The Secret to Becoming a Well-Respected Sales Leader
Ever since I was first promoted from sales representative to a sales leadership role, I’ve tried to become the leader I would admire if I remained as an individual contributor.
Taking my own experience into account and speaking with others who climbed the career ladder to executive positions, I’ve come to the consensus that after proving sales acumen as a top performing sales representative the next steps to becoming a truly respected sales leader among the entire sales staff are leading by example, listening sincerely to your team members, and maintaining a high level of integrity.
Leadership by example means a lot more than showing a sales rep that they can sell a product or service because you just did it yourself. In fact, that approach can backfire, especially when the sales leader stacks the cards in their favor with primed customers or easy targets. The takeaway then for the sales staff is that the sales leader “thinks he’s better than us.” Instead, leadership by example means never asking any salesperson to do what you wouldn’t do yourself in their position. It means rolling up your sleeves at the risk of embarrassing yourself to learn what your team members have to experience daily. Your team members will respect you for the effort and honest attempt.
Sales representatives have a lot to say, and many can be extremely creative. The trick is separating the petty and personal from the enterprise conversations that may move the needle. Those discussions that qualify need to be taken seriously because they may greatly impact the growth of the business, improve upon existing conditions to help overall sales performance, and at the very least make the rep feel empowered. Listening without distraction, taking notes, and asking questions illustrates your willingness during the conversation. Most importantly, following up with the sales representative or sales manager after the conversation is paramount, even if the follow up is a decision against the proposed improvement. As a third step, regardless of whether it’s adopted or not, give credit for the idea to the person. Under no circumstance should the sales leader take credit for someone else’s idea. That’s the fastest way to lose credibility.
Here it is in action.
At the international company where we were experiencing accelerated sales growth, we had a large number of creative reps, so we assembled an advisory council comprised of these reps. They would also speak on behalf of certain reps in their region and give credit where due.
This group would meet twice a year and bring issues and proposed solutions to our attention for consideration. Usually, we adopted some of the proposed solutions at least in part. But one time, everything was truly in left field. The issues were not really things that required attention since we had proof they were exaggerated. The proposals were unrealistic (and costly).
The advice I received was to stay quiet and not address any of it. Instead, I reached out individually to each person who was credited with raising the issue and explained as tactfully as I could the reason the issue wasn’t on the radar and why we would not be implementing that solution. The response was a genuine appreciation that I took the time to explain and seriously consider what was proposed.
The most challenging component to being a well-respected leader is maintaining a high level of integrity. This means holding everyone to the same standards. It means taking the high road when your emotions tell you otherwise. It means making some really, really hard decisions based on core values, some of which may cost you your job. It means putting your team and the company first even if you have to let someone go that you like personally but just isn’t meeting performance standards.
As head of sales for a tech startup, we gained significant traction after transforming customer service reps into a high performing inside sales team. Another round of funding was on the horizon and the Founders decided to experiment with a new sales initiative that had the potential to bring in exponential sales numbers. While the upside was appealing, it dramatically extended the sales cycle, was unaligned with sales fundamentals, and unaligned with our supply side of the marketplace. We all felt the need to create the hockey stick of growth most appealing to investors, but I felt compelled to take a measured approach to this pivot. The jobs of the sales staff would be greatly impacted and the organization would be missing out on bread and butter sales from a core customer group with the change.
The person who had some success with the new strategy during the early experimental phase was thrown into a sales operations role from a marketing function and eventually took over our best members of the sales team. This move killed the high performing and collaborative culture I had worked hard to build over the past year, made others who were not part of this group feel inferior, and unraveled the sales fundamentals that had previously been working so well. Sales reps feared for their jobs, and there were murmurs that some may be leaving given the uncertainty. I expressed my concerns to a company Founder several times while working to mitigate the risks of the new directive. In the end I was forced out of the organization.
By leading by example, listening intently, and doing my best to maintain a high level of integrity, I’ve earned the trust of every sales team I’ve been a part of in my career. I truly care for those I work with; I want them to succeed and go on to do great things. Knowing that I’ve had some influence in their success is gratifying. And that’s the final lesson here: you lead by example, listen to your people, and maintain a high level of integrity because ultimately it makes you feel good to help others while capturing value for the organization by inciting a ripple effect — if you embody these positive leadership traits, your team members will usually pass them along and influence others to do so as well.