and local government at Microsoft.
4 Tips to Help Sales Reps Make the Leap to Manager
- Be transparent about what it means to be a manager.
- Create opportunities for your reps to practice leading a team.
- Establish a team lead position and reward reps for taking on additional leadership responsibilities that prepare them for a frontline manager role.
- Set realistic expectations for the new manager.
It’s a common mistake Brown sees in organizations that have struggled with frontline managers. A National Bureau of Economic Research report analyzing manager promotions within 214 sales firms backs his assertion up. The report found that companies often promote sales reps into a manager role based on their current job performance over other skills that are more indicative of managerial ability. It results in companies hiring managers who aren’t the best fit to lead.
“Apart from having a systemized training, moving someone [into management] because they killed their number over and over again doesn’t equip and prepare them to lead people,” Brown said.
That’s when you often see new managers forcing reps to sell “their way,” instead of coaching reps and playing to their team members’ strengths, Brown said. When that happens, you see successful reps leave because their approach doesn’t mesh with the manager’s. And you see other reps underperform because they aren’t able to experiment and find the sales approach that works best for them.
“Apart from having a systemized training, moving someone [into management] because they killed their number over and over again doesn’t equip and prepare them to lead people.”
It’s damaging to both the team’s development and the new manager’s career aspirations.
While there are steps individual contributors can take to prepare themselves for a manager role, it’s up to the sales leaders promoting them to put them in a position to succeed. Without a clear assessment of what a manager should look like and training, you’ll end up with a manager ill-fit for the role and an underperforming sales team.
Be Transparent About What It Means to Be a Manager
Before you start looking for your next sales manager, it’s important to figure out which of your reps actually wants to become a manager and if they understand what that means.
It sounds obvious, but it’s a conversation that many sales leaders forget to have, said Dale Zwizinski, who’s the VP of North American sales for the digital workplace platform Beezy. Since so much focus is on individual performance, leaders often assume that a person’s ability to surpass quota makes them fit to lead.
Without any insight into the manager role, the top performer ends up taking the job not because they want to lead a team but because they assume it’s their only path to advance their career.
“I don’t think a lot of salespeople really understand what [being a manager] means,” Zwizinski said. “They take the leap and then the sales leader who promoted them doesn’t spend the time to coach them. … It leads to awful leadership, poor sales performance and blaming. Then the person who became the sales leader now feels like, ‘Did I make a mistake in my career?’”
Ideally, sales VPs and directors should be talking with their reps about their career aspirations the moment they join the team. This allows you to create a career path for those who want to remain an individual contributor and those who want to lead.
For those who want to lead, it’s important to be transparent about what that means.
The leap from individual contributor to manager is a big one. It requires stepping out of the spotlight and empowering others to climb the sales leaderboard. It means sacrificing the higher earning potential that comes with commission and an increase in administrative work that has nothing to do with closing deals, Zwizinski said.
“When you become a frontline sales leader, it’s less selling and more administrative work. You become a bit like a psychologist, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”
Not every rep will be comfortable with those trade-offs and it’s important they understand what they’re giving up.
“When you become a frontline sales leader, it’s less selling and more administrative work,” Zwizinski said. “You become a bit like a psychologist, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”
Still, it’s not always clear to a sales rep what a manager does all day.
Brown suggests giving reps interested in the role an opportunity to shadow you. Bring them to any meetings you have with other departments and introduce them to other department leaders they would be working with. Let them run a few team meetings and take some of the administrative tasks off your plate to get a sense of the job.
“When individual contributors move into leadership, one of the biggest shocks is the volume of work outside of serving your people directly,” Brown said. “And to not have any insight or idea of what that is ahead of time is not ideal.”
Being clear about the manager role from the start ensures you end up promoting someone who wants to be there.
Create Opportunities for Reps to Practice Leading a Team
Just because a sales rep wants to be a manager, however, doesn’t mean they’re ready to lead a team.
When Brown is looking for potential sales managers, he looks for reps who are already coaching their teammates, running workshops and taking administrative work off their manager’s plate. They understand how to create a successful sales playbook and spend their time helping their peers do the same.
