Top salespeople may not be the best sales managers

sales management Feb 04, 2019

I contend that the frontline sales manager has the toughest job in all of management.

In no other management position is accountability measured more by the results produced. And in no other position are the results so visible. And in no other position is average tenure so short.

The numbers tell all. The sales organization, the territories, and the individual salespeople either meet quota or they don't. There's no in-between.

The position can be thankless. There is little or no public acknowledgment or appreciation. It’s similar to coaching in major sports. With a few notable exceptions—like Bill Belichick—coaches in professional sports receive either none of the credit for success or all of the blame for failure.Much is the same in sales management..

When a company sets sales records, the usual acknowledgment is to the phenomenal production of a few "superstar" salespeople. When the organization isn't meeting quota, however, the manager's inability to elicit results from their people is the reason cited. With sustained poor performance, termination is likely to follow.

Why? The sales manager must generate results.

Nothing happens until something is sold.” Thomas Watson, IBM.

Similar to the sports coaching example, where they can’t fire the entire team, companies can't fire all of their salespeople. So they fire the coach, in this case, the sales manager.

So which employee is often identified as the heir-apparent? You guessed it--the top salesperson in the company. After all, if someone is successful selling by themselves, they’ve got to be even more successful when they are leveraging their skills across an entire sales team, right?


Promoting great salespeople to a sales leadership position is one of the biggest mistakes I see in corporate America. While some superstar salespeople become superstar sales managers, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Both positions require unique attributes to perform successfully.

Characteristics of high-performing salespeople 
vs great sales managers

Harvard Business Review research has shown that the following characteristics are common to most high-producing salespeople:

  • Ego drive: A high sense of self-worth, along with the external recognition they receive for their accomplishments, drive many top producers. In short, they enjoy looking good.
  • Strong personality: Rather than the "don't take 'no' for an answer" label slapped on many salespeople, top producers are very assertive in hidden way. Their persistence and confidence are usually undetectable by the buyer because it occurs throughout conversations in the forms of artful questions, thoughtful follow-ups and all activities that keep the sales cycle progressing. It's the salesperson's knowledge, skills, expertise and confidence that reveal strong personality.
  • Entrepreneurial; Top producers don’t wait for corporate mandates or strategy sessions, they rely upon themselves to get results. While others "talk," they "do."
  • Independence; Inherent in their entrepreneurial trait is a strong independent nature. While many can function well within a team because of their varied skill sets, most can generate their great results working alone.
  • Results through personal effort: The net result of the listed traits are the salesperson's ability and desire to generate results through her own efforts and no one else's. This is critically important to the success of most companies because while most employees are paid for time exerted, top salespeople are paid for value created and sales closed.

The research also identifies these following characteristics common to the most effective sales managers:

  • Coaching, teaching and mentoring: Top sales managers understand that the results that can be produced by their people through proper coaching, training and mentoring are exponentially higher than the results they can achieve on their own. Thus, they see the tree in the acorn and invest their time heavily in support of their people to harvest rewards months and years into the future.
  • Patience: Much like a wise farmer, effective managers understand that they can't simply plant seeds today and harvest a crop tomorrow. They must continually nourish their people, help them to grow and bring them along to the point of harvest as peak sales producers.
  • Ego drive: Like top salespeople, top managers also have a high ego drive, but in a different format. The top manager's ego is in the background and is satisfied through the accomplishments of the team.
  • Selflessness: To nourish and harvest a bountiful crop, the sales manager must be selfless much of the time. For what's in the manager's best interest routinely isn't in the best interest of their people or organization. The successful managers are those that forsake the short-term personal gain for the long-term benefit of their people and company.
  • Results through people: Lastly, unlike the effective salesperson who's individualism is inherent within achieving established quotas in his role, the top manager is measured by the results generated by their people.

Do you see many similarities between these two lists of traits?

While many top salespeople and top sales managers share similar traits, neither of these lists of traits are inherently transferable to the other role. So to assume that success in one role necessarily predicts success in the other is fundamentally flawed.

There is an old African proverb,

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Top salespeople often go quickly and alone. Sales managers need to go far and together.

Why do companies continue to make this misjudgment?

First, they don’t know how to identify the people, whether salespeople or not, who are likely to succeed at managing sales teams.

Second, they get lazy or take the easy way out. Promoting a successful salesperson is so much easier than finding that unique person that has the skills required to be a great sales manager.

Finally, my consulting experience reveals a common point when evaluating sales organizations.

Most companies simply do not understand the value of a top sales manager so they don’t spend the time hiring the right person.

A Harvard study conducted several years ago proved just that in revealing:

  • Above-average salespeople were two times as likely to be as successful with an above-average sales manager.
  • Average salespeople, contrarily, were five times as likely to be as successful with an above-average sales manager.

It’s a tragic failure that many companies do not understand—or value—the significance an effective sales manager can play.

It makes those companies more susceptible to chronically underwhelming sales results, sales rep churn, and continuous searches

How is your organization doing at hiring, growing and retaining great sales leadership?

Good luck and good selling. Ron

[Note: Thanks to Roy Chitwood for his contributions to this article.]