As I drove home I came to the realization that the first sales manager I ever hired was failing. Eight months after his start date it became evident to me, and to him, that he was not succeeding in the job, and we needed to work him out of sales management back into a sales rep role. He was a good guy and had been an excellent sales rep. A steady performer, who now was disappointed and dejected, who might end up leaving the company. It would be a loss on all aspects. I felt responsible. I hired him because I felt he would be a terrific sales manager replacing me, and leading a team I had managed for six years.
Now back to square one.
Making the situation even more challenging there was little interest in sales management from a national team of ninety five sales professionals and the few who wanted it were woefully unqualified. Not to be misunderstood they were not bad sales reps, in fact they were great sales reps. But, as I learned over time great sales reps don’t necessarily make great sales managers.
Why so little interest in what I saw as a great job?
I recognized sales reps throughout the country misunderstood what exactly sales managers do. They grappled with the age old questions: Do I want to take the next step from being a successful sales rep to sales manager? Make less money for my direct contribution? Am I okay to have less freedom in my schedule and tied to a desk with reports and meetings with headaches I could do little about on my own? Sales management to them was blurry. From a senior to executive management perspective sales reps were, for the most part, invisible from a career standpoint. There are exceptions of course. Some sales reps, typically the highest performers got the attention of senior management. Strong performing sales reps seek it and there are a host of good reasons for senior managers to get to know them and interact.
In a sales organization the most important manager is the first line sales manager. It is he or she that their direct reports look to for virtually everything. Support, counseling, coaching, recognition, buy in, guidance, etc. From this they are engaged and gain confidence both in themselves and the company. The sales manager is their connection to the company. In fact, the sales manager is the company and as I have often said; “employees don’t leave companies they leave managers.”
Back to the problem. Our organization had ten sales districts of eight to twelve sales reps with ten to fifteen million dollars in sales per sales manager. The sad fact was very few reps were interested in sales management.
There were a few sales reps who were interested but for the wrong reasons. They felt; “since I am a top performing sales rep I, of course, can be a top performing sales manager.” Not so fast young man, (or lady). A good sales manager thinks about helping his or her reps operate at their highest level, not being the super sales rep, not taking the limelight but giving up the limelight. They are mentors, tough ones who challenge their reps to achieve and perform successfully and as a team. It’s in many ways a thankless job. But, the intrinsic satisfaction in developing and getting the most out of an individual and team, and delivering success is palpable and ultimately very rewarding. It’s called leadership.
So, what to do?
Our budget did not support a management development program so whatever we did had to be done at little incremental cost. My experience (eight years as a sales rep and six as a sales manager) allowed me to write down five truths:
1. Sales reps crave recognition almost as much as money.
2. The more sales reps could learn about what a sales manager does, the better informed their decision whether to pursue this career path.
3. If reps could “raise their hand” expressing interest in sales management without having to apply for the sales management role, more would step forward.
4. Providing senior and executive management visibility to these reps could only help us make a better choice to promote.
5. There were plenty of ways to learn. Having a focused development plan these reps could prepare for the next step guided by their existing sales manager.
These truths lead me with the help of others to create and launch a program we called Bridges.
Reps would apply to enter the program. Requirements for acceptance were simple; tenure at the company (minimum two years), demonstrate sustained sales performance defined as quota achievement (minimum two out of three years or comparable) and sponsorship by their current sales manager.
They would attend selected management meetings as observers to see and hear the kinds of issues management faced. These included accountability meetings, business reviews and tactical planning meetings. They would participate as appropriate, but not as managers.
They would participate in an annual Bridges development meeting each year to share and learn together in a workshop format.
Their sales mangers would work with them to construct an individual development program which would be reviewed, approved and supported by senior management. It would include learning through experience such as running sales meetings, mentoring and forecast calls, as well as observing, such as interviews, and finally reading and reporting out on sales leadership books.
We publicized the Bridges members to the entire sales team and built a valued brand of their potential as future leaders.
There was no guarantee of a promotion, but rather a strong bias and opportunity for them to advance.
Finally, they would be assessed at a minimum every two years for staying in the program. Some stepped back because they realized it wasn’t for them (or we did). Since they had not left their sales position the mental transition was easy.
The Results: We quickly had reps in the program with a rolling ten percent of the sales team being accepted. After eight years I looked back at an organization where every sales manager was promoted out of this group and many have gone on to senior and executive positions in and outside the company.