When Selecting a Sales Manager, Good Is Better Than Best

It has been the accepted practice for decades that the best performing sales representatives are the ones most likely to be promoted to sales management positions.

Coincidentally, if you were to ask sales executives to evaluate this practice, most assuredly nearly all would reply that two things happen — neither of which is good!

First and foremost, a high performing sales person is taken out of play, so the team loses a great salesperson.

Secondly, the former high performing sales person usually turns out to be an average or mediocre manager, so the team loses again. Sometimes the company loses because many times the former high performer, now less than average manager, will find employment elsewhere.

Some of the cause for this outcome is the fact that companies tend to spend a great deal of time and money on technical and product training for sales representatives, but spend little or no time and money on leadership and management training. Leadership and management skills and leadership abilities should be the qualifying actions and requirements before promoting any sales representative to manager.

The practice of promoting the high performer continues throughout all business enterprises in the United States. The practice is based on two assumptions. It is assumed that promoting a high performer is the right thing to do as a reward for success. And highly successful sales representatives will be good leaders.

The former may have some merit, but the latter is clearly neither a sensible or logical conclusion. As suggested in the opening paragraphs, a high performing sales record does not assure the ability to lead. There is much evidence to support this assertion.

Professional sports teams are great examples. Many former professional baseball, basketball, and football players became or are now Head Coaches or Team Managers. Only a few of them were top performers. Some were good performers, and many others were just solid players. After all, anyone who is on a professional team is head and shoulders above us ordinary people, but not all of the extraordinary are super-stars. There are those who are the elite within the elite.

Generally, the superstars who become coaches or managers are not usually great managers or coaches. There are exceptions. Bill Russell comes to mind as a good example of a superstar who was a highly successful coach. His teammate K.C. Jones was a very good player who was probably an even better manager.

The former players who become successful Head Coaches and Team Managers were usually good players, but not superstars.

Phil Jackson is an example. Who would have thought that the “Human Coat Hanger” as an off-the-bench player for the Knicks would become the “Zen Master” and highly successful Head Coach of both the Bulls and the Lakers winning many national championships for the two teams.

Another example is Tony LaRussa. He retired after winning another World Series with the Cardinals and he will go the Baseball Hall of Fame as a Manager, not a player in the major leagues.

Most former professional football players who have gone on to being a successful Head Coaches were not superstars. On the other hand, not many professional football superstars became successful head coaches.

How does this apply to selecting a sales manager? Here’s how.

Sales reps are very competitive and often have huge egos. That’s okay. Those are traits that benefit the execution of their craft. Top performers like superstar athletes have high expectations not only of themselves, but also of all the others on the team.

The professional players who were less than superstars know that everyone on the team has a contribution to make, so their expectations are not for everyone to be a superstar, but for everyone to contribute to the team as expected.

This is the single most significant reason why the non-superstars make better coaches and managers. While the fact remains that everyone on a professional sports team is part of an elite group, there are those among the elite who are more elite. The latter group often does not relate well to the former group.

And this is why the top sales performer most likely will not be a good sales manager or leader. The top performer’s expectations are likely to be too high. The top performer expects that everyone else on the team will share his drive, his discipline, his methods, and his zeal. That expectation is unrealistic.

It is not uncommon for a previously top-performing sales person, now promoted to manager, to affect what I call the Clark Kent syndrome. The syndrome often engages when the superstar manager meets with customers along with a territory sales representative. When the former top gun salesperson perceives the territory sales rep to be floundering or slipping up before the customer, the new manager will not hesitate to push the territory rep aside and take over the situation in much the same manner as Clark Kent would rip away his shirt and tie revealing the big Superman S.

This action may “save the day”, but once again at least two things happen that are both bad. The customer begins to lose confidence in the sales rep, and the customer will likely contact the Sales Manager, rather than the sales representative, when the next issue arises.

On the other hand, the good performer turned manager is likely to understand the importance of supporting the local sales person rather than being Superman.

I instructed the Sales Managers reporting to me to not only stay in the background, but also to not give the customer a business card. I told the Sales Managers to give any excuse they could to the customer for not having a business card, but to assure the customer that the local rep would be in contact if needed. There was no way we wanted to the customer to circumvent the local sales person as it happens sometimes.

Good performers, who are promoted to sales manager, usually understand the dynamics of the team and the contribution of the individual members to the team. The good performer turned manager usually knows how to motivate and to stimulate the strengths of each individual on the team to produce and to contribute because someone probably treated them that way or they knew they couldn’t do it all themselves like superstars tend to think at times. The expectations of a good performer now manager are likely to be both grounded and directed to achieving team goals and objectives rather than individual goals. And perhaps the most beneficial trait of the good performer, now manager is that the competitive nature of his team members will be channeled towards competitors rather than between or among fellow team members.

Leadership is the essential component. Leadership manifests itself in many ways. One should expect a manager to be a leader, but not all leaders on a team are managers. Top performers are expected to be role models and to lead by example. Whether it is habits, discipline, planning, organization, appearance, or temperament, the top performers must be role models.

Sales Managers must be more than role models. They must be leaders.

Sales Managers must be visible and not hidden behind a desk. At the same time, Sales Managers are not the person on the white horse leading the charge. Good leaders are those who work alongside their team and who let each team member know the value of the role each plays as part of the team.

Leaders are not just a “pretty face” or a “fast talker”. Charisma is not leadership. Many charismatic personalities have the ability to draw people to them, but often have nowhere to lead those drawn.

Leaders understand that front-line sales personnel are not “cannon fodder” or some other dispensable tool. On the contrary the front-line sales teams are indispensable to achieving the business objectives of the organization.

Leaders are not just bosses who tell team members what to do. Bosses capitalize on power that generates limited success and generally leads to disgruntled, lifeless, and dispirited team members. Leaders stimulate and encourage team members to do their part in the whole scheme of the company goals.

And perhaps most important of all, leaders do not view kindness and appreciation as something weak or beneath them. Leaders know that positive reinforcement may be the most powerful leadership tool there is. Leaders recognize the value of telling team members that they have done a good job or showing thanks for what they have done.