Why is it so tough to develop a salesperson into a good sales manager?
There are lots of theories. It’s been said, for example, that great salespeople are too egotistical to manage others. They aren’t team players. They’re too quick to jump in and save the day rather than coaching a rep through a challenge. They don’t know why they’re good, so they can’t teach others. They’d rather be out with customers than back in the office.
Could be — although you have to wonder. A salesperson’s job is to get customers to take action. So they need to understand how to motivate people, how to overcome resistance and negativity, and ultimately, how to get the deal done. Is that really so different from a manager’s job?
And at the end of the day, the debate is pretty much moot. Organizations that need to develop new sales managers can either promote from within, or hire from outside. In either case, the talent pool is likely to be the same: salespeople.
So how can you decide which salespeople make good candidates for a leadership position? And what can you do to increase the odds that they’ll be successful if they do move into management?
Research from the University of Illinois sheds some light on both questions.
First, some good news: The notion that leadership potential is something you’re born with is largely unfounded. While some leadership ability is innate, most is acquired. The Illinois researchers cited a 2008 review of human development studies, which concluded that 70% of leadership ability is learned, and only 30% is inherited.
That said, some potential leaders are more teachable than others. A key factor, the researchers found, is a quality known as “self-efficacy.”
‘You can do this’
Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of doing something — in this case, leading others.
In the Illinois study, students who entered a 15-week leadership class with a lot of confidence in their ability to lead — an attitude of “You can do this” — acquired more leadership skills and were more motivated to seek leadership opportunities than those who entered the classes with low ratings of self-efficacy.
But here’s more good news: The classes themselves had a positive impact on self-efficacy. So even the lower-performing students benefited. The exposure to leadership principles and techniques primed them to get more out of subsequent courses.
Implications for training
Here are takeaways for organizations looking to develop sales managers:
- Leadership CAN be taught — so the concern that salespeople can’t be developed into good sales managers is probably overblown.
- Look for evidence of “self-efficacy” when you’re recruiting potential sales managers. Of course, every candidate is going to try to sound “can-do,” so you need to dig deeper. Ask them to explain why they think they’d be good managers. How do they see the manager’s role — as one of keeping the trains running on time, or as an opportunity to change behavior? Can they tell you about a time when they’ve successfully helped influence a group of people toward a common goal? Do they think their own managers have been effective — why or why not? What you’re looking for are signs of confidence that (1) effective leadership really does make a difference and (2) that they can acquire these skills.
- If you have sales managers who are struggling, don’t automatically assume that the problem is skills or personality. Perhaps the problem is self-efficacy. Help them see that they CAN influence others and change behavior. For example, after you’ve coached them through a difficult leadership challenge, ask, “Do you think that your actions in this situation led to a better outcome?”
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