What makes sales teams sizzle? Better leaders.

By the billions of dollars, companies work hard to build and polish truly effective sales forces. But it may not be the sales staff’s fault if they’re not closing enough deals. Blame the managers—or at least the way they were picked.

According to a new report by Korn Ferry Hay Group, in their rush to find leaders to manage their sales forces, too many companies reflexively focus on top sales performers. It may make sense on paper, but it’s a fundamental talent error that undercuts salespeople’s effectiveness. The qualities that make effective salespeople are not the same as those that make great sales leaders.

Korn Ferry Hay Group research, conducted over decades and involving many different companies and dozens of interviews, has found that: Excellent salespeople are driven by the need for individual achievement. They are personally competitive, enjoy being accountable for their own performance, and they thrive on immediate, and objective feedback.

The best sales leaders, the research shows, are a different breed: They may sell well, but are less competitive. They get greater satisfaction from helping and supporting others, and are motivated by relationship concerns. They like to coach, develop, and manage others.

Certainly, this is no small issue. Korn Ferry Hay Group found that the climate a sales manager produces is the No. 1 driver of sales revenue—even more important than the competency of individual salespeople. And decades of decades of research the company shows that the right climate can increase bottom-line sales performance by up to 30%.

“Leadership absolutely matters for sales teams,” said Signe Spencer, a senior consultant with the firm who has researched and published extensively on the topic. “Companies can’t keep making the same mistake in promoting their top performing salespeople and expecting them to build great teams and drive results.”

According to Korn Ferry Hay Group, companies can find their prospective sales leaders by studying their salesforce, and learning which salespeople already are respected for helping colleagues, building teams, and undertaking outside roles as coaches of kids’ sports teams or part-time college teachers.

While top salespeople relish hitting their numbers and reaping the rewards of doing so, talented sales leaders face different challenges. That includes creating an environment that inspires individual performance, teamwork, and mutual support, as well as assisting in developing selling skills, and fostering cooperation and support among group members. They also need to design compensation that drives their team members, especially their high performers.

The firm has found that great sales managers working with less talented salespeople generate more revenue than poor sales managers working with more talented salespeople. The ideal situation, of course, combines great managers with great salespeople. But good managers can compensate for lesser talent in their teams, while bad managers can hinder good performers.

When firms err by elevating top performers into managerial roles, it turns out, they not only reduce their bottom line by taking their high performance off the books, they also often end up dealing with big personnel woes. Top performers, when they don’t fit in their new roles, become unhappy, reduce their teams’ performance─and they soon quit, leaving for new positions where they can excel again at sales.

Authors

  • Signe Spencer

    Senior Consultant