Do Top Salespeople Make Great Sales Leaders?

Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that highly effective and successful salespeople (individual contributors) are an organization’s best resource to move into sales leadership – and experience similar (if not greater) success in leading others. This is a plausible assumption, especially if one considers the discipline, skill, and other traits necessary to consistently achieve & exceed sales revenue goals.

In his 2008 article “Characteristics of Successful Salespeople”  (from The American Salesman Journal – Apr2008, Vol. 53 Issue 4, p3) Dave Kahle wrote “sales is an incredibly sophisticated profession wherein real, long-lasting success takes years of disciplined work.” Goal attainment and over-achievement of performance is evidence of that disciplined work. One assumes that the disciplined and successful achiever is the best person to teach others how to be successful as well, thus the general assumption that sales performance equates with leadership propensity.

Of course, conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily grounded in proven theory or management science, and current sales and marketing management literature rarely addresses the topic of leadership propensity of sales leaders – especially those leaders who were once salespeople themselves. Salespeople incorporate management-like functions into their job roles – including relationship management, team motivation, and leadership development. No matter how successful they may be, salespeople are primarily individual contributors responsible for their own work.

While interviewing key sales executives for my doctoral research, I learned that several of them promoted a few of their top-performers (or “rainmakers” – labeled as such because of their ability to generate significant sales revenue) into sales leadership roles. Each executive detailed the disasters that ensued post-promotion – including poor communication and coaching, low goal-attainment, turnover, and more . These key executives learned that their rainmakers were highly effective and successful as individual contributors, but could not manage the activities of others.

Additionally, these rainmakers couldn’t communicate their expectations and were impatient in “showing” others how to be successful. Eventually, these rainmakers-turned-leaders either asked to be returned to their former field positions, or they left their organizations rather than continue to function in leadership capacities.

Although leadership is a lofty and worthwhile pursuit for some, it is not the essential dream shared by everyone. Some individual contributors are happier, more engaged, and more fulfilled (thus, more successful) when they are only responsible for their productivity – and performance results. In his 2009 article “From Sales Star to Sales Supporter” (from Sales & Marketing Management Journal – Mar/Apr2009, Vol. 161 Issue 2), Jason Jordan concluded “if we knew what makes a sales manager effective, then it would be substantially easier to help good salespeople make the transition to management.”

Certainly key organizational executives should build and implement sales leadership competency models as a way to determine the critical success factors of effective sales leaders, but the first step is determining whether or not your potential leaders are even interested in leadership roles. Otherwise, you’re setting them – and you – up for potential failure.

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