I’ve spent 20+ years training salespeople and sales leadership. Moreover, I’ve worked with dozens of companies in many different sectors. This important dilemma pops up surprisingly often. When a sales leadership position becomes available, the best salesperson on the team is automatically promoted. Is this a best practice?
There are a number of reasons why this should be considered.
- Sometimes, other sales team members recognize that this person is indeed a great seller. Consequentially, this person may have immediate leverage with other team members.
- Not promoting this top seller may cause him/her to look for another job. This creates another key vacancy for the team.
- Rewarding excellence sets a good example for the entire company, not just the sales department.
- It is the easy way out, at least for the time being. Most people expect this promotion. The top performer stays engaged. Not to mention, it is a relatively quick process. In the short term, everyone may be happy.
There are four clear and compelling reasons to move forward with the promotion. So what is the dilemma? Why not simply promote the top seller and move on?
In a practical application, there are two potential problems with this approach:
- You may end up losing your most productive salesperson.
- You may have just hired a terrible sales manager who actually reduces the effectiveness of other team members.
Either issue represents a meaningful risk. But if you are among the unfortunate leaders who experience both outcomes at once, you know the combined negative impact on performance can be significant! Promoting our top producers is a common practice. However, doing so often proves the inherent truth in that classic management observation, the Peter Principle. In this case, people get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence – and that’s when the problems start.
Why are we facing this sales leadership dilemma?
First of all, there is the expectation of salespeople themselves.
They are ambitious, and they should be. However, there are two types of ambition: the vertical one: desiring to become the manager, and the horizontal one: desiring to be the best salesperson in the company. It is the vertical ambition that can cause tremendous problems. In my observation, the vertical ambition is very often driven, not by the sellers themselves but by their social environment. Becoming a manager provides more status, and potentially a pathway to more money. So even if they love to sell and dislike being a sales manager, many sellers are subtly coerced by their spouse, relatives, and friends to become a manager.
The second reason is the selection process for hiring salespeople.
You see when we hire sellers we often make our selection in part based on their vertical ambition. So when asked where the candidate wants to be in five years, the preferred answer is often, “I’ll have your position.”
Finally, a major reason for this dilemma is fear.
Many companies are afraid of losing a top-performing salesperson if they don’t offer him or her the obvious promotion. And in many cases, they should be. Because they have failed to effectively communicate an acceptable alternative career path, failing to at least offer their top rep this position may well result in bad feelings all around.
How can we avoid this situation and get the best person for the sales leadership job?
Here are several concrete actions we can take to avoid this situation and keep our high-performing seller happy:
- Create job descriptions for both positions and be certain internal and external candidates understand the differences between the two jobs.
- Stop making vertical ambition a hiring requirement for all salespeople.
- Assess all interested salespeople for management potential based on the job of sales leader and coach. Share candid feedback with these people about how qualified you think they are well before a management position becomes available. Define an alternative career path for sales professionals who are not qualified to become managers. I know of some companies where top salespeople are eventually able to earn VP titles without having direct reports.
- Have potential managers participate in sales management training before promoting them. This will help them better understand the role and responsibilities and afford you an opportunity to evaluate their performance.
- Have top reps take over management roles on a temporary basis. Examples include the absence of actual sales managers. Openly and objectively assess their performance in those temporary roles.
Remain thoughtful about this challenge beforehand. Furthermore, take precautionary steps. By doing this, we avoid the Peter Principle. Additionally, we provide our best salespeople with a career path that affords them the recognition they deserve. Do not promote them into positions for which they are poorly suited.