The Sales Manager’s Job Is Different

The front line sales manager (FLSM) has, possibly, the single most difficult and important job in the sales organization.  FLSMs are responsible for translating the strategies and priorities of the organization into execution by their teams.   Through their teams, they are responsible for millions to tens of millions in revenue.

Given the importance of this role, I’m constantly amazed at how casually many organizations are in hiring and onboarding sales managers.  The cost of a bad manager is devastating.  Think for a moment about the implications of a bad manager:

  1. Managers are responsible for maximizing performance of everyone in the team.  If the manager is not doing this job, there is a huge performance gap and revenue hit on results.  The cost of this can be millions.
  2. People leave organizations because of bad managers.  The people most likely to leave are your top performers, your A players–just the people you don’t want to leave.  Your C players will do all they can to hide out, but will stay.  Additionally, the bad manager can be demoralizing, actually lowering the performance of those on the team that remain, costing more in results.
  3. Bad managers build bad performing teams.  So the challenges created by 1 and 2 above are further exacerbated by the people they bring in to replace those that have left.  Inevitably since bad managers do a terrible job of recruiting and onboarding.  As a result they build low performing teams, making the performance issue worse.
  4. Bad managers have an adverse impact outside their team.  They can be a drain on the rest of the organization, both in the manner in which they interact and the morale drain.
  5. Bad managers suck up senior management time.  The manager’s manager has a problem they have to address with the bad manager–through coaching, development, performance management.  But the time bad managers consume is not just the time their manager spends working with them, but the manager’s manager has to invest repairing the organizational and people damage created by the bad manager.

I’ll stop there, I’m certain, you can add to the discussion about the negative performance and organizational impact of bad managers.  What do we do to avoid this, how do we focus on making sure we have great managers–driving great performance in their teams?

First, and most fundamental, we have to recognize the job of the front line sales manager is different.

Too often, we think the front line sales manager is just a “super-salesperson.”  Consequently, we take our best sales people and put them into the role.  If the person is a bad manager, we’ve created a double whammy–first the devastating impact of a bad manager and, second, that we’ve taken a top performer out of the job, no longer realizing the results they were achieving as individual contributors.

Alternatively, we rush to recruit someone from the outside.  But too often, in our hurry to fill management roles, just as with too many sales roles, we may recruit the wrong person.  Perhaps someone who has been a strong seller in another organization–but may not have the skills critical for leadership.  Perhaps someone who has been a bad manager in another organization, but we would never know that.  Perhaps someone who has been a great manager in another organization, but they are just a bad fit for ours–either culturally, skill/competency wise.  Or just that we aren’t investing the right time in understanding what we need for great management and leadership talent.

What do we do to make sure we are recruiting the right people into sales management?

First, we have to recognize the manager’s job is different from that of a sales person.  A manager isn’t accountable for producing the numbers–that’s the job of sales people.  The role of the manager is to get things done through her people–maximizing the performance of each person on the team, enabling each of them to both produce the numbers and achieve their full potential in the organization.

Just recognizing this difference starts to change what we are looking for in a manager–it’s not necessarily the best sales person, but it’s a person that can get the best out of their people who sell.

Recognizing this, we have to build a profile of our ideal sales manager–not just the common requirements we read in too many job descriptions, but a rich, deep profile that assesses:  Cultural fit, behaviors, attitudes, skills, competencies, experiences.  The first three items are too often overlooked, but are most critical.  A great manager in an organization with a very different culture may self-destruct in your organization.  Take the time to build a competency model for the manager (as you should for every role in the organization).  If you need help, ask me for my sample Sales Competency Model.

Next, in the interview process, be rigorous.  The manager will have to work, not only with her team, but with others across the organization.  Involve those people in the interview process.  Again, focus on the things that don’t appear on a CV/profile.  How many times they exceeded quota, how many awards and recognitions they have received is relatively unimportant.  Look at the cultural fit, behaviors, and attitudes.  Look at their ability to listen, the quality of the questions they ask.  Even the difference between “ask/tell” orientation is critical.  Assess their abilities in curiosity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, project management—all of these are critical to managerial success.

Put them into a role play.  Recently, a client recruiting a new sales manager put each candidate through a simple role play.  They had call recordings for each of the sales people.  The candidates were asked to listen to a call, then role play how they would coach the call.  But my client went a step further, after the role play, the interviewer coached the candidate on how they might improve their coaching ability.  Then they did another role play—assessing how coachable the candidate was and how they incorporated the feedback into this new session.  Many of the candidates couldn’t make it through the first part of the process.  Ultimately, the candidate they selected told them the role play was the most interesting part of the interview and was a compelling reason in accepting the job.  He wanted to work for a company that cared about the development of their people–managers and sales people.

Leverage some of the assessment tools, do rigorous reference checks.  Get the opinions of everyone involved in the process.  If there are issues, particularly cultural, behavioral, attitudinal, make sure you understand them.

Whether the candidate is an internal candidate, a sales person that is ready and right to move into a new role, or a person from the outside—each should go through the same rigorous screening.  Again, what we are trying to do is come as close to matching the profile of the ideal manager as we can.

Next, once you’ve selected the manager, don’t forget onboarding.  Too often onboarding consists of a welcome, introduction to the team, passwords/logons, telling the person where the bathrooms are and asking for an updated forecast.

Just as onboarding is critical for sales people, it is critical for sales managers–even experienced sales managers.  Regardless their past managerial experience, your organization is different.  It’s culture, strategies, priorities, goals are different.  How things get done in your organization is different from all others.  (For help on this, look at the 90 day plan for sales managers in Sales Manager Survival Guide).

Finally, recognize sales managers need ongoing coaching and development from their managers.  What we coach them on is different than what we coach sales people, but the methods of helping them learn, discover and grow is the same and equally critical.

The job of the front line sales manager is different.  It’s one of the most important jobs in the sales organization.  For the success of the organization, for the success of the teams they will manager, it’s critical we get it right.

By David Brock