Dear Sales Leader, It's Time to Go

Brian Williams, PhD

Ben was the sales leader of a billion-dollar manufacturing firm, and he was hired to transform the company. Brought in two years ago, he charmed the executive leadership team, the board, and the field. The CEO had confidence in him, and he set off on a six-month tour of the sales offices, getting to know his teams and major customers.

And then, all hell broke loose. 

In the life of a sales leader, six months might as well be six years. Ben’s transformation never really kicked off. He invested too much time getting to know everyone, hearing their views. The more he heard, the more fuzzy his vision became. He failed to articulate a clear set of priorities when sales results began to drop. Even worse, he didn’t stand up to push back by the legacy field sales leaders – a very opinionated group, but the same folks responsible for the missed targets.

The CEO asked for his turnaround plan, and he stumbled through vague generalities. A year later, the sales organization was a tangle of misdirected and irritated reps. Revenue had dropped. And major account churn was rampant.

Instead of asking for another strategy, the CEO asked for his resignation.

The average tenure of a sales leader today is just 19 months. In other words, a sales leader has barely a year and a half to make an impact. If he can’t, he’ll either be forced out, or have the sense to leave on his own.

Here are three ways to know when it’s time to go:

1. Environment signs. There’s a certain amount of situational awareness every sales leader needs. Specifically, CSOs need to be aware of whether they've lost the backing of senior leadership or the sales team. Ben sensed something was wrong when invitations to meetings slowed down. He walked into certain meetings feeling as though he'd walked into a movie midway through, totally out of the loop. Eventually he figured out he was being boxed out of key decisions. He'd lost his seat at the table.

A common response to this situation is to become defensive or emotional. “Why don’t they get me?”, “Why am I being left out?” The situational cues are often traced to your shortcomings. The signs are usually very apparent once you start looking.

2. Repeatedly asked the same questions. If the senior leadership team has asked multiple times for your plan to turn things around, either you’re not communicating it well, or they don’t buy it.

It many cases, the sales leader’s boss – the CEO and/or the COO – doesn’t really understand the mechanics of the sales machine. They  sense a problem with the strategy or see the missed numbers, but they likely can’t articulate their concerns. For example, they may say, “Last quarter’s results aren’t where we need them to be. Do we have a plan?”

If your answer is some elusive rambling about customer segmentation and a complicated market shift, they probably won’t understand or care. Don’t blame external factors. Leadership wants to know what you can do, within your control, to drive results.

3. Denied budget. Ben was obsessed with implementing a new sales organizational structure. This move would involve a major investment to upgrade talent. In the beginning the CEO had agreed that it was a good decision. But as time went on, he lost confidence in Ben’s ability to execute. The last thing the CEO wanted was to give Ben the millions of dollars necessary. Still, Ben didn’t see himself as the problem. He’d moan and groan that the CEO was too cheap to approve the budget for something he needed. He didn’t realize the rejection was actually of him, not the org design.

CEO brains are wired differently. Sales leaders often focus on relationships and they're typically comfortable with loose, dynamic environments. But most CEOs prefer data, analytics, plans that logically relate A to B. They're natural skeptics and only trust people who do what they say they’re going to do. If your actions are being received as disorganized or inconsistent, change it up or get out.

Getting Real About Your Situation

Given the short tenure of sales leaders, it’s up to you to monitor your status in the company. Yes, there are always factors outside of your control that create an unwinnable situation. But it’s how you respond to these challenges that ultimately determines the length of your runway.

In Ben’s case, he didn’t understand the urgency of his mission. More importantly, he didn’t take control or demonstrate leadership around the issues. He was quick to blame others or to retreat into decision paralysis. As pressure increased, he’d kick the can further down the road, avoiding the hard work of exiting under-performers or making other hard calls.

Past Your Expiration Date?

Sales leaders today have an expiration date. If you sense the winds are changing, it’s best to exit gracefully. Trust your gut. Don’t continue to linger in a position where you’ll ultimately be fired. Leaving on your terms allows you to control your story:

“I tried to change my last company, but it didn’t work. I didn’t have the talent/product/budget to make it happen.”

And, at the next company, hit the ground running. Use all of the credibility and leverage that comes with being new. Aggressively ask for the investments you need to drive change within the first six months. Build the best team you can (don't just rearrange org chart boxes with the incumbent team). Always remember, you're there because the old guard couldn't deliver. Most importantly, execute a plan, whatever it may be. Just do something.

Everyday, across multiple industries and varied sales models, we help sales leaders deliver on their commitments. Whether you’re new in seat, or a veteran in your role, contact us to learn more about how we can help you beat the sales leader tenure odds.

 

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.