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Should We Promote Our Best Sales People To Be Sales Managers?

by David Brock on September 29th, 2010

Should we promote our best sales people into sales management?  It’s a question that comes up a lot.  I’ve written about it as have others.  Most people come down on the side that this is a terrible strategy, not only do we lose our best sales people, but they are bad managers–demotivating the team, causing problems, and all sorts of things.

I was asked this question in an interview the other day.  My response was, “It depends.  If your best sales person is the best candidate for the sales management job, it’s probably a great decision.”  See I think we look at the whole process incorrectly–that causes us to make bad decisions on selecting managers–whether it’s your top sales person or not.  Too often, we use the rationale, great sales people will be great sales managers and move the person into the job. 

The problem gets worse.  People tell me they are looking for a sales manager, I ask, “What are you looking for in a sales manager?”  They send me a job description.  That just tells me what you expect the person to do, it doesn’t answer my question.  What we really need to do to develop a profile of the high performance sales manager:  What skills should the person have?  What experiences?  What capabilities?  What interpersonal skills do they need?  What is the leadership style?  The list could go on.  One element of the profile has to be their sales experience and performance–they have to know about selling, be credible with their team, customers, and others.  Without a profile of the “ideal sales manager,”  we don’t know what to look for in candidates or how to evaluate them.

Once you have a profile of the ideal manager, all candidates should be evaluated against that profile.  The candidate that best fits should be offered the job of manager.  If it’s your best sales person, then you will have a great manager.  Likewise if it is someone else.  It’s a simple step, but the most critical in selecting the right manager.

Once you have the right person in place as a sales manager, don’t forget the “on-boarding” program.  While we have the right person, without a strong on-boarding program including coaching, developmental experiences, and training, even the best candidate will struggle and possibly fail.  But I’ll cover that in another post.

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13 Comments
  1. Hey Dave,

    I have always felt that our best salesmen are also our most driven and ambitious employees. Making them very attractive as sales managers.

    Of course you have to look at each individual, some candidates have the potential to become great managers other do not.

    What is important to remember is that our best sales people are ambitious and if we don’t give them an opportunity, somebody else might. To keep them in our company we have to keep them motivated and give them opportunities. Not seeing this leaves you with the risk of both loosing a star salesman and a potentially skilled manager.

    //Daniel

    • Thanks for the comment Daniel. The key driver on manager selection has to be how well they fit the profile of the ideal manager. We always, without compromise, have to put the best candidate in the job. Having said that, you have raised an important point of retaining our people—regardless of role. Promoting them isn’t necessarily the answer, but we do need to look at how we invest in their development, how we help them achieve their ambitions. Some organizations have done a great job of this by creating dual career paths for sales people.

      Thanks for the great point!

  2. When asked this question I usually respond, “Only if you’re prepared to lose your best salesperson.” Some companies are and that’s fine if it’s a willful, thought-out decision.

    What too many companies forget is that some of the qualities that make a person a top salesperson (being driven and ambitious for example) are not necessarily the qualities that make a good sales manager. Overly ambitious sales managers who are driven to compete with their own salespeople can create havoc.

    I’ve been hearing this question for over 40 years now and if there was a definitive answer surely we would have figured it out by now.

    Maybe the correct answer is, “It depends.” :>)

    • Great comments Brian. Again, I think too many execs are looking at the issue incorrectly, it’s not “do we promote our top sales person,” it’s, “what are the qualities of the ideal sales manager, which candidate is the best fit?”

      The best sales person could be a fantastic manager. But if they don’t fit……

      • John Burns permalink

        David,

        Some interesting points you make. I agree that you need to look at several factors and make sure they fit the profile. We’ve had some great success with a program that we’ve implemented as part of our training programs. Top sales repesentatives can express interest, or we inquire if we see the potential for management and then nominate them for entry into a formal management training program. We also have them take a Thurow to be sure their personality fits the profile of what we’re looking for in a sales manager. Too often I think company’s lose their top sales representatives because they’re afraid to “lose the sales” and never consider the fact that a top sales rep might want the opportunity and have the skills. If they do and it goes ignored you may find they GO ELSEWHERE (and it might be a competitor) to find it!

        There have been numerous top sales reps who we’ve put into our management training program when we suspected they may not be a good management fit. In most cases, those same people come back to us and decide it’s not for them. We’ve also been able to find some that aren’t necessarily “management material” but can be used effectively to train other sales representatives. We’ve cured their curiousity and drive to become a manager and kept a top sales rep on our team all at the same time. On the other hand, we’ve had some top sales reps move up into management and when they’re the right fit they can bring us some great recruiting, training and development of even more top sales reps.

        If you have the right program you can have some great success with the opportunities within your organization. Sales management is all about developing your sales force and sometimes that development requires making some short-term sacrifices for the long-term good of the organization.

        • John, thanks for the outstanding contribution! You make an important point that I think too many organizations overlook—it’s aboout people development. You have a formal management development program, which is fantastic–it helps prepare sales people to step into a management role, it also shows people that management may not be for them. It’s a tremendous investment you are making, one which I am certain pays off.

          It seems too many organizations forget about the need to develop their people–not just in their current role, but for future roles, whether as individual contributors, managers, whatever. This takes time and commitment from the management team–whether the program is formal or informal. It produces great results and increases retention.

          Thanks for your great discussion!

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  4. Randy Will permalink

    No.

    Brian Jeffrey is right on.

    • Randy, thanks for the comment. Really the question/issue is posed incorrectly–Promoting our best sales people into management is not the issue. The real issues for each organization are: What are the characteristics of the “ideal sales manager,” and “Which candidate best fits those criteria?” Too often we move people into management as a reward or for some other poorly thought out reason. Just as we recruit sales people with certain experiences, characteristics, and profiles; we must do the same in looking at sales managers.

      In this context, if the candidate that most closely fits the criteria is the best sale person, then you will have made an outstanding decision–not because the individual is the best sales person, but because the individual is the best candidate.

      We all have different experiences. I have seen some very outstanding sales people also be great managers, even great executives. I’ve seen some adequate sales people be truly inspired managers. And I’ve seen the opposite.

      Thanks for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  5. Enjoyed your observation about job descriptions and expectations. I would only add this missing component – clearly articulated and shared behaviors. When we promote “super workers” into “super-visors” we are not only changing the role and expectations, we are changing the behaviors. And this change is the killer to improved performance. Leanne Hoagland-Smith Increase Sales Coach & author of Be the Red Jacket

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