Spend any time with a sales organization and you are bound to hear a similar story – a story about a great rep who failed the transition to sales manager. This story is about Jon.
It is set in a venerable, widely known, widely respected organization headquartered in the Northeast and Jon was their latest superstar. He joined the organization fresh out of school and wasted no time demonstrating a true knack for sales. He was charming, charismatic, and ambitious and he quickly parlayed this trifecta into performance that was nothing short of remarkable.
Top 10% in his territory in his first year on the job. Top 5% in the region the next year. First sales rep to make President’s Club in every year of his tenure. His reputation spread and it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of the EVP of sales. Sales was developing a pilot program based on “pods” of high performance sellers and Jon seemed perfect to lead one of these performance pods: a team of 17 successful sales reps with a collective quota north of $85M.
Why is the story of failure so common and so pervasive in sales organizations? Lots of reasons. An unexamined and unsupported belief that “talent” in one area automatically transfers to another. But the root cause is that no salesperson worth their salt wants to work for a manger who hasn’t “carried a bag.” This is understandable – who doesn’t want a manager who has the experience and battle scars to understand what I’m going through? But it leads to the common but mistaken belief that you can’t lead a sales team unless you carried a bag. A belief that is compounded by the equally flawed assumption that a great seller must equal a great leader. Every sales organization has their version of this story.
At first things could not have gone better. Jon landed with a splash. His accounts continued to flourish, his team simply adored him and he was the darling of the EVP who was constantly recounting the exploits of this up-and-coming protégé. It was hard to say what went wrong first. There were whispers of discontent among Jon’s team. Tales of a heavy handed approach and a leader too quick to push other sellers aside in order to manage the account the way he thought was needed. The whispers grew to grumblings and sales started to soften and then decline. Three of Jon’s reps were recruited by a reviled competitor. Five more resigned within a month of each other. Exit interviews flagged a heavy handed leadership style and too much stealing of the spotlight. Jon took it all in stride with the charm, charisma and panache that was the foundation of his success as a seller.
This myth that great sellers make for great managers persists even though a cursory examination of the data quickly reveals its flaws. GrowthPlay (Talent4Success is the representing organization in the BeNeLux) has assessed hundreds of thousands of candidates for sales and sales management roles and we do this in a way that lets us empirically assess a person’s fit to both roles. What we found is more than a bit counter-intuitive. First, only about one out of every six candidates who is a strong fit for a sales role is also a strong fit for a sales management role. Perhaps equally surprisingly, as many as five out of every seven candidates who are poor fits for sales roles are strong fits for sales manager roles. Let’s recap that. Good fit for sales = bad fit for sales management. Bad fit for sales = good fit for sales management.
Can that possibly be correct? And if so, what accounts for this? After all, many or most organizations find the bulk of their sales managers from their sales force. Isn’t that evidence that good sales people make good sales managers? Can all those organizations be doing this wrong? In a word – yes they can.