Which Reps Make the Best Managers?

Carrie Ward

Raise your hand if your March Madness bracket is a now just a bittersweet memory. (My hand is high in the air.) While we turn from college to the pros, consider the following facts:

  • Less than half (48%) of the 68 college coaches in March Madness played basketball at a Division 1 school or beyond
  • Only 5% of this year’s March Madness coaches played in the NBA
  • The NBA is littered with more than a few great players who turned out to be truly awful coaches – I’m looking at you, Magic and Isaiah

Applying these realities to sales teams highlights the challenge of turning a high-performing rep into a manager. It sounds great, but we’ve rarely seen it done well. More often than not, we see organizations trying to ‘undo’ the move.

So, how do you avoid making the bad move in the first place? What should leaders look for as they internally source sales manager roles? There are 4 critical factors to consider:

1. Mental Horsepower. Sales management today is the hardest job in the organization. It’s ground central for all things sales. Executives looking for deal and forecast updates. Customers demanding instant responses to their issues. Newbie and veteran reps needing help with their challenging situations. Product, marketing, and HR fighting for mindshare.

The best sales managers juggle it all. They cut through the noise and focus on the critical elements that move the needle. To do so, they must be critical thinkers, able to analyze and interpret data to uncover root causes. At the same time, they must navigate complex internal dynamics.

Pro-Tip: Reps with strong mental muscle are your hidden gems. Be warned: these players tend to fly under the radar. They’re strong performers, but maybe not at the top of the leaderboard. They’re consistent, but not always the ones landing ‘whales’. These reps become great managers because they understand the ‘why’ of the moves they make. They can explain the options they considered and why they chose the one they did. Their view of the situation is built up by a series of facts that hang together tighter than an episode of Law and Order.

2. Coaching Mindset. Less than 33% of companies have formal coaching programs. With time and budget constraints, few companies spend the time to teach how to coach. Too many leaders mistakenly assume that just because a person can sell, he or she can coach others. Part of a coaching mindset includes inspiring others. Every member on the team will have different internal and external motivations. Can the manager candidate tap into the different motivators of their team members? What if your candidate was a money-motivated rep? Can he or she inspire intrinsically motivated reps?

Pro-Tip: Coaching is most definitely not in the job description of most reps. So how do you test for it if it’s not observable? Subtle clues on your team calls and meetings can help paint a picture of the rep’s coaching potential. Are they helpful? Do they share insights? Are they receptive to other reps’ ideas? How often do they volunteer to help out a peer? How effective are they at coaching customers through complex deals?

Don’t be afraid to put manager candidates to the test. You likely do role plays with reps – why not manager candidates? Have them work through an example with an underperforming rep – how would they partner with the rep on the issues? Would they lead that rep to the answer or just tell them what to do? Does the rep exhibit the patience and discipline required to help someone see their own gaps, or do they just jump in and do it for them?

3. Leadership Potential. There isn’t an organization on the planet that feels great about their sales leadership bench. It can always be stronger. A solid leader pipeline starts with the front-line sales manager. Many companies fall into the trap of hiring external sales managers. Our data finds that internal candidates out-perform external hires and cost less. To evaluate internal candidates, we coach leaders to evaluate growth potential. Can this individual eventually manage a region, a segment, and ultimately the entire sales team? Too many ales organizations simply plug holes in the damn. As a result, they overlook existing talent.

Pro-Tip: Leadership traits can be the hardest to pinpoint. What is an employee’s true potential? But assessing this potential is critical to building the bench. What has the rep done to stand-out and demonstrate these capabilities? Were they assigned to special projects? Did they raise their hand to work with peers, corporate functions, or other teams? Have they taken full advantage of training and development opportunities? Does senior leadership seek their perspectives? Are they knowledgeable and passionate about the industry? These are all indicators that the rep has the capability to move beyond being just a rep.

4. Bias for Smart Execution. Strategy is defined as ‘where to play’ and ‘how to win’, but the plan means nothing without execution. The sales manager’s job is keeping their team on track, driving execution. This is especially important in our fast-changing world, when the path and destination may continue to shift. Sales managers must maintain confidence in the path forward and relentlessly drive movement.

The best sales managers break down the overarching strategy and translate what it means for their team. They then support their team through the incremental steps towards that goal. They know that the waypoints of the journey may shift, but that maintaining steady progress is key.

Pro-Tip: Look for clues in manager candidate’s current world as a rep. Does the rep understand the overall company and sales strategy? Can they connect the dots to their day-to-day behaviors? In ride-alongs or other interactions, look for this ability in the way they prioritize their target list, assess the deal situation, execute the outreach and follow-up, etc. Do they embrace a system or process in their work? And are they’re comfortable with the ambiguity that often comes from it all?

Ready to Lead?

As we head further into the NBA playoffs, three pro-coaches stand out for inspiration - Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Brad Stevens. While they have different approaches, they share some common qualities we’ve touched on:

  • None of them we’re ‘superstars’ in the league, yet they’re some of the smartest minds in the game.
  • They can inspire diverse individuals to a common goal.
  • And they lead through a framework and set of principles that governs their actions.

These things make them capable leaders, and their work has generated some incredible outcomes. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have a few superstars either!

Organizations need a new mindset, skillset, and toolset. Contact us for more practical strategies to ensure the right people are in the right roles on your sales team. 

Catch up on last week’s blog about the power of buyer enablement, and check out additional blogs here.

Carrie Ward

Carrie Ward

Carrie is an experienced consultant specializing in sales analytics, organizational design, and sales process optimization. She is the co-author of The Sales Compensation Handbook as well as numerous sales research studies.