In many ways, an initial foray into managing people can be like one’s first kiss – not appropriately planned for, somewhat sloppy, and at least a little bit awkward. Driving towards your own success is significantly different than managing the collective performance of a group through people, and many sales folks are simply not prepared for their first opportunity to lead. For those of you fortunate enough to have gotten your shot in an organization with a structured leadership development program, consider yourself to be lucky. But, for you aspiring or recently anointed people leaders who don’t find yourself in that most optimal of situations, here are some lessons learned that will help assure a smooth(er) transition to your new box on the org chart.
Highlight others – even if the accomplishment was yours. People management isn’t for everyone. It often requires giving up a lot of the visible glory (and even some of the near-term compensation opportunity) that is bestowed upon top-producing individual contributors. Make no mistakes about it – when you make the decision to join the ranks of leadership, your time in the spotlight will (or at least should) drastically diminish. No one likes a leader who takes credit for the accomplishments of others. But, everyone appreciates someone who heaps public praise and recognition on their team members.
Leave the friendships behind. Managing friends is nearly impossible. Yet, many people get their first leadership opportunity in a situation where a group’s original manager is moved up or out. The vacuum created by this departure often results in opportunity for a high-potential member of the existing team. Unfortunately, this individual is typically set up to fail. We spend more of our waking hours at work than we do away from it, so logically, teammates become friends. They attend happy hours together, mingle at family barbecues, and engage in water cooler talk. If you wind up being given the chance to move into a leadership role, you’re going to have a difficult decision to make – distance yourself from those relationships or be doomed to fail as a leader. One of the most important jobs of a line-level manager is performance management. And, it’s going to be pretty damn hard to put that person you used to have beers with on a PIP. The best organizations take the peer challenge into account when plotting a course for first-time leaders and try to create reporting structures void of close friendships. But, this isn’t always possible. Leadership can be lonely. Learn to live with that if managing is a true goal.
Set an example. Give people a reason to look up to you. As a leader, you should work smarter, harder, and longer than those who report to you. You should be in earlier, publicly hold yourself accountable, and never ask anything of your people that you either can’t or wouldn’t do. Showing reports that an assignment can be effectively accomplished is one of the best ways to gain credibility with one’s direct reports. No one likes (or respects) a boss who sits in his/her office with the door closed and fires off directive emails – and who doesn’t know how to change a close date in Salesforce. I remember being told early in my first deployment as an SDR that our job was to make one hundred calls a day. It sounded daunting – until my director strapped on a headset and made twice that many dials every day for a week.
Learn to deal with failure. I get it – you’re a winner and you were promoted because you’ve always crushed your goals. Heck, you were probably a standout high school athlete, the valedictorian of your class, the captain of your dance team, and the president of your Greek organization in college. But, as a sales leader, you aren’t ALWAYS going to win. If you do, your company sucks at setting goals. In fact, you’re going to need to learn how to deal with losing. That doesn’t mean you should accept it – it just means that it’s inevitably going to happen. Learn from your losses, shake them off, and get back on the saddle with the same determination each and every quarter.
Become cross-functional. As an individual contributor, your domain was sales within your industry. Your job was understanding the competitive landscape and becoming an expert in how your value proposition sold against other players in your space. The further you ascend the org chart, the more that that alone isn’t going to be enough. Other departments (particularly marketing and product) will be just as vital to your success as the ability and makeup of your own team. Constructive partnership with contiguous leaders not only makes it more likely that your team will achieve it’s goal and the company will accomplish it’s collective mission – it’s also one of the core differentiators executives will be looking for when evaluating managers for the next available senior leadership position.
Act as if. Without directly referencing a potentially offensive line from one of my favorite sales movies, I’ll try to simply explain the importance of remaining calm under fire. Your job as a sales manager is high-stress. In fact, so is “sales” in general. But, never let it get to you. Never wear it on your face. Act like you’ve been there before. No matter how much stress you’re feeling when the quarter is coming to a close and there’s still a gap between QTD and your team’s quota, you need to inspire confidence in your team and show that your belief in them is unwavering in the face of adversity. Celebrate each small win and showcase the victories that happen along the way – even if you wind up missing your overall number.
Be easy to manage. This one is certainly near the top of my list. Your boss is going to be a vital part of your success – for feedback, career development, situational advice, and even future employment references. Some of us are lucky enough to have bosses we love. For others, building a great working relationship with our leader can require a lot of work. Finding a way to make your boss’ job easier can often be an expressway to his/her heart. Be on time for meetings. Resolve action items. Understand that as busy as your schedule is, your boss’ is prob even busier, and as such, you should make it a point not to waste his or her time. And, as much as you probably don’t want to hear this (since even as a leader you are still a salesperson at heart), do your best not to be a “compensation problem.” Don’t be short-sighted when it comes to money – no one is getting rich as a first-time manager. The relationship you develop with your boss and that person’s network, advocacy, and ability to create opportunity will be worth exponentially more in the long run than the few extra thousand you might secure during each review cycle by being a pain in the butt.
Don’t be a union leader. In my opinion the most ineffective sales leader is the individual who can’t own a message. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. “Hey guys, I think it’s BS, but management has decided we can no longer expense drinks at client dinners. I know this sucks, but it is what it is, and we have to deal with it.” What do you mean “Management has decided???” You, my friend, are now a part of management. I’m not saying that you need to agree with every corporate decision. Heck, I have a lot of respect for people who are comfortable voicing differences of opinion – OFF the sales floor. But, after we’ve talked it through and landed squarely on a policy, leaders NEED to convey the company line appropriately to their people. The union leader also spends more time “griping on behalf of their team” than working to develop and make them better. Don’t be the union leader.
Hire slow, fire fast. Like it or not, hiring and firing will always be the two most important elements of line-level sales management. High turnover isn’t good for morale. Firing long-tenured members of a sales team is even worse. Take this into account BEFORE you hire your next sales rep. Don’t make the mistake of hiring the first candidate you like. Get context by meeting at least three people who could be the one before making your decision. Sure, having an open seat can make it more difficult for a team to hit it’s goal in the short-term. But, the longer-term ramifications of making a poor hire will have a much bigger impact on your team’s production – and morale. Becoming good at interviewing and hiring sales reps takes a lot of practice. Get the opinions of others who have more experience than you do. Focus more on cultural fit than functional fit. And, when you inevitably make a hiring mistake (we all do), cut ties the moment you know it’s not going to work out. No one benefits from carrying a rep for too long. Your time needs to go towards those who are going to benefit from it. And, the longer you keep a lame duck employee around, the deeper the friendships with others on the floor will become – and the more of a morale hit your team will be when they’re finally let go.