Every day we fulfil senior sales roles for our clients across manufacturing, engineering and business services sectors to name a few. We’d love to be able to tell you how many briefs and job descriptions we have put together for Sales Directors, Regional Sales Managers, and other key roles, but I’m very aware that we only have your attention for two minutes at best. You have a sale to close right? What is clear though, is that although most companies are looking for similar outcomes, namely improved sales through winning new business and growing established territories, the traits that lead to success in a target driven sales environment can vary considerably.
What’s more, the traits that make a successful individual contributor aren’t necessarily the traits that make a great sales leader, and by promoting your top performers, you could in fact be cannibalising your own sales. If you’re a high performing sales person, a business owner or you’ve recently taken a promotion to a sales leadership position, hopefully I now have your attention for a little longer.
Diversity in Sales Leadership
The internet is awash with articles and ebooks about the secrets of success when it comes to turning a lead into a prospect, but if it was as simple as following a recipe, wouldn’t all sales people be exceeding their targets week after week? David Ogilvy, Steve Jobs and Joe Girard (America’s most famous car salesman), are all great salespeople in their own right, but all very different. Diversity within a business brings innovation and drives high performance, so it follows that there are many different types of leaders and that there are more than one effective leadership style.
Why a great sales person doesn’t automatically translate into a great leader
A Harvard Business Review study into the Peter Principle found that sales performance is highly correlated with promotion to management. For salespeople, each higher sales rank corresponds to about a 15% higher probability of being promoted to sales management. 
Secondly, sales performance is actually negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager: when a salesperson is promoted, each higher sales rank is correlated with a 7.5% decline in the performance of each of the manager’s subordinates following the promotion.
Traits of the best sales people
When we undertake assignments for our clients, we work with them to develop an initial brief and add value by giving them an alternative, unbiased view, of the traits they should be seeking in their new hire. There are many considerations beyond industry and Sales experience, from culture fit to package expectations and future trajectory. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a high performing Sales person in one business, will move to a different business and continue on that trajectory. In fact, we have worked on many assignments where the successful candidate wasn’t the person who appeared the best fit on paper, and who if the client hadn’t been guided by us, may have written off even before initial interviews.
This is a typical requirement list that we are presented with when looking for Sales professionals:
- To meet, and where possible exceed, company set annual targets
- Create a Strategy to develop a strong prospect pipeline in line with the Company’s growth targets
- To prepare regular sales and contribution forecasts
- To assist in the creation of annual business plans and budgets
- To develop ‘strategies to win’ and increased cross-sell opportunities based on sound understanding of the customer’s requirements.
Every Sales person we meet says that they have the ability to do all these things. They’re target driven, can demonstrate past achievements, and of course they’re great ‘team players’. So how do we tell the best from the rest?
To get the answer to this question, I asked our Managing Director, John Tilbrook, who has interviewed hundreds of great sales people in his career. His advice would be to always meet them face to face, and to look out for:
- Results – what have they delivered and how can they demonstrate it?
- Have they progressed through their career to date?
- Career stability and consistency – Have they stayed within related industries?
Can they talk about all aspects of the Sales role – not just selling, but managing the wider objectives of the team and business and understanding their individual impact on overall business performance?
Traits of Leaders
Sales leaders should drive the success in an organisation and be the person everyone looks to for direction and inspiration. Not many sales teams, no matter how strong the individual contributors, smash their targets without a great Manager.
Sales leaders work strategically to set the goals, objectives and top priorities for the sales organization and then empower the Sales Managers, who then empower the rest of the team.
As well as being strategic, they also need to be data-driven. To set the right course for the wider team, analysis of historic data needs to be used to forge future direction and ultimately to drive predictable results. Goals and targets also play a part in setting expectations for the wider team, and should be based around key metrics for success.
Another recognised trait of any leader is good communication skills. Sales Reps who receive just three hours of coaching each month can expect to see their close rate increase by 70% and revenue increase by 25%. A great Sales person also needs to be able to take criticism and feedback, and use it to improve performance. Without strong links and close collaboration with other teams in the business, a sales leader will struggle to make his or her team successful. A Sales team that does not work hand in hand with their Marketing counterparts for example, is doomed for failure.
Lastly, perseverance. The goals, objectives and business plans have to be monitored and enforced in order for them to achieve lasting results.
Overall, Sales people need to be resilient and passionate about selling. If they can show consistency in career progression and the industries in which they have worked, with demonstrable results, that is a good sign. If they aren’t actively looking for a new role and are flying high in their current position, that is another good sign. The majority of candidates that we headhunt, are already succeeding somewhere else, and keen to be retained by their existing employer. None of these things necessarily mean that that person is cut out to lead the strong personalities and varying capabilities of a Sales team and for that matter, the company direction. Perhaps businesses would be better rewarding and recognising their best sales performers in ways other than promotion out of the sales role that they’re excelling at.
If we can help you source top performing candidates or potential leaders for your Sales team, please get in touch
 Harvard Business Review
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