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New Sales Managers and The Superman Syndrome

by David Brock on August 8th, 2009

 The other day, I was having a conversation with Jeff.  Jeff was a relatively newly minted sales manager.  He had been one of his company’s top revenue producers, consistently beating quota, bringing in some of the biggest and toughest deals in the company.  The promotion to sales manager was a great step forward for Jeff in his career. 


I had the opportunity to have lunch with Jeff, while visiting the company, so I asked him how things were going and how he liked the role of sales manager.  Jeff, hesitated, then he said, “Dave, I’m really struggling.  I’m working longer hours, I have to work on the weekends, I’m really struggling.  Being a sales manager is tougher than I ever expected.  I don’t know that I can do it.” 

I asked Jeff to tell me more.  He went on to describe that he now had 8 sales people reporting to him.  Where as an individual contributor he had felt comfortable that he could make his quota, now as a manager, his quota was about 8 times what his personal quota had been.  He didn’t see how he could make his number. 

I asked him how he spent his time.  He replied:  “I’m a deal guy.  I know how to do deals.  I’m great at building a strategy, executing it an winning.  I look at what my guys are doing, they are OK on the normal deals, but things are tough—particularly the big deals.  I have to dive in and do the deals myself.  There are just too many opportunities and there isn’t enough time in the day for me to work all the deals.  I feel like I’m slipping and, for the first time won’t make my numbers.  What’s worse, is my people don’t get it, they don’t seem to appreciate what I am doing for them.” 

In just this short exchange, I could tell that Jeff was in real trouble.  He was both on his way to failing as a sales manager, and to burning out.  Jeff, isn’t alone.  I see the same thing with too many first time sales managers.  

Many people are moved into their first sales management jobs because they were great individual contributors.  Their entire experience base and self perception is built around their ability to close deals.  In moving into sales management, they tend to think of it as doing more of the same thing, in a larger territory.  Their natural reaction is to dive into doing deals, pushing the responsible sales person aside or delegating the mundane follow-ups to the sales people.

Inevitably this management style leads to failure.  

The job of the manager is not to do more of what they were doing as individual contributors.  The job of the manager is getting things done through their people. The “super individual contributor,”  is demoralizing to the people the manager is supposed to lead.  Rather than helping improve their skills and capabilities, they push the people aside and do it themselves. 

This behavior is often “unconscious.”  The new manager doesn’t realize what is being done, he is just doing more of what made them successful before, thinking that will continue to make him successful. 

The new manager (and his manager) needs to recognize the only way to be successful is to focus on making his people more successful.  His role is no longer that of an individual contributor, but as a leader of a team, his focus must be on: 

  • Assuring the team is implementing the business strategies and priorities.
  • Assuring they are performing at the highest levels possible.
  • Coaching them to improving their skills and capabilities, getting them to realize their full potential.
  • Removing roadblocks to their performance.
  • Promoting them within the organization. 

Ultimately, if the team is successful, if each person is performing at the highest level and achieving their full potential, the manager is doing her job.

From → Leadership

  1. Stellar post, David. You describe one way that many new sales managers react to their new jobs. Let me suggest three other common scenarios.

    The new sales manager tries to use his or her selling skills to convince team members to do better.

    The new sales manager adopts and “I’m the Boss” attitude and tells salespeople, including very successful ones, what to do.

    The new sales manager, having read too many management blogs, attempts to achieve success by being everyone’s buddy, on the theory that happy salespeople will be more successful.

    None of those choices work very well. As you point out so well, the new sales manager has to learn how to be a sales manager. Those are the very skills I wrote the Working Supervisor’s Support Kit to present. The transition process won’t be quick. My research is that it takes 12 – 18 months, but it involves changing role identification and learning to do things differently.

    • Wally, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I’ve seen all three scenarios—with bad results. One of the things organizations tend to do poorly is “on boarding” new managers, helping facilitate the transition into the new role.

      Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment. I really appreciatate it.

  2. Thank you, David, for the wonderful post.

    I think most tenderfoot sales managers are inclined to do things themselves since they haven’t had the “transition period” from a one-man sales crew to a team player.

    This article is really enlightening. Keep those posts coming!

  3. Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

    • Wally, it’s an honor! Thanks for including this blog with such an esteeemed group of bloggers

  4. I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work

  5. Ranbir Malik permalink

    The sales manager needs to focus on developing his people through regualar coaching rather than managing the business and people. Managing people per se is reactive and developing people is proactive which will bring the best out of people. The manager him/herself should be coachable to drive his/her team to achieve increasingly higher sales targets YOY..

