Don't Make an Unforced Error in Hiring a Top Performing Sales Manager

Ed Marsh | Sep 8, 2023

Tl;dr - Promoting a top-performing sales rep to sales manager is a seductive answer to filling a vacant or new role. Occasionally, it is the right answer, but it's fraught with pitfalls. Not only does it often not deliver an improvement, but it can undermine the entire sales effort. There's a better way; choose excellence over convenience.

Three Short Steps to Destroy Your Sales Team

We've all seen this movie before. A company grows to the point that they need a sales manager or an existing manager leaves.

It's common for a capital equipment company with $50MM in revenue ($30MM in new machine sales) to have a sales force of 7-10 reps reporting directly to the president. Adding a sales manager (often called a VP of Sales but actually functioning as a first-line manager) is an important step. And it's often bungled.

Everyone hates recruiting and hiring because it's time-consuming, expensive, and a crap shoot. So, the natural inclination is to turn inside to find someone. And the natural choice is the top-performing industrial sales rep.

And voila, step one, appoint the top performing sales rep as sales manager.

But here's the rub. They're the top-performing sales rep, and you need their numbers to keep growth on track. So, step two, you meet with them and explain they'll have to keep on selling because you need their production. They're OK with that because selling is what they enjoy and excel at.

But that means they're now too busy to manage - after all, they were selling full-time before. They're too busy for training, they don't have time for consistent sales coaching of each rep - shoot, they probably don't even really know what a sales manager should do since it's never been modeled for them!

So they sell 80% of the time, and collect some pipeline reports and organize a couple of sales team meetings with the balance of their time, and step three, you create an org chart manager but have an autonomous sales team.

And autonomous sales teams, even of veteran superstars, don't succeed in the long term.

So you've neutered your sales force.....but it gets worse.

And Now You're Boxed In

when hiring a sales manager your goal should be excellence, not convenienceAverage sucks.

You don't want your company stuck in average land.

That means you can't have an average sales team.

But statistically, that's what's likely.

It takes relentless work to build a 2nd, or even 3rd standard deviation sales team; in other words, a sales team that represents the top .3 to 5% of talent.

That kind of team is a strategic advantage that gives you optionality.

Unfortunately, the common three-step process outlined above actually eliminates options. Here's why.

Once you've dubbed someone a manager, there's ego and status involved. But they're not managing. 

So you've boxed yourself in.

You can't send them back to being a sales rep because they'll be disheartened, and their sales effectiveness will suffer, or they'll leave, and you'll lose their sales.

You can't appoint someone else as manager and move all the direct reports to them because you end up with the same hit to their ego - and the consequences outlined above.

In other words, you've cost yourself rainmaker sales, and the opportunity to effectively manage the rest of the sales team toward revenue goals.

It seemed like a simple and convenient solution. Sadly, it's lose-lose-lose.

So before you promote your top performer, take a deep breath. There's a better way.

A Better Approach to Hiring a Sales Manager

A sales VP (leadership), sales manager (management), sales rep, account manager, BDR, and inside sales are all different roles. They require different competencies. (Here's more info on hiring a VP of Sales and on hiring a Sales Manager.)

They require different skills. That means performance is based on different competencies, as is their personal and professional satisfaction and effectiveness.

You need a specific process to hire a sales manager; a process based on a deep understanding of what the role requires. You also need a great job posting that describes your ideal candidate. (A job description is not a job posting!)

Your search should include internal and external candidates. The recruiting and hiring process should include a sales manager assessment as a first step so that you comply with EEOC regulations and don't waste time with candidates who won't successfully manage sales.

Now, obviously, you'll want to manage expectations for internal candidates, and if your rainmaker is interested in the position, have honest conversations about how their responsibilities and activities will change. Maybe they would be a great sales manager and want to be. But maybe not. Nevertheless, they may want some professional growth, and/or title, and/or money. 

If they've never managed people, they may have unfounded and romanticized expectations, not realizing that managing people is a grind or that their compensation would likely take a hit.

You don't want to hold them back from professional growth or achievement of their goals, but you don't want to set them up for failure. And if they're your rainmaker, have conversations about how their book of business will be handled. They can't do both (beyond maybe maintaining a couple of accounts.)

Once you hire the sales manager, you owe them training, coaching, and mentoring. They'll likely be suddenly managing their former peers. That's a transition that takes guidance. And whether they're internal or external candidates, you need a robust 16-week onboarding plan.

They'll also need the tools to succeed. This includes a "Guide to Working With (You)" - a written brief on how you work most successfully with others, your philosophy, pet peeves, etc. It also includes clearly articulated expectations for communications (frequency of formal check-in, expectations for meeting agendas, batched inquiries, confirming recaps, tracking of action items, etc.)

The tool kit of a successful sales manager also includes a full sales team evaluation to help them optimize their coaching, a sales training budget, a strong sales enablement content program, executive emphasis on sales & marketing integration, and an appropriate sales tech stack

Don't cut corners and handicap a hotshot sales manager with inadequate tools and support.

Manage your Sales Manager so (S)he Manages the Sales Team

Building a superb sales team takes great sales management, but hiring a great industrial sales manager isn't a catch-and-release activity. A signed offer is just the beginning.

Just as you should expect your sales manager to manage their reps, you must manage the sales manager.

You must support them often and publicly to forestall passive-aggressive or recalcitrant sales reps who resist the new sales manager's initiatives and authority. They must have authority for hiring and firing - after all, if their success hinges on hitting numbers via their team, underperforming reps must be held to account based on performance, not their legacy relationship with you.

But - big but here - to validate their credibility and authority, you and the sales manager must also embrace accountability. You'll have to manage the manager with expectations for activity, pipeline, and forecast accuracy that are at least as rigorous as the expectations of reps. If you don't, the program will fail, and you'll revert to mediocrity.