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Should You Promote Your Top Sales Person to Sales Manager?

by Dec 8, 2009, 5:05 am ET

sailor_logoAEarly Greek mythology tells tales of sailors lured by Sirens. Their sweet music mesmerized the sailors and led them to believe that the illusion was reality. Ultimately, those sailors who blindly followed the tunes crashed their ships on the rocks and their boats sank.

Sirens lure business executives and small business owners too. The song that the Sirens sing has one line … “Promote my top salesperson, put six people underneath them, and generate six times the sales.” And, like the sailors, many business executives and their companies have been led into harm’s way.

A promotion? The first issue with promoting your top salesperson into sales management is that it’s not a promotion at all. The promotion perception is the first way the Sirens get you. Sales management is not a job elevation; it’s a job change. If you consider this move as a promotion, you probably send a congratulatory email and hold a luncheon for the new sales manager. A nice handshake is offered and the new manager is sent to achieve grandeur. This approach delights the Sirens and your ship is sunk!

If you handle this as a job change, your approach is completely different. Since this is a new job, you provide training and mentoring as well as monitor their performance. As the manager of the new sales manager, your role is to help them successfully assimilate into their new role.

Top Seller = Top Sales Manager? Before we go any further, we need to take a step back. The second way the Sirens trick you is they lead you to believe all great salespeople can become great sales managers. Some certainly do. And, some pretty good salespeople become rock star managers. And some great salespeople fail miserably at sales management.

Before moving your top salesperson into the sales management ranks, consider the ramifications of this move. You are taking your rainmaker out of the sales game where they’ve generated millions of dollars for your company. While your hope is that your theory of “disciple selling” (placing six people underneath the new manager and getting six times the sales) becomes proven, that is rarely the case. If it was so easy to clone a rainmaker, every company would do it. Quite frankly, the “disciple selling” dream is flawed. Again, you’ve been duped by the Sirens. The sole reason to place someone in the role of sales manager is that you feel that they have the potential to succeed in that capacity.

What does all of this tell you? You need a process and methodology to evaluate sales management candidates … just like you evaluate sales candidates. And, even though the rainmaker got on your radar screen because they blew out their quota, their sales management candidacy should be handled the same way you would if you were considering an external sales management candidate. Don’t skip any steps in the evaluation process!

Profile the Role. This evaluation starts with the development of your profile of the ideal sales manager for your company. Think about what it takes to succeed in the role and document those elements as part of your profile. Once you’ve prepared your list, identify each element as either required or desired.

With your profile developed, the next step is to develop a screening process that allows you to compare and contrast the candidate with the profile. It is critical during this process that you ascertain why this successful seller aspires for management, and ensure that you set clear and accurate expectations of a day in the life as a sales manager in your company. In addition to interviews, you may want to consider tools to help identify a synergistic match like personality and proficiency assessments.

If your rainmaker succeeds in the evaluation process, you’ve found your sales manager. If not, don’t lose the revenue! Keep this seller selling!

Positioning Your New Sales Manager to Succeed. With your new sales manager hired, there are four keys to making the venture successful.

  1. Support. The first is dealing with the sales team. Yesterday, she was a peer. Today, she is the manager. The new manager needs your help in developing managerial respect. The reaction to the new manager will be mixed. Some will be fully supportive, but there will also be some on the team who are jealous and attempt to undermine her efforts. The key message for you to deliver to your new sales manager is that she has your unwavering support.
  2. Mentoring. Your new manager needs a resource to guide them through the neophyte status: a mentor. Don’t just look within the organization for a mentor candidate. Many sales management consultants mentor and develop new sales managers. The role of the mentor is to bridge the managerial knowledge, skills, and experience gap.
  3. Training. Chances are that your new sales manager has never been taught how to hire a salesperson, have a difficult conversation with an employee, or develop a sales compensation plan. These are all skills that can be taught. If you aren’t will to provide the new sales manager with skills training, don’t put them in the role. They will fail!
  4. Expectation Setting. Your new sales manager should be provided with a scorecard that tells them how they are going to be measured. In most companies, sales managers are measured on revenue. But that is only one component of the scorecard. Based on the role and responsibilities of the sales manager, the scorecard could include metrics like profitability, cost of sales, turnover, sales cycle, forecast accuracy, etc.

Sales is one of the few professions where moving into management isn’t always the best path for the salesperson or the company. Make sure the person you put in this critical role is the right sales manager for your company. After all, while this person may not be directly generating sales, they are the one responsible for the company achieving its revenue goals. Don’t let the Sirens lure your business into trouble. Develop the systems to help you make the best decisions.

Not sure how to interview sales people for a sales management job? send me an email for my 29 favorite questions when interviewing new sales manager candidates.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • josie erent

    I really like this article because it reminds me about the issues and changes of my personal sales career. Over 20 years, company still make the same mistakes promoting top sales people who are really not suited to management. It takes a very unique individual to be a sales manager….Unfortunately there have been excellent sales people promoted who prove to be top failures in management roles…..

  • Richard Melrose

    Lee,

    Sage advice, throughout.

    The job matching process of analyzing the job (determining what it takes to perform well) and then assessing the extent to which candidates have what it takes, represents both best practice and best compliance (per U.S. DoL Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures) for any position, including sales.

    I would add that job matching, the best predictor of job performance (Herbert M. and Jeanne Greenberg HBR, 1980), becomes much easier and much more effective when the process uses the same, objective instrument to thoroughly assesses both the job and the candidate.

    Single instrument “job matching” capability has been well established, fully validated and is readily available as a very economical, high-performance, web-hosted product.

    Indeed, an employer can compare a sales candidate to both Sales and Sales Manager positions to gauge pre-hire “promotability”. The same is true for any potential career path.

    Dick Melrose
    r.melrose@vision21.us

  • Dave Pollock

    We used to call the advancement of talented workers to the next hierarchical level, the ‘Peter Principle’. In short, this states that every employee will rise their level of incompetency. The logic, of course, is that you eventually get to the level where you can’t do your job… and then stay there.

    Lee provides the fodder for avoiding this scenario… and then some.

    Well done!

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  • Arthur Oscher

    I can’t tell you how many times I have interviewed sales managers and directors who really wanted to go back to “carrying a bag”. They realized very quickly that sales management is not neccesarily a logical step for a sales person, not to mention a possible falloff in their total compensation. If anything they will risk loosing their best sales people.

  • Jim Cargill

    Lee is correct throughout this top notch article. I will add one wrinkle that really is outside the purview of what he wrote. That is, foregoing the “sales to management” move, it is generally a flawed practice to promote anyone to a level where they will be supervising those who used to be peers. Yes, I realize it does work on occasion, and maybe many of you have actually witnessed it working out. But, consider this: Doing well in a new promotion is never a given, and promotees too often fail to fulfill expectations. Why add to the level of difficulty by making the newly-promoted person a boss over people they used to joke with, drink with, complain with, maybe even goof off with? Talk about setting someone up for failure. Now, to bring it back full circle, if you add in the “job change” factor pointed out by Lee, there are likely very few people who will be successful supervising folks who used to be their peers.

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