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Not All Great Salespeople Make Great Sales Leaders

A Sales Growth Company
September 16, 2023

Not all great salespeople are cut out to be great sales leaders. It’s comparing apples and oranges. In this post, I want to unravel the reasons some people who excel at selling don’t necessarily shine when they’re asked to lead a sales team. It’s something we see time and time again in every profession, we assume that the standout performers should be leadership and they will excel at it, which is not the case.


Different Leadership in Sales

Being an accomplished salesperson and leading an entire sales organization requires different flavors of leadership. There are different types of influence at play. A salesperson is a leader, no question about it, just in a different way. A salesperson is leading a sale, managing the deal, answering questions that arise, etc. The leadership requirements of selling are more of a light job or a warm up, short spurts, short term wins and losses. To take a page from Granovetter’s book – selling is a weak tie leadership.


The Shift from Sales to Leadership

This happens all too often. A salesperson is a top performer year in and year out. They consistently exceed quota, their close rates are excellent, they know the industry and the problems the company solves inside and out. They’re a 1%er, a president’s club regular. Naturally, when a leadership role opens up they’re handed the reigns.

They’re no longer responsible for just their own success but the success of every member of their team. The skills that made them an exceptional salesperson – their knack for diagnosing problems, building their credibility, and offering personalized solutions are no longer the most important skills in their day to day work.

What Does it Take to be a Sales Leader?

Leading a sales team is a different ballgame. Sales leaders and sales managers need to have long-term leadership skills. The moment you step away from being an individual contributor on a team, everything changes. Your job is no longer about selling.

Your job is to get the people who work for you to perform at their highest level, execute flawlessly, and rally behind a shared vision. You’re winning through others. Leadership is building a cohesive team where everyone plays their part.

Despite decades of evidence debunking the idea that great salespeople make great leaders, the misconception persists. We’ve seen it countless times where an exceptional salesperson stumbles. It’s not a failure on their part, it’s a failure in the system. The failure to recognize that leadership is its own craft.


Lack of Leadership Focus

Our working world lacks a focus on the skills required to be a leader. High schools and colleges offer limited courses dedicated to nurturing leadership qualities. Instead, our education system tends to prioritize specific jobs skills and trades, channeling our focus in those fields. No one is handing you a manual on how to lead, inspire, and motivate a team as you progress towards that first leadership role. You’re left to figure it out on your own, like many people are, and if you fail you’re labeled as a “bad leader.” This is where the need of proper sales leadership training and a robust sales leadership development program becomes evident.


Batteries Not Included

Defining the skills that make a great leader seem to be a mystery. When we’re promoting people, leadership often takes a back seat. We assume that if someone is a great salesperson, they’ll automatically be a fantastic sales leader. Remember when you were a kid and you got a new toy and somewhere on the packaging it said “Batteries Not Included?” This is the same shit, “Leadership Not Included”. We assume it comes with the package but we haven’t invested enough time and effort into evaluating it properly.

Finding a Qualified Sales Leader

Go browse some job listings for sales leadership roles – Vice President of Sales, Director of Sales, or Sales Manager. What do you see? Not much of the copy is dedicated to sales leadership skills. When we’re hiring our next leader, we’re like a kid in a candy store. We’re so giddy about finding the perfect candidate based on the experience and their industry knowledge that we forget to read the fine print. Can they lead others successfully? The leadership component is an afterthought, a nice to have but not a must have. We’re looking for the seasoned sales vet and often overlooking the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Leadership isn’t a luxury. A sales leader is the backbone of success in a sales organization. They’re what transforms a group of individuals into a cohesive, high-performing team.


Prioritizing Leadership Skills

Leadership isn’t given, it’s a skill, an art, and it needs it’s own evaluation criteria, training, and spotlight. So, why are we treating leadership like a rare gem that might appear once an individual gets the new titles. We need to demand more space in the job descriptions for leadership skills and experience. We need to prioritize evaluating leadership skills just as rigorously as we do industry knowledge.

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