While performance is important, those activities show that the person has a desire to help others around them — something that can’t be taught, Brown said. They’re also perfect preparation for the manager role.
“When there’s a phenomenal transition to leader, you’ve seen this person doing the leadership role from the seat they’re in already,” Brown said. “You’ve observed the innate things. You start to see that they care about people, they want to know more about the people they’re around so they can serve them better. So the gaps that need to be filled [as a leader] are much smaller.”
It’s not just on the sales rep to take those actions, either. There are steps sales leaders can take to foster the development of future managers.
“Eventually there’s a point where they’re flying the plane themselves and they know what it’s like to run a meeting and facilitate [a workshop] where everyone gets value, and it’s not just them in a room giving a presentation.”
To do that, the sales leader should define what makes a great manager and create a list of actions you want to see a rep take to prepare for the position, said Travis King, founder of Taken Media and a former sales development rep leader. Those activities can include consistently coaching peers, seeking to learn more about the overall business strategy and running team workshops.
Those steps ensure that sales performance isn’t the only factor that determines who becomes a leader and reinforces the importance of doing those non-selling tasks that make a leader.
Once you have that list, you can enlist reps who want to be a manager to run a workshop or organize a team meeting to get those skills. This gives them practical experience and you can provide constructive feedback on where they need to improve.
“Eventually there’s a point where they’re flying the plane themselves and they know what it’s like to run a meeting and facilitate [a workshop] where everyone gets value, and it’s not just them in a room giving a presentation,” King said.
Another way to develop leaders is to create a team lead role in which you can add more manager-related responsibilities to the rep’s plate without the full weight of the title. This is where you can make running team meetings, delivering sales data and coaching colleagues a part of the rep’s job.
For it to be effective, the role should be treated like a senior position with an increase in compensation, Brown said. And the responsibilities should be tied to the work they’ll be doing as a manager. Otherwise, it’s little more than a consolation prize for the rep.
Beyond that, smaller actions like sponsoring a rep to take a sales manager training webinar or enrolling them in a networking community can also help them develop the skills necessary to lead.
“I’m not a believer that all training needs to come from within the organization,” Brown said. “A good leader recognizes that it takes a village to fully develop an excellent sales leader.”
Set Realistic Expectations for the New Manager
One of the biggest mistakes companies make in promoting reps to a manager role is expecting results right away.
No matter how prepared a rep is, it takes time to learn how to be a manager, Zwizinski said. They have to adapt to a new relationship with their former peers, earn their trust and figure out how to lead. If you expect results right away, then you’re going to be setting that rep up to fail.
“You have to give them three to six months to get their feet underneath them, understand what their team is doing and earn the trust of their team,” Zwizinski said. “But in the time frame they have to be able to perform and execute growth.”
To set the rep up for success as a manager, you need to start with setting appropriate expectations. Zwizinski recommends establishing a 30-60-90 day plan for the rep so they know what’s expected of them.
“You have to give them three to six months to get their feet underneath them, understand what their team is doing and earn the trust of their team.”
Within the first 30 days, the person should be setting up one-on-ones with team members to learn how they like to work, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. They should also be meeting with other team leaders that sales partners with, like marketing, product and engineering.
By 60 days, the new manager should be removing barriers for their team and finding ways to get some quick wins, Brown said. Those wins could be running extra role-playing exercises that increase cold calling success or finding a way to streamline an administrative task. This is where you can help the manager learn how to listen for team headaches and come up with a solution for them.
As they reach 90 days, they should start to deliver on some of the team’s performance goals and point to ways they’ve improved the team.
Your Next Manager Might Not Be Your Top Performer
Ultimately, developing a successful sales leader comes down to finding people who want to help others — sales performance is only one small factor. Your best rep could be that leader, but it could also be the one doing all the little things to support your team.
“There are extraordinary leaders who lead better than they do the job,” Brown said. “It’s not popular to say there are some leaders who would not be 200 percent to their number. But the way … that they’re able to motivate and inspire their people, it drives their people to do things on behalf of the team that just anybody couldn’t get done.”