Most sales leaders would agree with what one sales vice president once told us: “If your first-line management is broken, the entire sales force will be ineffective.” Yet many companies don’t do enough to develop their sales managers.
There are two main reasons. First, some sales leaders think (often wrongly) that because sales managers were once successful salespeople, they should be able to manage salespeople effectively just based on natural instinct. Second, some sales leaders believe in training managers but find it hard to justify a formal program due to the expense. This happens especially at companies that have a limited number of sales manager vacancies each year.
This is a mistake. Companies that fail to develop sales managers forego a key opportunity. Developing a salesperson improves performance in a single sales territory. Developing a sales manager improves performance across all the territories that a manager oversees. Sales manager development often produces big effectiveness gains at relatively low cost.
Overcoming the obstacles to developing sales managers requires first recognizing the need to develop managers, and then choosing training methods that are both effective and efficient.
Making the Case for Training
According to research reported in HBR, the Peter Principle is alive and well in sales forces: Companies promote their best salespeople to become their worst managers. Sometimes companies promote the wrong person—someone who is good at sales but lacks managerial potential—a problem we have written about in the past. Yet even ideal candidates can’t excel as managers unless they are developed.
The transition from salesperson (player) to manager (coach) is neither easy nor natural for most people. Most newly promoted managers lack critical competencies. They don’t have experience managing others. They haven’t recruited, coached, energized and retained a team of salespeople. They don’t know how to create a business plan or navigate the internal organization to get needed resources. Without guidance, new managers are forced to improvise, and competency mastery is inconsistent.
Onboarding is essential for getting new managers out of their comfort zone (selling) and into leading a sales team. After a successful onboarding, ongoing development helps experienced managers refresh skills, address competency gaps, and keep up with the ever-changing sales environment.
Finding the Right Way to Train Managers
Manager onboarding and development can have high payback for any size sales force. The secret is finding the right blend of methods for the situation. Large sales forces can justify customized programs, while smaller sales forces need more creative approaches. The following methods work well for small sales forces and can also contribute to manager development in large sales forces.
Mentoring by supervisors. A first-line sales manager’s superior (typically a regional or national sales director) has many responsibilities. Coaching and advising subordinates seldom gets the attention it deserves. Purposeful strategies can elevate the role of the supervisor in developing first-line managers. Some companies expect that as much as half of sales directors’ time should be devoted to coaching first-line managers. One company required sales directors to participate in training sessions with managers, rather than simply giving an introduction and leaving. Another company’s sales directors regularly studied first-line managers to learn which skills and knowledge needed attention. Then directors would organize development sessions focused on these competencies as part of regularly scheduled management team meetings.
Peer learning. Peer mentoring is an effective way to onboard new managers. The number of mentors depends on the size of the sales team. One company divided the task of mentoring a new sales manager among five experienced managers. Each experienced manager was asked to spend two days with the new manager while focusing on one of five key job responsibilities: 1.) Business planning; 2.) Talent acquisition, management and development; 3.) Sales tracking and execution; 4.) Performance management, rewards and recognition; 5.) Contracting, negotiating and pricing. The new manager shadowed each of the five experienced managers and came out of the 10-day mentorship period with a broad base of knowledge about the job. In addition, the new manager had five different mentors they could turn to for future questions and advice.
Another company assigned two mentors to each new manager. One mentor had been in the manager role for one to two years and could relate to the challenges of being new. The other mentor had more years of experience and could share wisdom. While mentorship programs benefit new managers, such programs also help mentors grow by giving them leadership experience, reinforcing their knowledge, and increasing their motivation and confidence.
On an ongoing basis, companies can use technology to encourage peer learning among managers. One company set up an online community to help first-line managers collaborate and share best practices. Managers could post questions and comments, while the company monitored content to avoid any spread of misinformation and ensure the site stayed current and productively focused. Another company asked high-performing experienced managers to video themselves giving advice about specific job challenges. The videos became part of a podcast library that any manager could access when needed.
Independent learning. By providing easy access to development resources, companies allow managers to individually seek out ways to improve their skills and knowledge. One company created an online portal linking learning materials (white papers, books, seminars, courses, video clips, webinars) to specific management competencies. All materials were on the company intranet. This made it easy for managers to work independently on developing competencies that they or their supervisor felt needed improvement. Since sales professionals tend to be unusually competitive and goal-oriented, some companies have incorporated game elements (points, badges, missions, leaderboards) into learning portals to encourage participation and make learning more social and fun.
By recognizing the value of developing sales managers and blending the right learning methods, companies can create a winning sales management team and accelerate sales force performance.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Harvard Business Publishing. Reprinted with permission. This blog originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website: https://hbr.org/2019/03/why-new-sales-managers-need-more-training