What it means to be an effective sales leader is constantly evolving in a competitive talent market. Millennials now represent the majority of the workforce, according to a 2015 report from Pew Research. This means a new generation of sales professionals is on the rise, which requires a new approach to sales leadership.
Not only must these up and coming leaders embody unique leadership styles, they often also face the unique challenges of managing their peers and teams made up of millennial professionals. As a millennial myself, I took these factors into consideration and adopted a “new school sales leader” approach to managing. What does that mean in practice?
It means adapting many of the core leadership practices that HR has championed for years and tailoring them to fit today’s diverse sales force.
1) Set realistic, measurable milestones
Sales is about goals -- but the team can only reach those goals if they’re realistic. That means new school sales leaders need to work with their team to set milestones that are both challenging and attainable.
These goals should be grounded in business strategy and need to be measured over time. Doing so keeps the sales team on track, provides insightful data to guide new strategies, and keeps employees motivated. When the team witnesses the results of their hard work and continue to be recognized for their efforts, they’re motivated to keep pushing forward and improve. In fact, a survey conducted by Globoforce this year found 70% of employees say they have a greater emotional connection to their job when they’re recognized for their work.
Goals will always be central in sales, but to have an even larger impact, goal-setting needs to be a two-way conversation between the employee and manager. Creating smart goals together engages and motivates the employee to own their performance. In addition, goals should encompass both hard metrics and vital core competencies.
2) Share holistic feedback
Traditionally, sales leaders have always emphasized performance feedback -- but this feedback tends to be focused on individual goals and outcomes. They’re constantly looking at each employee’s numbers and figures. While measuring concrete outcomes remains important, solely focusing on this financial data isn’t the most effective way to help modern sales teams thrive.
The new school sales leader understands that feedback needs to adresss hard facts as well as the job competencies that make a strong sales member. Provide coaching on areas such as business and product knowledge, client management, and team collaboration to develop foundational and transferrable skillsets.
Further, listen and watch for habits that lead to burnout, poaching, and cutting corners. How one closes a deal is just as important as the time or process it takes to get there. Encourage collaborative processes and healthy practices that will sustain strong sales performance in the long run. Finally, provide feedback on how the employee partners with other members on the team and co-workers across the organization. This 360-degree view on their performance will help them develop into well-rounded professionals.
3) Create a team-centered atmosphere
The old school sales model focuses on competition between peers and teams. The idea is almost a cliché at this point. Think sales leaderboards posted in the office, the enthusiastic manager delivering pep talks to sell more than their co-worker in the next cubicle, and bonuses and trips awarded to those who sell the most.
While these methods can be effective in the short-term, they can erode team culture over the long run. It’s worth shifting to a team-centered approach that places collaboration as a core value.
Instead of encouraging competition, use a leadership style that encourages sales professionals to work together like an actual team. Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing ideas, perfecting strategies, and giving advice to each other. Employees shouldn't keep their practices and successes to themselves, but rather share them with the group to drive improved sales performance throughout the organization.
Building a strong team that works collectively to meet goals has far more ROI than developing one or two superstars. Annual turnover on a sales team is an inevitable reality for most sales leaders. Fostering a positive, team-based culture is critical to retaining and growing talent.
This is where paying it forward as a leader meets succession planning. Take the time to create opportunities for individual contributors to get real practice with project management, mentoring new or junior team members, and leading initiatives so they can start developing their leadership skills. When it’s time to promote employees to people managers, they will then have a proven track record of peer-to-peer support and a foundation of management experience to build from.
It can be challenging for a new manager to break from the “peer pack” and to be viewed as a leader. When promoting someone to a people manager, it’s important to coach the new manager in how to adapt their workstyle, communication, and relationships with their team.
When it comes to leading this generation of sales professionals, consider all the ways to add value to their career growth. This is where fostering team goals, providing ongoing feedback, and creating a non-competitive culture all come into play. At the end of the day, developing a workforce for tomorrow begins with reflecting on leadership approach and adopting a style that meets the needs of the millennial workforce.
Originally published Mar 3, 2017 6:30:00 AM, updated December 16 2019