Don’t Promote Your Top Salesperson to Be Your Sales Manager

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In most companies, the leader of the sales organization was most likely one of the top-performing sales reps prior to getting promoted. When the founder or CEO decides to create a sales leadership role in the company, it’s typically to help them scale the business: they need someone — other than themselves — to hire, train, and lead a high-performing sales organization. However, since hiring this sales leader from outside the organization can be extremely challenging for a business owner, the decision to promote a top-performing sales rep into the sales manager role seems like the low-risk path forward.

I believe that giving your sales leader spot to your top-performing rep is typically the wrong decision for two reasons:

Internal promotions let you off the hook, recruiting-wise.  I know that the prospect of running your own external search for a sales leader can seem overwhelming, but when you promote an internal sales rep to the leadership spot without running a full search, you’re robbing yourself of all the perspective you gain from interviewing external candidates. What better way to learn about the best practices of other high-performing sales organizations than by asking their leaders how they do it?  Digging into the lessons learned, the successes and the war stories of an experienced sales leader from outside your company will give you fresh perspective and ideas.

Furthermore, failing to run an external search for a sales leader means that you’re not gaining access to a variety of alternatives, many of which can and will be better than your top internal choice. If nothing else, running an external recruiting effort is going to create a competitive environment where your internal candidate knows that they’re by no means a lock for the role.  You’re going to be the beneficiary of that dynamic, which I believe is imperative in setting up your new hire on the right path, regardless of whether they are an internal or external hire.

Top sales professionals rarely become top managers.  Sales professionals at the top of their game operate as individual contributors.  Yes, they rely on the support of other functions of the organization like marketing and finance, but at the end of the day, your top-performing sales reps are out there on their own. Contrast that activity with the activities of top-performing sales managers – talent management, training, coaching – and you can understand why it’s so hard for top reps to transition to a role where they can’t rely on themselves to “make the number” as they’ve always done.

I recently observed a sales manager – himself formerly a top sales rep in the organization – struggling to lead his team to hit their goal.  This manager was frustrated: “I don’t understand why this team can hit it’s number; all they need to do is exactly what I did!”  His mindset was stuck in that of the individual contributor that served him so well during his years in the sales organization. However, what was being asked of him as a sales leader was to drive results through the actions and successes of others.  As the numbers deteriorated, he would jump into his sales reps’ calls and meetings in an effort to  just “get the deal closed.”  Predictably, morale was dropping and the numbers were getting worse, not better.

When I asked the CEO of the company why he had promoted this individual into the sales leadership position, the answer was telling: “I needed to take myself out of day-to-day sales management, and he was my top rep.  We had a talk about it over lunch and I moved forward without giving it a second thought.”

This CEO had taken their top rep out of the rotation, leading to lower sales, and made him a sales manager who was ill-equipped in both experience and skills to make a successful transition from doer to manager, leading to lowered team performance.  Predictably, this CEO is now spending, even more, time working in day-to-day sales management responsibilities in an effort to triage the situation.

Before you make the decision to promote your top sales rep to sales leader pause to consider whether other not they have the leadership and management skills required for the role, and whether or not they’re going to be happy letting everyone else notch the wins.

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