11 Must-Have Traits of Great Sales Leaders
69% of salespeople who exceeded their annual quota rated their sales manager as being excellent or above average.
This figure should not be surprising. You probably remember from your own days as a sales rep that the quality of leadership you experienced impacted the results you were able to achieve and your job satisfaction.
While that’s important, a great sales leader is a differentiating factor not only for their team but also for the company’s growth. It’s a high visibility position, comes with large responsibility and has a direct impact on commercial success and profitability.
So what separates high-performing sales leaders from underperforming sales leaders? What traits can you cultivate as a sales manager or director to ensure maximum results for both yourself and your team?
#1 - Be willing to accept ultimate accountability
As they move up through the ranks in an organisation good managers come to realise that leadership is much less about just telling people what to do and much more about accountability.
Talking about accountability is easy, actually following through as a leader is much harder. Taking ownership of your team's missteps and failures earns their trust and loyalty. While directing the limelight onto your people when they succeed not only motivates and empowers them, it also reflects positively on you as a leader.
You can cultivate accountability by creating some simple habits:
Lead by example and take visible responsibility for your own actions
When things go wrong as they inevitably will, pause and self-reflect. Let's say, a sales rep in your team has failed to close what should have been an easy deal. Consider what more YOU personally could have done to affect a different outcome.
Did they have adequate training?
Could you have been more available to assist getting the client over the line?
How can you help them learn from this situation?
Be transparent with your team and stakeholders when things are not going to plan. Most importantly, be quick not only to take accountability for the problem but also the solution.
#2 - Think strategically and long-term
“Think ahead. Don’t let day-to-day operations drive out planning.” – Donald Rumsfeld
Sales by nature is ruthlessly numbers driven and it’s easy for you and the team to get caught up focusing on this month’s target. This is understandable as KPIs and bonuses are strong motivators. However, this short-term revenue driven focus can lead to blind spots around crucial areas such as strategic growth, hiring, training and development. Sales leaders need to balance incentivising short-term performance whilst working towards a long-term vision.
At the most basic level, this means having a clear vision of where the company and your team are going. You need to know when to deploy field or inside salespeople, to segment the market into verticals, or to specialise sales teams by product or customer types.
Great leaders know that sales knowledge and strategy on their own isn’t enough. You have to make the vision come alive and bring others on the journey with you. People like to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Great leaders give people that feeling.
#3 - Hire people smarter than you
As a leader, it's your job to not only guide your team, but also identify those who can one day lead alongside you, or even fill your role as you move up. Hiring employees who are intelligent, skilled and driven will help you grow a high performing team both now and into the future.
Key to this is understanding what your weaknesses are and seeking out people who can supplement them. Look to build a team of people with complementary skills and strengths, which is greater than the sum of its parts.
The next step is to delegate and, more importantly, trust your team enough to get out of their way and let them get on with the job. If you're hiring smart people, you need to loosen the reins and trust their capabilities. This can be a difficult thing to do as a manager, so fight the need to see things delivered ‘your way' and allow your team to approach challenges as they see fit.
"If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants." – David Ogilvy, founder of Ogilvy & Mather
# 4 - Be overly curious
“I have no special talent; I am only passionately curious”. – Albert Einstein
Those who are curious are naturally open-minded and inquisitive. They tend to ask the right questions, think more deeply and are better equipped to come up with good solutions.
Experienced sales leaders know that truly understanding a client’s motivations is the key to achieving sales. Leadership is very similar, if you truly understanding what drives each team member or what’s most important to your stakeholders, you can appeal to these motivations to achieve a positive outcome. Likewise, being open-minded and curious about the team or company’s future direction creates an environment where innovation can prosper.
In practice, this means listening more and talking less.
Practice active listening, with your team, your stakeholders and your clients. Make the effort to be fully present and engaged in the conversation at hand. Really listen to what the person is saying to you and delve deeper by asking questions. As a result of this, your conversations will be more meaningful and the person you are speaking with will feel valued and heard.
Active listening is one of the hardest skills to develop, it takes repeated effort. It’s human nature to care more about what you have to say, doubly so for salespeople who have spent a career cultivating the gift of the gab. But it’s worth the effort. You will build stronger relationships and gain a better understanding of the motivations and drivers of those around you, which enables you to be a better leader and get better results.
#5 - Prioritize coaching and development
“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will learn.” – Benjamin Franklin
Carving out time to coach and develop your people is critical to employee satisfaction, retention and future-proofing your team. The best leaders plan for the future and create pathways for their staff to progress within the organisation.
What that pathway looks like should depend on the attributes of the individual, there’s no one size fits all model. A sad fact within sales teams is that too often people are promoted based on their sales performance rather than their capacity to manage or lead. With this in mind, consider alternative pathways to retain top sales performers who may not display the ability or desire to progress to management.
Develop your people through structured training
Work with your Learning & Development team to ensure there is structured training in place that not only enhances your people’s core sales skills but also develops other skills such as management, analysis, communication or decision making.
One of the goals of these auxiliary programs should be to identify potential future leaders. Attributes to look for include:
Uncompromising on values
Make coaching a daily behaviour
Effective coaching involves asking questions rather than telling someone the answers. Aim to be non-judgemental and allow your employee to tackle problems in their own way with guidance where needed from you.
Don’t forget to make time for your own personal development as well. No matter how skilled a leader you are, you can always learn from others, whether that be an external mentor, a younger person within your organisation or a formal leadership training program. Be open to learning from all corners.
