Sales & Marketing: Promoting Top Sales Reps to Sales Managers? Caution Ahead!

Perhaps you’ve heard the oldest joke in sales:

Q:  What happens when you promote your top sales rep to a manager?

A:  You lose your top sales rep and gain your worst manager.

But it sounds like such a wonderful story and is so commonplace in many companies – promoting successful reps into sales management roles. What can be more wholesome than rewarding your most successful, consistent, and reliable reps with a promotion to the corner office?  In theory, who better to take on more responsibility in the sales organization than someone who understands how to sell really well.  But caution, it’s just not that easy.

I’ve seen various research efforts that suggests that upwards of 75% of reps promoted to sales manager will not last 2 years in the role and will eventually return to a sales position. Why would there be such a high failure rate of sales managers promoted from reps?

Here are a couple of reasons why:

  • They are vastly different roles. Vastly different.  A sales rep role involves hunting for new opportunities (often with high levels of rejection), developing relationships, active listening, negotiating, and closing. Sales management involves very different activities in disciplines such as personnel development — interviewing, hiring, firing, training, cheerleading; but also tactical – tracking, forecasting, analyzing, planning; and strategic, managing  expectations, time and results, both up and down.
  • Many aspects of managing people are more complex than selling – most top reps have developed a system for dealing with the more finite number of sales situations they will be placed in. Managing a team means an evolving number of mechanisms for holding each individual accountable, and then adds the day to day change each person brings to the puzzle.
  • Managing is not for everyone – there is a fair quantity of psychological data to prove that the behavioral profiles of those who succeed in these two roles are dramatically different.  Yes, drive, competitiveness, perseverance, optimism and flexibility are all key traits for both top reps and sales managers. But management also requires a certain type of patience, flexibility, tolerance and communication skills, many of which can’t be fixed through classroom training.
  • The best sales reps are used to moving at their own pace – they are action oriented and use to driving results by ramping up their own direct efforts. Assuming leadership means overseeing a team where (at best) 50% of the reps are below targeted performances, and you need to be able to gear up or down to each. There is a huge temptation to step in, takeover opportunities, and just close business for reps, rather than helping the reps close and to be better closers.

I don’t mean to suggest you should never promote a top rep to the sales manager spot.  But if you were going to hire a successful sales manager, what skills would that you want in that person?  Has that top rep shown any of those skills? Does he want the job (and understand the possibility that he will be making less money?) Is he the one that welcomes the chance to take a new guy out to show him the ropes, help him work on his presentation, coach him on some of the techniques he has found to be most successful for him? And that’s just the personnel side of the role.

To be a great manager you have to be an expert at all phases of management, not just an exceptional sales person. A great example from the sports world would be St. Louis Cardinals baseball manager Tony La Russa. La Russa was a marginal player at best during his playing career (a paltry .199 batting average over 10 year career).  But he continuously demonstrates an ability to communicate with his players, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to tactically study the opposition in order to put his team in the best position to be successful, and to strategically work with upper management on what he needs to win championships.  As a result he has become one of the winningest managers in major league history.


2 responses to “Sales & Marketing: Promoting Top Sales Reps to Sales Managers? Caution Ahead!

  1. I hate this article…I’m sorry but it is one of those articles that makes me mad. In fact I have witnessed stuggling sales reps promoted time and time again into Sales Mangers. Why not write the articl about Management is where all the struggling sales reps should find jobs? I think it is an insult to top performing sales rep’s in this industry. Most top performing sales reps I have meet in a very long career in the same place…would make great managers if they so decided to go be a manager. I do understand this looks at one small area, but I don’t think it is done very well and it is frustrating to see. My 2 cents…off to make some sales!

    • @Brady: Good feedback. Thanks. It seems sentiment is running equally on both sides of this.

      Let’s agree to this:
      I know of very few managers who didn’t start as sales reps, so everyone needs a chance to prove themselves and start somewhere. I believe most publishers are still willing to give those who want to move to management a chance. So that’s a good thing.
      Not matter how good a rep you are, you’re going to need some support if you move to a managers roll. It is a very different job. I hope that publishers will support the promotion and be ready to work with the new manager and not just let them sink/swim on their own. Unfortunately that seems to be the case many times.

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