Sales leaders are a chronically underserved group when it comes to their development.
They typically get promoted based on achieving sales targets, and are then expected to take on business and people leadership responsibilities without any support developing these capabilities. Those responsibilities grow exponentially as they rise in the organization, and sales leaders are expected to continue performing despite the lack of support the receive relative to other business leaders who are advancing along similar paths. This has been true more than ever over the past two years, when sales enablement has been focused on front-line sellers and their rapid shift to remote and hybrid work.
At the same time, integration across the entire value chain, from marketing to sales and customer success, has created more complex demands for sales leaders. Additionally, the Great Resignation has meant that many are taking on new responsibilities and expanded portfolios.
Through it all, these sales leaders have been expected to just figure it out on their own.
Why it matters to develop sales leaders
Sales leaders not only hold the key to the company’s revenue growth, they also are responsible for growing, developing, and nurturing the sales teams beneath them. Skillful sales leaders boost engagement and lower attrition. The more effective sales leaders are at leading their teams, the more productive and effective their teams – and the higher the revenues and profits the teams generate. The more sales leaders understand about managing the business, the better they can pivot and focus themselves and their teams on what will accelerate value creation.
What matters most in developing sales leaders
When assessing the needs of sales leaders and where to help them build capabilities, it is important to focus on four key questions:
- Are they responsible for defining a target market?
- Do they have profit-and-loss responsibility?
- Have they previously led a team that is measured on revenues?
- Have they previously been a leader of leaders?
These questions help determine what elements of sales leadership need to be developed based on the responsibilities of the role in your organization. The four components, as highlighted in the figure below, create a useful roadmap for helping leaders prioritize their development to accelerate their ability to deliver in the role.
The right capabilities at the right time, in the right role
For each of the four areas where sales leaders need to play, there are several key skill sets and capabilities that will ensure they succeed within that aspect of their role. Sales leaders may also benefit from more than one category of learning, depending on their responsibilities within the enterprise. The framework detailed below can help you think about what you need, and when, to deliver as a sales leader.
As a group, sales leaders are smaller than first-line managers and have diverse needs. Equally important, senior sales leaders tend resist anything that sounds like “training,” which makes it harder to prioritize.
The Next Gen Sales Leader
Leading-edge companies are finding ways to develop their sales leaders, knowing that the return for the organization will be exponential. They are looking for different ways to engage leaders, ways that meet them where they are and that have clear relevance to their roles.
The first step is to reframe the engagement, with meeting formats like roundtables. Senior leaders sincerely appreciate the opportunity to share experiences with their peers and to learn together. While they are time-constrained, as long as the time spent is worthwhile, senior leaders will engage.
Here are three examples to consider as you think about your own sales leader development:
- Building commercial leadership
A life sciences company with a distributed P&L runs an annual program to improve new general managers’ commercial leadership and ability to deliver on business goals. These newly promoted leaders come from a variety of commercial and non-commercial backgrounds, and the company wanted participants to benefit from the program regardless of whether they were already leading sales teams, had indirect sales teams, or were selling through a partner channel.
BTS helped develop the organization’s leaders in three key leadership areas: 1) Building Talent for Competitive Advantage; 2) Strategy Development and Execution; and 3) Financial and Commercial Acumen.
As a result of the program, 30 percent of the actions participants committed to take in their day-to-day roles have been completed. Focusing on on-time delivery resulted in manufacturing a Biological Drug Substance 95 percent on time and on target for the site. Participants also reported increased confidence pushing back, which led to an improvement in workplace culture.
- Creating high value targeted leader development
A leading pharmaceutical organization experiences significant shifts in revenue and profitability tied to the development and approval of new drugs. These shifts require rapid adjustments in the organization’s go-to-market approach to ensure optimal investment of time and resources. The organization’s leaders need to be capable of pivoting and creating more agile teams to meet these challenges.
After running an internal development program that failed to equip leaders with these skills, the organization partnered with BTS to create a program that provided a personalized experience for each leader and centered on real challenges in the market.
The learning journey included three critical leadership areas: 1) Sales Leader as Coach; 2) Adopting a General Manager Mindset; and 3) Leading Others through Change.As a result of the program, Region Sales Directors reported feeling better equipped to coach their teams on innovative approaches to client conversations. Directors also reported that they were able to have more difficult conversations, recognizing that these conversations led to opportunities for growth.
- Driving transformation through developing sales leaders
With the goal of achieving the next level of business results, a leading tech organization implemented a new go-to-market strategy that would require a strong leadership succession pipeline.The organization needed to enable key talent to better leverage their strengths, maximize team member engagement and output, and drive change and transformation.
The organization partnered with BTS to create a learning journey for its high-potential sales leaders. This six-month journey was designed to enable leaders to develop greater self-awareness, encourage productive mindsets, shift behaviors, and apply new skills to workstreams.
The learning journey featured workshops and peer coaching on these topics: 1) Choose Your Attitude; 2) Developing Others; and 3) Company Transformation and Strategy Execution.
As a result of the program, leaders shifted their approach to leading teams, developed skills to get the most out of their teams, and evolved their leadership posture to be more present and inclusive.
The way forward
Leading edge companies are showing the way to develop better sales leaders. Their success results from a three-pronged approach:
1. Gain clarity on the growth needs of individual leaders and their teams
2. Structure experiences in a way that fits leaders’ busy schedules
3. Bring sales leaders together in peer groups that deliver high impact
These companies’ investments in development are rewarded with lower attrition and greater sales effectiveness, resulting in more profitable revenues.
Are you ready to create your Next Gen Sales Leaders?