sales leader

A Sales Leader’s First 90 Days: Preparing for Day One

The average tenure of a sales VP is incredibly brief – about 18 months. That’s not a lot of time to make a big impact. What we know is that new sales leaders must get the first 90 days right to be successful in a new role.

In this series of four blogs, we will tackle the top 90-day challenges facing sales leaders taking on a new role:

  1. Cutting down on the initial chaos
  2. Learning your new organization deeply within 30 days
  3. Obtaining early wins to establish momentum
  4. Assessing organizational alignment with sales and setting longer-term strategy

Seasoned professionals may think, “Thanks for pointing out the obvious.”

But here’s the thing…

Sales is a messy business, full of messy human beings. Each hold their own capabilities, expectations, personal goals, learning styles, and political agendas.

Understanding them and avoiding mishaps is no small feat – regardless of how much experience you hold.

High Stakes

The company revenue rests with you. On average, you’ll have one fiscal quarter to prove you perform to management’s expectations, otherwise you might be out the door.

Our goal is to supply practical tools. These tools will help a new sales leader avoid mistakes and excel in the first 90 days. Many opportunities aren’t visible at first glance. This can stem from chaos, assumptions, and navigating the environment of the company.

After all, we’ve yet to meet a new sales VP who told us their learning curve was gradual.

Cutting Down on Transitional Chaos

Our focus is cutting down on the typical chaos that accompanies a role transition. It helps by spending time preparing well before your first day. For example, by asking for specific information in advance that helps your transition.

There are reasons for putting in advanced effort. They pay off significantly in cutting down on the initial chaos that creates the fog of transition.

Here’s how:

  • Surfaces any risk related to customers, star performers, revenue retention, impending high-value deals, or employee morale
  • Crystalizes the immediate mitigation actions you’ll need to take
  • Accelerates your understanding of sales team composition, structure, and financial performance – these three areas need tactical decisions first
  • Allows you to review interviews and research through the lens of this new information; then deliberately look for gaps. If these are not filled, it adds to the fog of transition

You’ll arrive on the first day with a list of specific people to interview (beyond your direct reports) and questions you want to ask.

Six Sales Leader Transition Traps

Garnering credibility isn’t the only reason to get a jump on your first day.

Advanced preparation helps avoid serious mistakes that sales leaders are more susceptible in making during early days. Leaders are prone to making more assumptions when faced with a steep learning curve.

There are six “transition traps” new sales leaders must watch out for:

  1. Failing to secure your team because of assumptions about team morale, commitment, and job satisfaction
  2. Misjudging sellers or making hiring/firing decisions based on assumptions about the ideal seller capabilities
  3. Setting expectations that you’ll grow revenue by a specific percentage on a deadline before fully understanding the average sales cycle
  4. Failing to understand expectations for how your sales team should interact with business operations: product development, manufacturing and distribution, solution implementation, customer support, and marketing
  5. Not building the necessary relationships to call on when your team encounters issues
  6. Over-estimating your team’s capacity to absorb and sustain process changes you intend to implement

Let’s look at an example of a sales VP who found himself in a difficult situation, because he made an eminently reasonable assumption that was entirely incorrect.

The Price of Making Assumptions - A Case Example

George had confidence in his ability to take over sales at his new employer, a maker of backpacks and outdoor-lifestyle luggage. And with good reason. He’s a 29-year veteran of the consumer-packaged goods industry.

His first employers included Newell Rubbermaid and The Thompson Company. Both are well-known for their classical CPG training. George was fortunate to benefit from these programs.

From there he worked for companies with varying degrees of formalized process, structure, and sales support. He’d always been successful. This would be his second job as a sales VP, and he was looking forward to it.

He’d be working in a new category with different retailers and channels he hadn’t experienced. He was ready for it. As a meticulous planner, George started studying the luggage category. He also visited stores that sold his new employer’s product.

He used what he learned to ask questions, while still transitioning out of his previous company. They’d already told him the tool he’d need to evaluate his sales team and their ability to drive revenue. Performance, they felt, could be improved, and it was with this expectation that he accepted the offer.

