Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Leaders aren’t born; they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” Sales leaders are no exception.

Research shows that leadership is 30% genetic and 70% the result of lessons learned through challenging experiences and assignments. Your organization’s next great sales leader may be among your salesforce right now. But it can be hard to find the right talent without knowing the traits to look for and cultivate as you build a sales leadership pipeline.

In part, that's because sales leaders have a three-pronged role. First, they must lead the sales team, retain and expand the customer base and ensure the team remains profitable. Second, they have to develop the organization’s sales strategy across sales channels and verticals. Finally, they must analyze their strategy’s effectiveness, adjusting their sales forecasts and sales methodology accordingly.

Building exceptional sales leaders

So what does it take to make an exceptional sales leader? Sales executives need the experience of working in the trenches as a salesperson to understand the opportunities and challenges of selling. But not every exceptional sales rep has the skill set necessary to lead a sales organization.

To manage all of their varied responsibilities, sales leaders must have the capacity to lead, think entrepreneurially and thrive through disruption, among many other skills. In other words, they need a range of emotional intelligence skills that can be developed.

Here are 10 key traits to look for and cultivate that will help you build a sales leadership pipeline.

1 Visionary

Sales leaders are responsible for everything within the sales organization. They have to recognize that details matter but never lose sight of the big picture. They need the courage to think of innovative ways to help their organization achieve goals.

To succeed, sales leaders have to articulate a clear, compelling vision for the sales organization’s future. Then they have to convince their sales team and other stakeholders to buy into it. To achieve buy-in, they have to create an emotional climate that inspires people to give their best effort toward their goal.

2 Analytical expertise

Sales leaders are responsible for shaping the organization’s go-to-market strategy. They set the buyer journey, product mix and pricing decisions. And the way they arrive at conclusions for everything they do must be data-driven.

Sales leaders should study buyer behavior to determine how to reduce friction and make it easier for customers to purchase. By studying this buyer behavior, they can discover what actions lead to more sales. It will also be important to analyze customer service to determine how to turn one-time purchasers into loyal customers.

To draw these conclusions, sales leaders must be comfortable with technology, including CRM platforms and predictive sales analytics. It is important to be able to derive meaning from data in sales systems and insights that propel the sales team forward.

3 Resilience

Sales leaders must be prepared to manage a sales environment that’s constantly becoming more complex. Consider just a few of the challenges that sales leaders face today:

  • Customers expect a highly personalized, connected buying experience. They want flexibility, so they can purchase across channels and through different revenue models.
  • Stiff competition for top talent makes it harder than ever to attract and retain top sellers.
  • Hybrid work environments make it difficult to build a sales culture that strengthens ties to top talent. It’s also harder than ever to engage sellers during training and coaching. Sales leaders must find new ways to engage and develop the workforce virtually.

Sales leaders must be able to rebound from setbacks and adversity quickly. They must have strong problem-solving skills that enable them to move forward when faced with internal and external challenges.

4 Learning agility

Learning agility is a leader’s ability and willingness to learn from their experience, then apply those lessons to new situations. Sales leaders who are learning-agile continuously seek new challenges, solicit direct feedback and self-reflect.

There are four key types of learning agility that should be nurtured in future sales leaders:

  1. Mental agility is a broad curiosity about the complex issues, challenges and novel situations that leaders face. It sets the stage for effective problem-solving. This curiosity about issues and problems helps with spotting patterns, trends and relationships.
  2. People agility is understanding the value of influencing others to help get work done, being skilled at reading people and being attuned to others’ needs and motivations.
  3. Change agility means embracing change and taking reasonable risks even in the face of that change. It includes openness and acceptance of change and willingness to take chances.
  4. Results agility is being energized by new, tough assignments and overcoming obstacles to achieve stretch work objectives. It includes the enjoyment of being judged against external standards of achievement.

5 Self-awareness

Self-aware leaders understand how their emotions can affect performance. It’s an awareness of their strengths and blind spots, but it’s also a recognition of how others see them. As a result, they have an accurate sense of their strengths and limitations, which fuels their self-confidence.

With greater self-confidence, sales leaders can be more decisive because they fully understand their values and have a strong sense of purpose. They can also be more authentic, which allows them to speak with conviction about their vision and goals.

6 Focus

Focus is the willingness to let go of personal attention to details and seek a bigger-picture perspective. Focused leaders avoid pursuing the minor details at the expense of the big picture.

Sales leaders with focus are capable of pursuing long-term goals despite obstacles and distractions. They must also be determined to reach their goals even in the face of discouragement. This sense of focus helps sustain sales leaders through the inevitable difficulties and detours in their work.

7 Tolerance of ambiguity

Today’s sales environment has never been more uncertain. The norm for sales leaders is that there is no normal. Facing highly disruptive business challenges is the daily routine.

That means sales leaders must work productively even when they lack a clear view of the future. They must have a high tolerance for ambiguity, given the volatility of today’s complex sales environment. Sales leaders should find energy in uncertainty, not discomfort.

To cope, they must be able to sustain the relentless pressure of change and lead through it. They must also be willing to reframe challenges as opportunities.

8 Assertiveness

Assertiveness is the willingness to take the lead in projects and initiatives with little hesitation. Successful sales leaders are comfortable taking charge. They naturally gravitate toward leading the way. And they have confidence that when they take the reins, it will lead to good outcomes.

9 Collaboration

Sales leaders must build relationships with people at every level of their organization, mentoring their leadership team and sales managers. They must ensure their sellers feel connected to their organization’s purpose. But most importantly, their sales organization must be a two-way street, where they’re willing to accept differing viewpoints and learn from others.

In other words, sales isn’t an island. To succeed sales leaders have to work across functions, enlisting help and support from other teams. The best sales leaders aren’t just managers, they’re also builders of relationships.

10 Optimism

Optimism is the degree to which leaders tend to disregard disappointment. Optimistic leaders are satisfied with who they are and expect the future to be bright. Successful sales leaders must maintain positive expectations for the future — even when that future is unclear.

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How to identify future sales leaders

If great sales leaders are made, not born, there’s no time like the present to start cultivating them. But how do you know which sellers and sales managers have the potential to progress to sales leadership roles?

It starts with getting a deeper understanding of the talent you have with the Korn Ferry Intelligence Cloud. In addition to developing managers’ ability to coach their teams and sellers’ understanding of sales methodology, the Intelligence Cloud also helps sales leaders recognize future leaders. Its detailed, thorough talent assessments can help you distinguish who has potential that you can develop with additional training.

Contact us to discover how the Intelligence Cloud can help you start making great sales leaders today.

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