How to Select Sales Managers Who Can Actually Manage

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Frank V. Cespedes
Frank V. Cespedes



goldfish-1Sales leaders face a conundrum when selecting sales managers from the rep ranks. Most firms have examples of successful salespeople who are disasters as managers because they persist in the same behaviors as a manager that helped them excel as an individual contributor. With this in mind, some industry thought leaders believe sales management candidates should be pulled from another talent pool entirely.

On the other hand, a sales manager can benefit from experience as a rep in that particular sales organization to boost credibility among their direct reports. And credibility is required to conduct candid performance reviews, make compensation decisions, implement necessary account reallocations, and other vital sales management responsibilities. Considering these two conflicting facts, what’s a sales leader to do?

To identify salespeople who can become effective sales managers, leaders need to clearly define the specific behaviors required of managers, and then test for them effectively. And this actually isn’t so hard if you use the right framework and assessment techniques, and then use that knowledge and tools to communicate shared expectations with those aspiring to be sales managers.

Choosing Sales Managers Using the Four Stages Framework

The role of a sales rep differs from that of a sales manager considerably, and with good reason: one is an individual contributor, while the other depends on the success of others for their results.

When choosing a sales manager from a cadre of salespeople, I find it helpful to keep a Four Stages model of career development in mind. Based on decades of ongoing research by Gene Dalton, Paul Thompson and others, it identifies progressive types of behaviors that allow high performers to remain high performers as they handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope: 

  1. Helping and learning
  2. Contributing independently
  3. Contributing through others
  4. Shaping organizational direction

These stages often (but not always) correspond to recognizable titles: assistant or entry-level contributor, individual contributor, manager, and leader. But there are exceptions -- consider the aphorism “some people have twenty years of experience, while others have one year of experience twenty times.” Even a “vice president” is a stage one employee if he or she cannot leverage the contribution of others. The relevant issue is behavior on the job, not job title.

A sales rep being targeted for a promotion to management will have to move from stage two to stage three. Right off the bat, this eliminates anyone grouped into stage one. And since each stage builds off the competencies of the one below it, a sales management candidate should be an exemplary individual contributor, not merely an average one.

At stage three, a new sales manager will need to develop many new skills and capabilities. These include broadening organizational knowledge, forging connections across groups, clearly understanding the big picture context of how sales fits into and works with the company as a whole, representing their team to external stakeholders, and coaching and developing their subordinates to achieve.

Keeping these essential sales manager goals and tasks in mind can help you more carefully select for them and, equally important, develop a communicable view about what it takes to move from rep to manager and the developmental experiences relevant to that journey.

Scrap Interviews in Favor of Behavioral Assessments

But identifying the relevant tasks is only half the battle. How should you assess your candidate’s ability to execute on these responsibilities?

Most people’s first inclination is to conduct an interview. However, research shows that there is only about a 14% correlation between a hiring manager’s perception of a candidate’s potential for success based on an interview and how the candidate actually performs in the role. In other words, if hiring accuracy is what you’re after, interviews aren’t the best bet.

Instead, I suggest that you investigate some kind of behavioral assessment technique. This could be a role play exercise, assignment, or test. For instance, Procter & Gamble provides sales candidates a selling situation case study in advance of their interview, and the job hopeful needs to select target customers and formulate a sales pitch. They then present their project to the hiring managers.

This example is for a rep position, but your organization can easily tailor assessments for sales managers with the stage three tasks in mind. Technology to help administer behavioral assessments is also becoming more prevalent and affordable. The options now include game-like managerial simulations, virtual video environments, and online media -- evaluate your options if you deem a system necessary. But don’t rely solely on interviews because the best results, by far, occur when you can observe relevant job behaviors, not only the talk and track record in a different job.

Don’t just leave the selection of sales managers to gut feel. Use the appropriate framework and assessment techniques to identify, promote, and develop better sales managers.  

Want to read more? Check out my new book, Aligning Strategy and Sales: The Choices, Systems, and Behaviors That Drive Effective Selling.

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Topics: Sales Hiring

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