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Think Twice About That Promotion!

Jim Brodo, Senior VP of Marketing from Richardson, asked if I would contribute some content to their newsletter.  I went back over some of what I wrote over the past year or so, and rediscovered a piece on promoting top sales reps to management positions.

This is an important issue for both the sales person and the executive  considering promoting that rep.  Here’s the bottom line:  the skills and traits for success in a sales management position overlap but are very different for success in a direct selling role.  That means that if that salesrep, no matter how well they have performed, does not possess the specific skills and traits required for success in that management job, they are likely going to fail. 

I know that executives are faced with a tough decision when a top salesrep comes to them demanding a management position.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with reps and managers on that very issue over the years.

By the time this situation occurs, it is usually too late for a positive outcome.  The salesrep may have told her colleagues or family about their plan and staying in their current position may not be any longer possible.  (When this situation does occur, it’s a sign that effective career counseling within the person’s company has likely not taken place.

I’m thinking now about Lou, a very strong salesrep, who worked for a client’s company.   Four years ago, the CEO of that small technology company called me and asked what I thought about him promoting Lou to be VP of sales, a position that was then open following the firing of the person that held that job. I asked whether Lou was qualified.  The CEO didn’t think so, but then he hadn’t really thought about what was required for success.  With the CEO’s approval, I called Lou and spoke to him about the situation. He told me he decided that he was the most qualified person in the company to assume that position, and that he would leave if he didn’t get it.  We had a number of discussions over several weeks, while the CEO assumed the role of VP of sales.  Lou became concerned that he might not be as qualified for the position as he first thought.  He continued to sell and made his numbers for the next two quarters.  The CEO had by then hired a strong outsider for the VP of sales role.  Lou stayed in the company, determined to get to that next level.  Fast forward.  The company got acquired, the new VP of sales left and Lou took over as VP of that division of the larger company.  He had plenty of support and, last I heard, was quite successful in his new role.

Here are my recommendations on the topic of promoting strong sales reps to sales management positions:

  • If you’re a salesrep and you’d like to move up the ladder for whatever reason, spend some time understanding what is really required for success as a manager.  It’s considerably more than just strong selling skills. You can’t fake it, and these days there are few companies that would wait for you to train on the job.
  • If you’re the executive, think about this:  If the rep isn’t qualified, it’s just a matter of time before they fail in their new role as manager.  Then, not only do they leave your company, but the situation probably winds up worse than before they took the new position. So, if that rep comes to you for a promotion, it’s time to sit down with them and to explain to them precisely the capabilities they need to be successful.  Perhaps agreeing on a six-month plan for them to get up to speed on they key management skills would enable both of you to feel the likelihood of success is considerably greater.



2 Responses

  1. Dave, this problem is also epidemic in technology development. People always want to take the best programmers and make them managers–which often is a double loss. A weak manager, and one fewer strong programmer.

    In addition to your point–that executives look at success at one level as an indicator of success at the next–there’s another factor. Most companies provide higher compensation and recognition to managers than to front line folks. And while there is some validity in this, it does a disservice to star performers in programming and sales, who feel pressure to move up even if it’s not the right move for them.

  2. Agreed…

    It is definitely a different game to go from selling successfully (and gaining satisfaction on your achievements) to getting a team to sell successfully (gaining satisfaction by their achievements) – not to mention the completely different skill set.

    Too many companies place little value on being a great sales person – it is up to upper management to career counsel every sales person to ensure their path is the right one and that it is meaningful, whether it be to continue in a selling role or to move into a managers role. Either way both are vital to an organizations livelihood!

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