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Thinking About Sales Professional Development

by David Brock on October 7th, 2010

A few days ago I wrote a post, Should We Promote Our Best Sales People To Managers?  It stirred some interesting debate, but one of the arguments that struck me centered around, “How do we retain our best people?”  Moving a sales person into a management role in order to retain them is not necessarily a good idea, but the discussion about retaining and growing our sales people is an important discussion that I think is too often ignored.

Leaders, sales or otherwise, have a responsibility for developing their people—both to achieve the highest levels of performance in their current role, but also to position them to make greater contributions in the future and to help them achieve their own personal career goals.  Career growth is important to each of us—it’s also important to our people. 

Career growth in sales cannot just be about moving people into management (I’m speaking about true people management roles, not a management title).  There simply aren’t enough management jobs to satisfy this.  People may not be suited for management, others may not want to be in management.  This doesn’t mean they don’t have aspirations to grow in their career and contribute at higher levels — and be reocgnized/rewarded for that contribution.

As leaders we need to think about career pathing and people development.  Early in my career, I worked for IBM.  IBM had a wonderful strategy, recognizing that not all people could be or wanted to be managers.  Basically, IBM had multiple career development tracks, each of which had great growth opportunities.  If you wanted to move into management (and had the potential), there were development plans to help you grow and move into a management role.  If you wanted to grow as a sales professional, there were development plans to grow and continue to be promoted in those roles.  As I look at IBM, many of its competitors, and other organizations, some of the top people in sales (and top earners) are individual contributors.  People at very senior sales levels, who make massive contributions to their customers and the organization.

Career pathing and people development isn’t just something that large companies like IBM can do.  It’s something that all of us can and must do.  In small companies, it’s vital–challenging people, getting them to perform at the highest levels, getting them to grow in their roles so they can contribute, or defining new roles as individual contributors is  even more is critical.  For example, several years ago, I was involved with a growing early stage company.  Growth itself was creating new opportunities–not only for management roles, but also other roles

How do we do this?

We need to understand the goals and aspirations of each person on our team.  We need to have a sound assessment of their capabilities and potential.  We need to have deep discussions with them their aspirations, how realistic they are, and what they need to do to reach the next levels.  These discussions need to be frank and honest.  Clearly, a person who is not a team player will have great difficulty competing for a management job.  In coaching that individual, it’s important they understand the importance of being a team player in management, what being a team play is, behaviors that display this, and what they might do to improve their abilities.

Additionally, we need to give our people development opportunities to help them develop their capabilities to move forward.  It may be giving a sales person who wants to move into management responsibility for coaching and on-boarding a new sales person.  It may be a special assignment or a task force.  It may be a class or workshop.  If you can afford it, it may be a rotational assignment–a temporary assignment in another area to build the skills or round a person out.

We need to think of non management career paths within our organizations.  How do we develop career paths for individual contributors, allowing them to grow professionally, get promoted, get increases in compensation?  It may be moving to higher levels and job titles.  It may be moving into major account management, higher levels of business development, partnership or alliance development.  If we want to develop our people to achieve the highest potential they can, if we want to grow their contribution to the business, if we want to retain our very best sales people, it is vital that we define career paths that lead both into management and those that grow individual contributors.

I think there are a rich array of growth opportunities for individual contributors.  They can take over leadership of your larger and most important accounts.  Where they may have been managing accounts locally, they can start to manage them nationally and globally.  They can take roles special roles—being the “trained killer” for very complex situations, specialists for certain product lines, experts in certain business segments.  As I mentioned earlier, great sales people who are individual contributors can sometimes move into very senior business development. alliance or partnership management.  Sometimes, these great individual contributors may not be great management candidates, but they can serve great roles in mentoring less experienced sales people, or helping train them.  There are any number of possibilities.  There should be no reason to lose a great individual contributor because they feel they can’t advance as individual contributors in the organization.

Sometimes, circumstances are such that we cannot move a person into the role they want, deserve, and have earned.  Sometimes, those people have to leave the company in order to grow further.  We lose good people.  While it may seem odd, losing good people because we have developed them, moved them along as far as we can, then being proud of them moving to another organization that can help them further their career goals is different than losing that same individual who is upset and disappointed because management is not doing anything to help them achieve their goals and grow, but just focusing on “what have you done for me lately?”  In the former case, those individuals will always be strong supporters and recommenders of the company–continuing to “sell and promote” the company, it’s management, and products long after they have left.  In the latter case, they will aggressively sell against the company–telling people not to work for the company and worse.

As managers looking to grow our organizations and our people, coaching them day to day is critical, coaching them on their long term development is critical.  It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s great business!

One thing, however, while it’s management’s job to help develop their people, it is each person’s job to take responsibility for their own development–regardless of what management is doing.  The manager can help in coaching and in providing developmental opportunities, but it is the responsibility of each individual to continually develop themselves–whether through reading books, blogs, other materials, participating in conferences and workshops, networking, establishing mentor relationships, or formal training.

Career development is a joint responsibility.  It’s the job of management to develop their people–improving their productivity, growing them to contribute even more to the organization, whether as a leader, or an individual contributor.  It’s the responsibility of each individual to manage their own career, using their managers to help direct them, coach them, and provide leadership.  It only works if each is working together.

  1. Mark permalink

    Great post! I wholeheartedly agree with the need for professional development. I have found in many places I have worked that ‘professional development’ equates to ‘leadership/management’ development. I can understand why this happens becuase quite often people who create professional development programs have strong leadership aspirations and, therefore, assume that everyone does.

    The fact that some people just want to ‘get better at what they do’ is often overlooked in developmental situations.

    I also agree that the employee has just as much (actually more) responsibility for their own career progression. Leaving it up to your boss to help you with career progression can be a recipe for disaster.


    • Thanks for the comment Mark, it’s interesting, in other functions within the organization, professional development–without being on a management path is the norm. Think IT, Finance, Development/Engineering, Manufacturing. Somehow with sales, it’s overlooked. We need to focus on developing not only great sales managers, but continue to grow and develop great individual contributors. We also need to define great career futures for them.

      Thanks for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  2. Éric Koulourath permalink

    Hello David,
    That’s a very interesting and huge subject. Your article reminds me some management foundations.
    This is all about how to combine the company interests with individuals expectations.
    Thanks for this article.

    • Eric, thanks for the comment. It’s key to management’s job and the right thing to do. Regards, Dave

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