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10 Steps to Becoming a Great Sales Leader

As a sales leader, the key to achieving a sustainable shift in your company’s sales results rests with you. Regardless of market conditions, you need to develop and apply an array of competencies and behaviours that will determine whether you are a poor leader, an average leader or a great leader of the sales function.

So what makes a great sales leader and how can you develop great sales leadership skills?

Well, my team and I have worked with, trained and coached hundreds of sales managers and sales directors. At all levels, we have seen that the same qualities differentiate the great from the good.

Here are 10 steps that you can take to become a great leader of the sales function.

1. Think and Act Strategically (& Have a Plan)

In any leadership role there is a risk that you will get dragged down into the ‘noise’ of tactical ‘firefighting’ and dealing with issues that are regarded as ‘urgent’.

However, you need to have a strategy for your sales function which involves (at most) 5 key programmes that are designed to get your team from ‘where it is now’ to ‘where you want it to get to’ in terms of performance, behaviours and reputation. This means that you and your people have to be able to create the space to think and act strategically to get to a place where less tactical ‘firefighting’ occurs.

You need to have a plan to get there and you, your team and the rest of your organisation need to buy into (and support) the successful execution of the plan.

2. Create a Credible Vision & Bring Your Communications to Life

Sales leadership is not just about putting out fires. A great sales leader inspires their people and stakeholders with a positive vision of where they are taking the company (or division).

This vision should describe a combination of aspirational performance levels and descriptions of what the experience will be like for employees, customers and competitors. The vision should be based on a strong analysis of the marketplace and the company. It should draw conclusions about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and it should lay out a clear rationale explaining why the vision is actually achievable.

A vision that is credible and compelling (i.e. a vision that raises the bar in terms of performance and resonates with everyone in the company) will lift the energy across the sales force and make your people want to follow you and support you in realising that vision.

Great sales leaders use their vision and strategic plans to connect with their people and stakeholders through ‘high impact’ communications which enroll them into actively contributing and moving towards the vision. Make sure that your communications use external pressures, trends and events in the marketplace which are connected to the implications of ‘doing nothing’.

Once you have effectively communicated the need for change, your vision and your strategy for change will become all the more compelling. Use analogies, stories and quotes from historical figures effectively and where appropriate, but remember to make your communications your own and make them appeal to the hearts and minds of your audience.

3. Be an Agent of Change & Transformation

Change is an inevitable part of any business environment and often presents new opportunities, such as innovative new ideas, projects and clients. Unlike traditional managers, who often resist change, great sales leaders embrace change to take advantage of new opportunities.

To be a great sales leader, you need to achieve a shift in the behaviours, beliefs and attitudes of your people (i.e. a change in the culture of the organisation) if you are going to make the performance shift stick.

4. Develop People, Processes, Systems & Culture

Make sure that your plan develops the capabilities of the organisation. Develop the selling skills of your people through a continuous professional development programme that delivers best practice competencies in terms of skills, behaviours, attitudes and performance.

However, it is important to recognise that you cannot change your people while leaving the team’s processes and systems with the same old problems. This will simply hamper the ability of your people to apply their newly acquired skills. Make sure that your sales planning and execution processes are excellent at the transactional level (calls and meetings), the campaign level (winning deals), the relationship level (e.g. key account development) and the territory level (where each individual should be maximising the performance of their ‘patch’ to hit - and exceed - all of their targets).

5. Connect with All Stakeholders & Be a Team Player

To ensure that your vision and strategic plan is bought into by all of the key people in your ogranisation and across the supplier and channel ecosystem, you need to sell the plan to them, get their feedback and align the plan to their own interests.

You need to be just as good at selling your vision and plans to your stakeholders as your best people are at selling to customers. You need to plan and execute a great sales campaign to get all of the necessary senior decision makers and influencers on your side.

6. Never Compromise on Your Choice of People & Develop Teamwork

When forming a new team or recruiting for a key role, you should never compromise. Listen to your instincts as well as the facts before making a decision.

