Sales teams today need a new type of leader—one who can succeed in a sales environment with tighter budgets, longer sales cycles, and a changing buyer landscape in which sales is now a last-mile activity.

“There's a particular type of sales leader that's more effective in this environment,” says Adam Thorp, Senior Partner, ANZ Practice Leader Sales Effectiveness and Transformation at Korn Ferry. “They are proactive in the market, consultative, strategic, and commercially minded.” Successful sales leaders are agents of change, he adds, aligning their team with the business strategy and allowing salespeople to “get on with their jobs”.

Having the right sales leaders in place is not just a nice-to-have. It can make or break the success of the sales team. Our 2024 Sales Maturity Survey found that when organizations have strong sales leadership practices, they see a lift in quota attainment, win rates, and seller engagement.

So what does it take to run an effective sales team? Three crucial elements, according to Thorp.

“You need the right leadership qualities, commercial acumen, and know-how to manage the sales function. Where we see sales leaders with these three strong attributes and skills, we also see accountability—which translates into trusted relationships within sales teams and with clients.”

Here’s what these attributes look like in practice.

1 Effective Leadership Qualities

Top sales leaders know how to create and communicate a vision and direction that motivates their team to achieve their targets.

This also requires high emotional intelligence (EI). Korn Ferry research shows that a high EI in leaders helps foster better work environments and improve employee engagement. And, as talent retention rates are a global concern, this quality will always remain important.

Collaboration is also a critical skill for sales leaders. The World’s Most Admired Companies agree that it is the one behavior that will have the most positive impact on business outcomes. And sales organizations around APAC that work closely with customer service are reaping significant benefits, achieving 20% higher quota attainment, 14% higher win rates, and 33% less customer churn.

“We see the strongest performance in organizations where customer service teams are engaged very early in the sales process. Because they are involved in early conversations, they understand the customer, rather than receiving a blind handover,” Thorp observes.

2 Commercial Acumen—Turning Strategy into Action

Top sales leaders put customers first. They understand the buyer journey and know how to continually align their sales processes and teams with evolving customer needs and activities.

“Effective sales leaders also understand how to take the company strategy and distill it into an actionable roadmap with two or three core focus areas for their sales teams,” Thorp explains. “They then build a sales program with activities that support these areas.”

Understanding how the right technology can support seller activities and help them close deals faster is also critical. This involves making sure teams adopt deployed technology into their practices faster.

And Thorp says adoption starts with leadership. “Adoption is about the way leaders onboard, train and coach their people. Leaders we see in top-performing organizations have the CRM open at every meeting and every review. It's the only way to make sure these things become habitual.”

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3 Sales Function Management

One common attribute shared by 92% of high-performing sales teams is accountability for meeting individual goals. And this starts with leadership.

Three-quarters of best-in-class organizations say their sales leaders promote a culture of accountability and ownership within their teams.

“Top leaders set the operating rhythm, create and review the cadence around management activities, and are strategic about how they interact with and coach their teams,” observes Thorp. “They also make sure the way sellers are compensated aligns with the company strategy.”

Coaching is the primary tool for promoting accountability and enabling high performance. Thorp says top leaders understand when and how to coach, and then tailor their approach to each individual.

“The most successful leaders we see use assessments and observation to understand their sales teams. They build individual development plans that consider what each seller wants to work on, where they need to improve, and how best to support them,” Thorp explains.

Working proactively with individuals, sales leaders help their people develop specific skills they may need to boost performance and drive growth. “Whether it’s about building negotiation skills or ways of moving deals past a particular point in the pipeline, successful sales coaching requires tailored responses, in real time, in the field,” says Thorp.

Unlocking Effective Sales Teams

In a complex sales landscape, having effective sales leaders who get the best out of their people is critical. This requires vision, strong commercial skills and the ability to motivate sellers—giving them the environment, tools and skills they need to feel empowered and take ownership over their role within the organization’s journey. And when you get these elements right, your sales team will be unstoppable.

Want to know more secrets from top performing sales teams? Discover the strategies that keep best-in-class teams ahead of the competition.

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