Top performing sales reps don’t necessarily make the best sales managers, and many experienced sales leaders will attest to this fact. Unfortunately, it’s precisely those at the top of the leaderboard that are tapped to become the next sales managers.
More often than not, that leadership development strategy generally doesn’t work for a number of reasons. I argue that instead of using top performance as the key metric for selecting who moves into a sales manager role, you have better odds of finding a truly great sales manager in the ranks of your A- or B+ reps as long as you have clearly identified the knowledge, skill, and experience needed for management success.
So let’s say you take my advice and start filling your open sales manager slots with people other than your top performers. If you’ve been in the game of finding and developing sales leaders for any length of time, you know any strategy you choose has unintended consequences and implications. So does this one. And it’s this: When you pass over a top performer who wants the job but won’t be good at it, you now have to figure out how to keep that valuable contributor engaged and continuing to produce. How do you do that?
It’s a tough question, and I don’t think there is a definitive answer. However, the first step in driving continued engagement is finding out what made the person want to become a sales manager in the first place. If you understand what’s driving them to change roles, you have the potential to bring elements of what they want into their individual contributor role while keeping them productive in the funnel.
Consider the following five growth opportunities tailored to the rep’s specific ambitions:
- Does your top performer want to have a voice in how the business is run or the product is developed? Establish a way for them to get connected with decision makers on a regular basis who will take their feedback and insights seriously.
- Is your top performer driven to give back but can’t find the time? Figure out how you can carve out the freedom for them to participate in a charitable organization they’re passionate about as part of their work day.
- Does your top performer see opportunities to share their knowledge and skill with salespeople that aren’t as accomplished as they are? Allow flexibility around their productivity targets to give them the room to mentor junior salespeople and get involved in their deals.
- Is your top performer feeling burnt out on the grind of hitting their quota cycle after cycle, and is seeking a management position as a way to escape? Uncover the source of the burnout and figure out how you can reduce its impact or remove it entirely.
- Does your top performer feel like they aren’t making any professional progress? Gain an understanding of what professional progress means to them. Perhaps it's learning more advanced skills or gaining deeper knowledge. If so, find opportunities to send them to training or conferences that will fuel their professional development.
Give Top Performers Room to Grow
Of course, there’s always a catch. When you give someone more responsibility or flexibility while still expecting them to post top-of-the-chart performance you create a recipe for frustration, not engagement.
Here’s some out of the box thinking. What would happen if we actually unburdened this top rep of some of their performance obligations to allow for the opportunities I listed above? Before you laugh out loud at how naïve I am, consider this.
Let’s say your star rep expresses an interest in mentoring rookie salespeople. If you think they might be good at it, reduce their $1,000,000 quota by $200,000 and have them coach six reps. Then assume that effort leads to an additional $50,000 in revenue per rep coached. You’re actually ahead by $100,000!
But you’re ahead by more than just the revenue. There’s a good chance those reps that got the extra help can maintain that new level of performance on their own. And this allows your top rep to move on to helping others, driving overall performance still higher. That $200,000 “investment” you made by freeing up your top rep to help others begins to yield a really strong ROI. Of course, there needs to be strong leadership and clear measurement in place to ensure this kind of result.
I don’t see these opportunities typically given to top sales reps in lieu of management roles, but I think they would make a real difference in keeping them engaged. We tend to treat a top performer as an inexhaustible source of performance, so it’s not surprising when they get burned out and go chase the dollar somewhere else. But a top rep's ability to produce means something beyond their numbers and leadership should make that clear, whether it’s through a chance to expand their horizons, or in some other form of ongoing recognition beyond compensation.
How would you engage a top performer who’s not cut out for management?