“Dear New Sales Leader…”

I’ve authored research on sales leadership – specifically the critical success factors (and some common competencies) that a select group of sales leaders share. While this may seem impressive to a small subset of the population, most of the people in my peer group solicit my opinion about “what makes a great sales leader?” based on my sales experience – not my research credentials.

After many conversations about the minds of sales leaders (including a recent advising session with a colleague who was tasked with taking over a sales group), I decided to pen a letter – a mini-manifesto, if you will – to the first-time leader hired to guide a wily bunch of hired sales guns to earth-shattering revenue generation:

Dear New Sales Leader.

First of all, congratulations on your new leadership role! I’m sure you’ll do a great job of managing your sales staff and leading them to success. Oh, and please ignore the carcass of the sales leader who preceded you…HR will be in to collect his remains shortly.

Anyway, here are a few things to remember as you get ramped up in your new role:

1. You Have A Target on your Back…From Day 1: I know you want to admire your new office and update your LinkedIn profile so your old colleagues can be jealous of your new position, but you don’t have time. Your boss won’t tell you this, but you’ve got a target on your back…from day 1. Remember the carcass of the previous sales leader you just stepped over? You’re expected to begin working toward achieving organizational goals IMMEDIATELY (or at least set the wheels in motion immediately).

2. Past Success Doesn’t Guarantee Future Success: You were a stellar individual contributor during your sales days, but don’t assume an automatic transmission of success in your new role. When you were a sales person, your perspective was granular and specific – but as a leader you need to have a more strategic vision. Past success if a great reference point, but it can’t be the predominant benchmark for future success.

3. DON’T Reference Hollywood Movies for Sales Leadership Advice: Alec Baldwin’s “motivation scene” in “Glengarry Glenross” was frighteningly hilarious, and Ben Affleck’s “sales on-boarding” meeting in “Boiler Room” is the stuff of legends (both video clips are EXTREMELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK, by the way). These scenes, however, are from Hollywood movies – and they’re about as effective in sales management as swinging a baseball bat through a glass window to remove a gnat.  Don’t “motivate” with coarse language and conjecture.

4. Manage Beyond the Compensation Plan…: Of course, your sales staff is motivated by money – otherwise they wouldn’t be in sales…but money is not the single determinant of their desire to perform. Even though sales revenue is a key performance indicator,  don’t be afraid to think outside of the “sales box” to more accurately determine a team member’s propensity for overall success.

5. …But Don’t Be a Sucker: Even after considering point #4 above, don’t be afraid to confront errant under-performers and either (a) remediate behavior, or (b) send them packing. Generally, sales people aren’t sensitive – or stupid. They know when things aren’t working, but they’ll collect a pay check as long as you let them. Which reminds me – don’t downplay pipeline reviews. These reviews are your chance to determine the health of a salesperson’s prospective book of business – anemic pipelines means no closed revenue, which means impending job loss…for them AND maybe you.

5(a). Ask hard questions: Don’t just take team members declarations that “everything is fine”…trust but verify. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions about whether the business will close (and when) – and what to do to get each opportunity further along in the sales cycle. Demand success and commitment from your team, but also be prepared to coach and mentor so that they see (and discern) your genuine concern for their success.

Well, this isn’t meant to be an addendum to your employee manual, so I’ll end this short letter here. Take some time to determine the things you’ll need from your leadership to help ensure your success (ongoing professional development, goal alignment with corporate strategic objectives, executive buy-in & sponsorship as needed, and more).

Most of all, dedicate yourself to creating a team environment where EVERYONE feels like they’re a vital component to the team’s success – and commit to removing as many obstacles as you can along the way.


A Sales Guy…


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