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Why Great Players Don’t Always Make Great Leaders

great leaders

It seems logical—you need to fill a sales management position, so you promote the top performer on your sales team. While this may feel like the natural order of things, sales is one of the few professions where top performers don’t need to pursue a management role to advance their career.

In fact, many top-seller-turned-sales-manager situations fail within the first 6 months. According to Hubspot, no other member of the executive suite fails as often as the sales leader, and research from “Split Second Selling” reveals that 77% of the time, managers make mistakes promoting sales reps into sales management. All too often, A-players get promoted, burn out, and leave.

Before making what feels like an obvious choice, consider the following arguments for why your top salesperson may not be sales manager material.

They have trouble articulating what comes naturally to them

While there are exceptions, transplanting a top salesperson to a sales leadership position rarely is successful because, fundamentally, the roles are very different. Top sales performers are driven to be rewarded for their own success, and it can be hard (and frustrating) for them to see why other people can’t do what comes naturally to them.

The struggle for skilled performers to teach others what they know is a phenomenon that is seen both in sports and sales organizations, and can be explained by human psychology: When your performance flows largely outside of your conscious awareness, your memories of what you've done are just not that good. Selling successfully happens naturally for your A-players, and it’s hard to teach something that they do subconsciously.

While top sales performers are skilled at performing, the ability to coach others is the mark of a successful sales manager. They know what their team needs to do and can articulate it well (while staying patient with those who need extra coaching).

They can’t resist parachuting in on every qualified opportunity

Your top sales rep got to where they are by doing what they do best—selling. So when they suddenly find themselves in charge of a sales team, it’s their natural instinct to try and take ownership of all the deals in their new territory. Trying to teach what comes naturally to them can lead to impatience, and an “it’s easier if I just do it myself” attitude, but swooping in to save every deal won’t benefit the team they’re trying to lead.

Good sales managers know that they need to focus on leading indicators, and intervene when necessary with targeted coaching. The trouble is that while billions of dollars are spent each year to improve the skills of sales reps, few companies invest in training their sales managers to be the coaches they need to be. New sales managers need to develop their own ability to coach, cultivate, and lead their team before they can be successful—a reality that’s backed by a Caliper Corp study showing that only 40% of sales leadership skills are innate, while 60% are developed.

They have a hard time with the concept of “success through others”

Your top individual contributors are skilled at doing just that—contributing individually. They’re independent and they know what it takes to consistently meet and surpass their targets, and they’re driven to generate results through their own efforts, and no one else’s.

While that lone-wolf mentality may work well for salespeople, it can be detrimental to the leader of a sales team, whose performance depends on the combined efforts of those they are leading. The shift from being in control of their own success and income, to relying on others to perform doesn’t always come easy. When promoting someone to a sales management position, it’s important to know if stepping out of the spotlight and putting the needs of the team first will be a problem for them. If they aren’t inherently rewarded by contributing to the success of others, they’re probably not cut out for the job.

As with any position, finding the best match for a sales management role should start with an evaluation of what the job requires for success. Once you’ve found the right person, be sure to provide them with resources to master their coaching skills—developing coaches will ultimately benefit the performance of the players on your team.

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Tony Smith

More articles written by Tony Smith

Tony Smith is a Regional Vice President of Sales at The Brooks Group. Tony’s high-energy, driven, and focused entrepreneurial spirit allows him to confidently approach myriad client business problems with ease. Relationships truly matter to him and he believes that we should all approach everyone with a sincere desire to help in whatever way possible.