The NHL hockey season is starting and, as a native Canadian living in Chicago (a hockey hotbed and the home of the current Stanley Cup champions, respectively), I believe—as many do—that the greatest hockey player ever was Wayne Gretzky. However, as a head coach of the Arizona Coyotes, Gretzky’s record was a modest 143 wins, 161 losses and 24 ties, for a 47.3% winning percentage. And Gretzky is not alone in this respect: many superstar athletes go on to coach teams, and the results are mixed. Clearly, excelling in the performance of a chosen sport does not mean one will excel in the coaching of that same sport. Of course, some former players do make successful coaches, and some “career” coaches are not successful, so there is no set formula for success.
Arguments can be made both for and against the promotion of the superstar athlete to coach. Proponents will say the superstar athlete understands the game, and sees things, that others might miss. They are driven to win, and know what it takes to reach the highest levels of performance. Opponents will note that the superstar athlete is typically a driven and highly motivated individual, which does not mean they will know how to motivate and derive performance from the “average” player. The game may have come so naturally to them that they lack the ability to extract that same level of performance from others.
And with this in mind, what if we consider sales compensation and the promotion of your top-performing sales reps to manager?
Conventional logic dictates that the best reps should get promoted to manager, often using the same logic applied to athletes. High-performing reps are driven and motivated and will help others reach that same peak. They will impart their knowledge about how to sell to their direct reports. And yet I often talk to sales leaders or compensation practitioners who claim that the best reps do not make good managers. This is similar to the best hockey players not making good coaches, albeit perhaps for different reasons. So consider the following two actions before you promote that rep to manager.
First, consider what motivates that high-performing rep. Is he or she motivated by money? Does he or she truly enjoy the upside earnings opportunity of the sales compensation plan? If so, the transition to manager may prove costly (pun intended) since a high-performing individual contributor sales rep would typically earn more than a manager, who may have higher targets but the averaging effect of many people. Alternatively, perhaps the salesperson enjoys coaching and working with a team, and would be interested in the role.
Second, consider the skills and competencies required to succeed at the manager level. While salespeople and managers will share some necessary skills, other competencies will be specific to a rep or a manager. Being a great salesperson doesn’t mean someone will be a great manager. However, that’s not to say a great rep can’t be a great manager. Many good reps possess the necessary skills required at the manager level. One way to predict managerial success would be to develop a competency model that clearly defines the criteria for success at the salesperson and managerial levels, then assess leading candidates on both dimensions. The reps who score highest on the success factors for managers would be your top candidates for promotion.
Although it might be difficult to imagine, with all apologies to The Great One, perhaps it’s not a good idea to put the greatest player on your team behind the bench. If this is something that you believe as well, what criteria would you use to ensure you’ve selected the best coach?