“The most critical role in any sales organization is the first-line manager.” I know you’ve heard that before. In fact, it has been the rallying cry in the new sales force effectiveness wave that the medtech industry has been surfing for the past few years.
And from my perspective, the mantra is true. Our first-line managers are the connective tissue between our commercial strategy and what we are actually trying to achieve on a day-to-day basis with our customers. Without a strong, disciplined and dynamic first-line management team, we can make very little market impact from anything that we do in headquarters. But knowing that it’s true is a whole long way away from being able to do anything about it.
The typical course curriculum for managers looks something like this: Coaching 101, Coaching 201, Coaching 301, end of the curriculum. Aside from courses on coaching style, our industry offers very little useful, tangible development support. For the most important role in the sales organization, this is a scary reality.
I believe, in part, that this lack of content is because we don’t actually know what it takes to be successful as a first-line manager in today’s world. It’s very easy for us to develop sales representative training content. “This is your product.” “This is your sales model.” “Here is how you capture your calls.” All of these are structured, defined and well-known processes. In other words, training and development are simple.
However, look at what we expect from our first-line managers. We need them to be great with our customers, we need them to be great with their teams and we need them to be great business minds. What we expect from our first-line managers today is so complex, varied and unstructured that we don’t even try to make sense of it anymore. Instead, we tell them to go to yet another coaching course and to “adapt their coaching style to their reps’ needs.”
Today I want to outline a new approach to first-line manager training and development, a simple three-step approach that pairs a fundamental definition of the first-line manager’s role with a complete and comprehensive learning and development program for the organization.
1. Define expectations. The first and most critical step to any good first-line manager development program is to set the vision for what the role looks like in your specific organization. A competency model typically is a best-in-class way to do this, but there are other methodologies, as well. No matter the model, the definition should describe the tactical behaviors that we expect from our first-line managers in order for them to be successful. This is not an easy process. In fact, it’s the most difficult step. But rest assured: The more precise and specific we can be here, the better chance we have of training our first-line management team to reflect that ideal.
2. Diagnose the current capabilities. Next we must compare where our first-line management team is today compared with the expectations that we’ve defined. This requires us to take a comprehensive view of performance. Typically, we use a 360° assessment for each individual first-line manager. This process includes a downward, self and upward view on an individual’s performance. The resulting data allows for a structured view of the organization’s development needs as well as a deep understanding of an individual’s needs.
3. Drive and track the program. Now that we know our needs, we must create the development program. Typically, training consists of two levels:
- The team: This type recognizes that there are many areas where the majority of the team needs to be “up-skilled”—or to develop their skills. Typically, the training can be supported in a more standard setting such as in a classroom, but, given today’s world, many online solutions are being developed such as e-learning and online tests. These trainings can have a significant impact but should only be focused on those individuals whose 360° assessments show the skill as a need.
- The individual: While individuals will have some training that’s more team-based, it’s critical that we recognize that individuals are different and first-line managers are important enough to the success of an organization that we must invest in the individual. Mentorship and peer-to-peer coaching often are leveraged when creating bespoke and customized development plans, in addition to self- and professional development.
The development program for each organization will vary based on its uncovered needs. However, the need to track the program’s success is standard. Typically, we recommend an annual 360° review of first-line managers’ skill improvement based on the standards set in the expectation model. This can be used in conjunction with the more formal annual plan and is a more nuanced way to set objectives for the year.
As the development needs for first-line managers have evolved, so, too, has the training support that many of my clients have begun to offer. Some recent, innovative examples include team cadence ”up-skilling,” which focuses on creating a structured approach to how first-line managers should engage with their teams through all of the touch points that are available to them—knowing what to do with their reps while spending time with them in the field, for example. This includes a calendar listing when team and individual interactions should occur, the objective and content of those interactions, and the expected outcomes. It focuses on team development and tactical coaching skills.
Another innovative example is business strategy development “up-skilling.” A very real need in today’s healthcare environment is for first-line managers in medtech who can understand the market, competition and company strategy, and effectively tweak their go-to-market approach to capitalize on opportunities. This type of online simulation helps train a first-line manager to structure and define an effective approach given typical business situations. It focuses on developing sales strategy, planning and business acumen skills.
While there are all sorts of programs that can have an impact, the key thing is to ensure consistency. This should not be a one-time initiative. Instead, your company should create an ongoing focus on development, arming first-line managers for continued success.