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Are We Building Our Sales People’s Leadership Capabilities?

by David Brock on April 12th, 2011

More and more the thought of a sales person as an “individual contributor” or “lone wolf” is no longer appropiate in most of today’s B2B sales environments.

We all know the profession of sales is going through massive changes.  In the past few weeks, I’ve written about Sales Professional 3.0  and Sales At An Inflection Point.  Both articles talk about the changes in professional selling (driven by our customers) and the new requirements for success.  I’ve not spent a lot of time on the leadership role of sales people in driving these new strategies or the importance of starting to build our people’s leadership skills.  It’s not a future requirement–it’s mandatory for high performers now!

Think of most B2B sales situations.  Our products, services, and solutions are so complex, no one individual can be knowledgeable enough to support their customer’s needs.  Sales people need to manage and orchestrate a team of resources in working with the customers.  This includes people within their own company and partners.  Likewise, our customers need leadership—and great sales professional can differentiate themselves by providing the customers the leadership—helping them orchestrate the resources on their side, manage the many different agendas of the people involved in the decision-making process, and facilitate their buying process.

Sales professionals, having strongly developed leadership capabilities are critical for success in this new world of buying.  The leadership challenge for sales professionals is, perhaps, greater than that of their own managers.  Unlike their managers, sales people don’t have the power of a title or the authority to “direct” people to do their bidding–not within their own companies and it would be the height of arrogance to think they would do that with their customer oor partners.  (Many would say — me included — is manager who rely on the power of their title or authority are not true leaders.).

Exercising leadership as a sales professional means engaging the people they need to be part of their team, capturing their imaginations, motivating them to own the team’s goal as their own.  It means coaching them on how they can contribute to the attainment of the team’s goal, recognizing them when they have done something well.  It requires aligning all the varied interests and motivations of the people involved in the team (whether from the selling or buying side), and getting them to work together for a common purpose.  From the sales side it might mean closing a deal, from the buying side it might mean solving a problem or addressing a new opportunity. 

The good news, is many of our highest performing sales people may already be “pre-wired” for this leadership role.  They already know how to get the organization to do what they want–and feel great about it.  They are consummate communicators and motivators, they have great ability to empathize and see things from the other person’s point of view.  They are goal oriented and disciplined in how they achieve that goal.  Many of our highest performers will easily step into this leadership role (or they probably already have done so).

However, the greater challenge is the competent to good sales person who isn’t quite there, from a leadership point of view.  They may be very good as individual contributors, but have had little experience in engaging a team, motivating the members and leading them in the execution of the team’s strategy.  Developing the skills of these people to step into stronger leadership roles will be a greater developmental/coaching challenge for  managers.

High performing sales professionals need to be leaders, they need to be business and resource managers.  If we don’t have a plan to develop these capabilities in all our people, they will be left behind.

There’s one challenge I’ve left until the end, what will become of the “lone wolf.”  The answer is simple, they will change or become extinct!

In closing, two key questions:

  • For sales professionals interested in being top performers, what are you doing to develop yourselves as leaders?
  • For sales managers looking to develop and grow your teams, what are you doing to develop their capabilities as leaders?

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  1. Art Marquez permalink

    Hi David,

    As a previous Sales Manager, my top focus was primarily searching for ways to develop leadership capabilities within my team. I enjoy working with individuals who have that twinkle in their eye and the spark in their personality that drives them to take on additional challenges. This made my job a lot easier in creating a development plan and exploring ways and opportunities to increase their leadership capabilities. Having them mentor other peers within and outside of the team helped build leadership capabilities. Participating in preceptorships in other departments also help to develop them. When this all comes together, there is a high level of personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment for both of us.

    The challenge occurs when individual contributors claim they want to develop their leadership role and expand their capability, yet do not put in the time or effort put in working toward that goal. As they say, “Actions speak louder than words”. This is the the perfect opportunity to have a crucial conversation with them on what they say they want versus what they have been willing to do in developing their leadership capabilities.

    • Art, thanks for joining the conversation and for the thoughtful comment. It seems to be human nature to have great dreams, aspirations, goals, and strategies, but no commitment to the hard work of execution. Without rolling up our sleeves, committing to the details, even drudgery, all of this is just talk. Actions do speak louder than words!

      Hope to see you visiting and commenting frequently.

  2. I like your closing questions David. Here’s some advice from Jim Rohn on where a person can start to grow themselves and their teams. Rohn, who has now passed on, was a legendary business philosopher. Rohn said, ‘Work harder on yourself, than on your job’.
    He said, that up until he was 25 years of age he worked hard on his job and made a living. From the age of 25 he worked harder on himself, and made a fortune. He said, ‘Success isn’t what you pursue – it’s what you attract, by the person you become.’

    ‘Work harder on yourself’ could mean, working harder: at being a better listener, a better question asker, at being a deeper thinker, at being better at thinking on your feet, on developing your physical stamina, etc.

    • Michael: Thanks for joining the discussion. Continuous improvement and learning is the benchmark of any high performing professional. If we aren’t constantly looking to improve our skills and capabilities, then we will never be able to perform at the highest level possible. Rohn’s statements seem counterintuitive, but they make great sense.

      Thanks for joining the discussion!

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