The Crucial Pivot Point

Almost immediately, it was clear to George that he’d have to make team changes. No problem. He understood the exact qualities that he wanted in high-performing sellers.

His years of experience formed a crystal-clear picture. He gave the profile to HR, handled the attrition meetings with the current staff, and started interviewing.

By day 60, George had started onboarding new team members. However, there remained some degree of disorder. It made him uncomfortable, not because he doubted his abilities, but because he felt he was missing something in the larger picture.

He was, frankly, still onboarding himself – learning the categories, establishing internal relationships, and absorbing the culture. He was doing so while simultaneously hiring team members and travelling to customers.

The pace was fast; it was obstructing his vision and he knew it. He persisted, reasoning that once the new team members were on board, things would settle. Then, he could focus on strategy.

The Reveal

Around day 90, George’s discomfort appeared. Because of his classical training, he assumed. And thus was mistaken.

In all his years working in consumer products, brand managers made the decisions about what products to sell. They made them based on consumer insights, industry trends, competitor activities, and the needs of their top retailers. It’s typically a highly data-driven process.

Here, it was the sellers themselves who initiated new product designs based on needs and requests from retailers.

The sellers worked closely with designers to build these products. In effect, it gave most major retailers exclusive products. If the sellers didn’t develop their own products, they had nothing to sell.

George discovered what his sales team was expected to do: product design, packaging, setups, costing. These expectations hadn’t come up during his interviews, likely because the firm was accustomed to operating this way. It hadn’t occurred to them that it was out of the ordinary.

George had hired several new sellers, those with sales capabilities but no experience in product design. Based on how things were run to-date, he appeared to have hired the wrong people.

90 days into his new position, George realized that he dried-up much of his own product pipeline in key categories. Upcoming sales meetings were not far away.

What was George going to do?

The Recovery

George fell into two different sales leader transition traps:

  • Failing to understand early and fully how sales impacts operational aspects 
  • Making hiring or attrition decisions based on assumption of the seller capabilities required

“If I could go back in time and do it again, I would have asked them to describe the product development process in detail - from light bulb to shipping label. Then, I would ask how the sales team was involved at every point in this process: what they’re responsible for, where they need to give input, how much actual control is in their hands, what the performance expectations are,” says George.

George managed through his first selling season by relying on existing product development processes and the help from team members. He then started advocating for a brand manager.

He took steps to create a “core” set of product offerings, appropriate for multiple retailers and channels. This would cut down on the expensive practice of offering too much exclusivity.

George never dreamed that he’d be setting product strategy. It was not his wheelhouse; yet here he was, and the experience took its toll.

“I felt like I couldn't bring anything I’d learned to the table. It was as if I’d been a football player all my life, and you suddenly put a hockey stick in my hand and said ‘play’.”

What revenue, efficiency, growth, and customer opportunities had George missed? Constant vigilance against making the assumptions associated with these initial traps is the best way to inoculate yourself.

Preparing for Day 1: Our Recommendation

Our recommendation for sales leaders taking on a new team is to onboard yourself. Take specific steps to gather pragmatic information that the company can provide in advance.

“Leverage the quiet time between roles,” says David Cottingham, Vice President of sales at RFIdeas. “You think you’ll have time once you start, but you won’t.”

You have three objectives in doing this:

  1. Identify any financial, customer, or employee risk that may need immediate mitigation
  2. Cut down on the fog of transition by getting to the basics in advance. This includes team composition, structure, and performance. Combine this with interview learnings and look for information gaps. Arrive on day one with a plan for who and what to interview
  3. Be aware of the six sales leader transition traps – recognize where you’re vulnerable to falling into one

What’s Next

In our next article, Learn and Take Action for Early Wins, we’ll explore information for leaders to learn in a short timeframe. Then, we’ll discuss how to utilize it to identify early win opportunities.

About The Author

Author photo Hope is a sales effectiveness expert who builds winning sales organizations. She works side-by-side with sales teams around account segmentation and planning, helping complex organizations rethink the way they serve their largest accounts. Her specialties include sales transformation, sales capability development, leadership development/coaching, and performance management. Hope’s expertise and execution focus mean she’s the consultant that clients want to keep around.

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