Employing the wrong person for a key role will cost you dearly and take a huge amount of time and energy to ‘make good’. Your people truly are your greatest asset and your most important investment. You need to be able to know that they will deliver a great return on your investment on an individual level and within the context of your wider team.

To be a great sales leader, you should be people-oriented and have the ability to bring together a wide range of personalities and egos within the team. Like any team -whether it is a business or sporting environment, a great leader will effectively resolve disputes and conflict to ensure that there is a harmony within the team that, in turn, will prevent any distractions from the real objectives that are in place.

Quite simply, the team’s performance has to become stronger than the sum of individual performances.

7. Drive the Execution Proactively & Create Urgency

Great sales leaders develop their own leadership skills. To be great, you need to be a directive leader, a facilitating coach, a manager of risk and a mentor to others across the organisation when the situation demands it. This requires new leadership skills, as well as the right attitude to be able to choose the right style and match the specific situation.

Choosing the right attitude means that you need to detach yourself from any personal reaction towards a situation and decide how best to approach each situation. Even though you need to create urgency and momentum, you must never create a culture of fear or panic with your people.

Pressure, proactivity and urgency are positives but, if your are frightened or angry, they can lead to the wrong decisions. If you look at the bigger picture, put things into perspective and choose the right attitude and leadership style to match a given situation then you will be far more productive.

8. Be a Manager, Coach & Leader

Hold regular reviews with your people and separate the time allocated to these functions. As a manager, performance manage your people, understand and challenge their forecasts and review their plans and strategies.

As a coach, agree goals for the next session, any corrective actions required, what success will look like and any measures to report on for progress. But remember, coaching means that you can only use questions and you can’t direct them. It has to come from them if they are going to truly own the outcomes and actions.

As a leader, when they really get stuck (and only then), give them direction i.e. tell them what you want and get their agreement to the direction. Then immediately drop back to coaching and ask them how they can (and will) assure their success in following the direction you have just given. Delegation of ownership and responsibility for thinking and action (and that’s what this is) is critical. There’s no use hiring good talent if you are not going to manage, lead and coach them to deliver outstanding results.

9. Be Passionate, Enjoy & Work Hard

Great sales leaders are passionate about their sales team’s performance and have a positive attitude towards their work. Their passion and positivity is contagious across the sales force and instils a desire in their sales people to chase and close down deals that provide a quantifiable step-change in the team’s performance.

There is no way round this; the best sales leaders are hard-working individuals who are committed to getting the best out of their sales people, their market-place and their organisation. To build a successful sales team requires hard work and an action-oriented mindset to make your aspirations a reality.

By setting a standard for commitment and effective action throughout the sales force, great sales leaders instil a proactive culture and attract the brightest and best sales people to their team. If you expect your people to work hard and go the extra mile for you, you need to be seen to be doing the same for them.

10. Be Authentic, Respected & Tough When Necessary

The best sales leaders are always honest, professional and respectful of others - no matter how different they might be. They also never compromise their own professional values.

You may want to be liked by your people, but that’s not what you are paid for. You are paid to deliver on your numbers and you will be respected for how you achieve this. You can’t be friends with your people because sometimes you may have to deliver bad news.

You need to be respected if people are to follow you and this means that you need to be great at what you do, always being professional, be true to your own values and make sure that your own values align to the values of the organisation and the values of your people.

If people challenge you, listen to them and empathise with them. However, if they are being destructive, cynical, or playing politics, then you will need to make the right decisions and the right interventions quickly to ‘stop the rot’.

You will also need to fight your people’s corner when the rest of the organisation is blocking their performance. However, fighting their corner is about selling change across the organisation with rationale and business cases, rather than just ‘throwing rocks’ at other departments or playing politics and blaming them for failure.

Written by: Steve Eungblut, Managing Director of Sterling Chase

To find out how Sterling Chase can help you and your sales management community become great sales leaders, contact us on (+44) 0845 371 3099 or get in touch via our Contact page.

10 Steps to Becoming a Great Sales Leader