    • Ranbir, thanks for your thoughtful views.

    • One of the most important aspects of a manager’s job is to develop people. At the same time, the manager must manage the business and produce results. These are actually quite complementary. Thankf for your comments.

  6. Lise Norris permalink

    Hi Dave,
    This is really a trap that companies fall in to on a regular basis. I have been in countless arguments with my CEOs regarding who they think will make sales manager (at the time, I was VP Sales) because they have automatically assumed that because top salespeople can sell, they should get the promotion. This rarely works, they generally don’t know how to coach, are not used to team building and have a tough time delegating because essentially if a salesperson succeeds, it is because they have to be a little selfish to get there.
    When you have a team to coach and you’re trying to exceed that target, then it’s making the team successful that gets you there.
    I often compromised by pairing the top people with the more junior reps and once I had ascertained if they were ready to coach and share, they moved upwards.
    Sometimes a slightly lower performer has all the makings of an excellent manager.

    • Lise, thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. Often we lose two times by promoting the best sales person—we’ve lost our top producer and we’ve gained a terrible manager, both cost us business. The trick is, just like in hiring a sales person, for sales managers, we have to have an “ideal candidate profile.” This should look at capabilities, skills, background, temperament, and several other things (top sales performance is important but not the most important). We then should match candidates against that profile. The best candidate may not (is probably not) the best sales person.

      There is another area in career development that I think is important to consider. I think it is creating a dual career path for sales professionals. Classically, the only way for sales people to move ahead has been to go into management. There should be ways they can gorw as individual contributors, perhaps going into broader business development roles, so they can continue to grow and contribute where they can do the best.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you continue to contribute regularly. It must be mid evening your time, Merci Beaucoup! Regards, Dave

  7. That’s why you don’t promote your top salespeople into management. Based on my experience, it fails more than it succeeds!

    The skill set, traits and attributes it takes to become successful in sales are completely opposite of the skill set, traits and attributes it takes to become successful in management.

    • Tom. thanks for the reply. I’m not sure I would say the traits and attributes are completely the opposite, but there is a huge difference between what you need to be successful as an individual contributor and a manager. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Keep it up, it’s a great conversation!

  8. Tom Mangini permalink


    When I say “completely opposite” I’m trying to emphasize above and beyond the obvious similarities so I’m with you on that.

    I’ve also found that more times than not, top salespeople do not want to go into sales management because they would incur a significant pay cut. I’ve worked in some companies where the top salespeople were making more than double what they would make as a sales manager and have a lot less headaches in the process.

    • Tom, you make really great points. One of the challenges we have in sales is career progression generally is moving from sales into sales management. As I mentioned in Lise’s comment, I think it’s important to look at dual career paths. How can we offer great and challenging careers to folks who are best as individual contributors, and how do we develop people who are great as managers.

      Thanks for continuing the discussion!

  9. I agreed with Lise’s comments mostly. It’s a common phenomenon that the top management team think the top salepeople must be the good sales manager.

    However, the top salepeople usually have their unique sales skills which can be referred to other colleagues but don’t mean they are suitable for other persons. The sales manager promoted from sales person should learn to find out the unique characters of its team members and tailor different working style or method for corresponding persons. Sometimes I think selling products is a kind of art which can be learned, digested and sublimed by the followers but can’t be copied in the same pattern if the great workpiece is expected.

    • Great points Mark, a truly talented manager knows how to read their people. Recognizing the unique capabilities of their people and drawing out their best characteristics is what outstanding managers do. Finding best practices and showing the rest of the team how they might leverage them is the mark of and inspired manager. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

  10. John Mathew permalink

    David, this is a typical example of the “Peter Principle” in action. It is validated in most heirarchial organisations. While Jeff may have been an excellent salesman, he needs to have different skillsets & competencies to be a good sales manager and the organisation doesnt prepare him for it. As a result, he is promoted to his “level of inefficiency”.
    It is a lose-lose situation both for the company & the employee if such promotions are not planned properly. Watch Prof Bob Bomtempo explain this very effectively at

    • John, thanks for the comment. All the commenters seem to be agreed that promoting our best sales people to managers is not necessarily the best thing. We stand the possibility of losing a top producer and demoralizing a team—a real double whammy!

      Thanks for participating and for the link. It’s a nice piece.

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