Lose a Good Salesperson: Gain a Bad Manager

Aug 8, 2012
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

It’s a common mistake. Promote your best salesperson, gain a bad manager, and lose both. Why does this keep happening? Sales were great and his/her top performance attracted attention, but nothing prepared you for the bad manager part. Well, there are some very clear reasons.

Reason 1: The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

Sales are the end result of dozens of mini-activities: personal behaviors, motivations, dealing with customers, analyzing problems, making decisions, working with team members, solving problems, and so forth. Do enough of these mini-activities right and good things happen. Do them wrong and expect failure.

In my experience, top salespeople often fake their way to the top by over-promising, underpricing, over-shipping, sand-bagging sales, and so forth. I saw a great example of this firsthand when a salesman always encouraged my company to over-order product … and then later permitted us to return unused goods. He was so good at over-shipping and returning, his company eventually made him president (after all, a top salesman is qualified to be a company president, right?). The company tossed him out a few years later when they realized he was nothing but lies and promises. I wonder what that promotion decision cost them?

Reason 2: Know One When You See One

People naturally make decisions based on personal impact. For example, hundreds of hours of national attention was devoted to a 12-person shooting event in Colorado; meanwhile, in Detroit an average of 29 people are killed EVERY month (source: 2012 Detroit Police Department crime statistics). ‘Bet few people outside of Detroit ever heard of them. The news networks are masters at making a big event seem more important than dozens of smaller ones. So it is with sales.

Salespeople are skilled at managing the big event. It’s an example of the “empty suit” syndrome; that is, everything about them looks good on the outside, but there is seldom anything on the inside.  Sure, a sales manager needs to know about selling, but management requires more, and better, skills. Don’t make assumptions based just on sales. You have to verify whether he/she has skills to coach and counsel, make good decisions, analyze markets, plan strategies, and manage a variety of diverse activities. That’s the key to successful management.

Reason 3: Past Performance is Only Part of the Equation

If you ever took a course on behavioral interviewing you were told past behavior predicts future behavior. But, did they emphasize accuracy largely depends on whether the future job requires the same skills and motivations as the past one? Past performance cannot predict something the candidate has never done or experienced. Assuming he or she was not a total failure, basing a management promotion primarily on sales usually produces a manager whose idea of management is “watch me sell.”

Since new managers are often called upon to analyze more data, make more challenging decisions, organize the efforts of a large workforce, personally coach needy salespeople, and be motivated to do all the above, is it any wonder so many crash and burn? Training to the rescue? Forget the hype. We all know it is almost impossible to train a bad manager into a good one. Why not just hire a skilled manager in the first place?

Think carefully about this next statement: a good manager must know what to do, when to do it, and why. In other words, he/she must be fully aware of what to do in every situation and be able to communicate it to others. Many of the top salespeople I have seen run on automatic pilot … and that’s a sure predictor of a bad manager.

Reasons 4, 5, and 6: Faulty Tools

Examining past earnings statements?  … it indicates nothing about how they were achieved

Sell me the Ashtray? … it indicates nothing about rapport-building; fact-finding, and motivation (the three biggest sales de-railers)

Promise top salespeople management positions … well, we already talked about that.


If past sales performance has so many problems, what should you do differently? There is no Twitter-level answer. And the most reading a short article can do is raise awareness. It takes years of practice and knowledge to learn job-measurement skills; still, here is a list of things that need to be considered:

  • Be sure the candidate knows and can articulate clearly the entire sales process. He/she does not need to be the best salesperson on staff, just know what to do, when to do it, and why.
  • If the position actually requires management skills (i.e., not an honorary promotion) estimate the importance of each of the following skills: planning and organizing, analyzing markets, analyzing individual salesperson performance problems, decision making, coaching and counseling activities, developing sales, and account penetration strategies. Critical areas need special attention.
  • Next, screen each candidate by examining their past performance using behavioral interview technology. If you are not skilled at BEI, you are at a significant disadvantage. Find a course and send someone to get trained. It will take months of practice to get good. Of course, as we discussed, BEI may work better to disqualify candidates than qualify them.
  • Next, then find tests and exercises that measure each critical skill identified above. NEVER use a training test. Training tests are seldom if ever designed to predict job performance. You might get scores, but without performance evidence, they are generally worthless performance predictors.
  • Incorporate a few one-on-one coaching simulations. Like the tests I mentioned above, hiring simulations are another form of test … they are not training practices. They must have all the characteristics of tests: tightly controlled, trained role-players, and standardized scoring sheets. Why simulations? Ask yourself why athletic teams ask players to try out. Tryouts illustrate ability. Management candidates need to do the same.

A Final Note

No system is a perfect predictor, but accurately evaluating each critical managerial skill will eliminate candidates who cannot plan, organize, analyze markets, analyze performance problems, make decisions, coach, and develop penetration strategies. You have to admit, that will be considerably better than promoting someone whose only skill is selling.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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