# 6 - Control your schedule
“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” - Henry David Thoreau
Successful leaders understand they have only 24 hours each day and are selective about how and who they invest their time in.
Take control of your schedule by blocking out times for specific activities and having all team or stakeholder catch ups scheduled in advance. Some important but often overlooked activities worth prioritising include:
Client meetings – Consider having a day empty in your calendar every week which your team can use to book you for client meetings
Down time – By taking time to clear your head and think strategically you are recognising yourself as an asset. You cannot contribute fully if you are running on empty.
Once you’re organised, stick to your calendar. This means ensuring you allow adequate time for both preparation and attending meetings. It also means showing up on time, every time. Doing so sets an example for your team and demonstrates to others that you value and respect their time.
#7 - Get out in the field
“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves.” – Steve Jobs
Sales is a mentorship-based profession, and the only way you’re going to be able to offer tactical advice is if you’ve seen your people in action. By doing so you are adding value during customer meetings and enabling your employees to learn from you in real situations.
Great sales leaders understand that there is a diversity of selling styles by which salespeople can achieve success. Therefore, when coaching employees don’t employ a one-size-fits-all model. Instead, adapt your style to suit each individual.
Being out in the field will also hone your intuition and ensure you’re in touch with your customer’s needs and changes in the market. This practical knowledge gained from the experiences of participating in sales cycles and observing your people in the field will equip you to make those strategic decisions, such as how to segment the market, or whether to specialise teams into product or customer types.
#8 - Empower your people
Leadership is as much about creating the environment for success as it is about driving results. Respected leaders empower their teams to learn and take on new challenges through delegation and training. They actively expose them to other leaders in the organisation and give them the opportunity to work on varied projects.
People who are empowered at work feel a greater sense of ownership and purpose, and are more likely to stay with an organisation.
Offer new challenges and encourage positive habits that enable your sales force to take calculated risks. Give them the opportunity to try new things. However, don't leave it open-ended. Set some boundaries so they don't feel overwhelmed and be available to provide coaching when needed.
#9 – Stay on top of data
The best sales leaders are target and deadline driven. You should be well versed in how your team is performing and able to quantify that on the spot if asked.
Make time each day to review the results of the previous day/week/30 days and use this to the set the tone for conversations with your team. This will help you uncover roadblocks or challenges and enable you to react to these promptly, keeping the team focused and moving forward.
Don't rely on your team to self-report on performance or wait till month end (when the bad day has become a bad week and then a bad month!).
Leverage organisational data and collaborate with other departments like Marketing or IT to generate business intelligence that supports sales. The idea here is to optimise the sales funnel and make intelligent decisions that will lead to more sales and better client relationships.
#10 - Increase your self-awareness
“I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.” – Billy Jean King
Self-awareness is the first element of emotional intelligence and is critical for good leadership. When you are self-aware you understand your thoughts and emotions and are able to better control your behaviour rather than letting external influences drive you. A leader who lets stress or emotion dictate their mood and management style creates an unpleasant and uncertain environment for their staff.
Self-awareness builds from honest self-appraisal about emotional strengths and vulnerabilities; your values and attitudes, personality traits and unresolved conflicts. Leaders who are self-aware are able to build a team that complements any deficiencies they may have and are better equipped to handle the stress, conflict and relational issues that arise in a senior sales role.
There are some practical ways to increase your self-awareness:
Honestly evaluate yourself on a regular basis. Understand emotional triggers and be clear on your own strengths and weaknesses.
Observing your own behaviour and how people react to you will tell you a lot about yourself. How do you act in certain situations? How do you react to others in a specific circumstance? How do other people react to you?
Invite quality feedback from those around you. This will help you understand how you are perceived and identify areas for improvement. For example, consider Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer’s approach of asking each of his top 75, “What should I do differently?”
Get to grips with your own unconscious biases. We all have them, a good leader is able to recognise internal biases or assumptions for what they are and adjust accordingly
Leadership coaching is one of the most useful but underutilised tools at a sales leaders disposal. Rather than viewing coaching as remedial, view coaching the way a top athlete does, as something that enhances performance.
#11 - Look to the future
“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” - Elbert Hubbard
Technology is reshaping every industry and organisation, sales is no different. Well-informed leaders are using big data, AI, and business automation to boost client relationships and improve the sales performance. They understand that customer demands are changing and that remaining competitive over the next 5-10 years requires investing in technology.
Allow time in your schedule to stay informed. This can be through reading articles on wide-ranging topics and also through talking with others – your peers from other departments, clients, friends and your team.
Consider how new tools or technologies can complement or enhance existing sales processes and where efficiency gains can be made. This might be through automating low skill tasks or mining data to better equip your team with the information they need to prioritise or close deals.
While sales is fundamentally about relationships it would be naive to assume that the role of a sales professional is immune to change. As a leader, it is your responsibility to equip your people for the future. This means empowering them to become more innovative and to build critical strategic skills that cannot be replaced.
Sales is unlike any other department of a company, with unique challenges and a requirement for strong leadership. Being a truly great leader takes ongoing effort and discipline. You must establish solid targets and hold yourself and your people accountable to them. The team must be motivated and working to a single strategic vision and receiving the individual coaching they need to improve. Most importantly, you’ve got to keep the team on track and focused on winning even when times are tough.
Building these traits is a process that doesn’t stop. Rather than attempting to improve everything at once, instead focus on one or two at a time and aim for incremental improvement.
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