During my 20+ years in training sales people and sales managers I have worked with dozens of companies in many different sectors and I have come across this important dilemma surprisingly often. When a sales management position becomes available, should the best sales person on the team automatically be promoted?
There are a number of reasons why this should at least be considered
- When all other sales team members recognize that this person is indeed a great seller with excellent skills, this person may have immediate leverage with other team members.
- Not promoting this top seller may cause him/her to look for another job elsewhere, creating another key vacancy for the team.
- Rewarding excellence sets a good example for the entire company, not just the sales department.
- It is the easy way out, at least for the time being. Most people are expecting this promotion and the top performer stays engaged. Not to mention, it is a relatively quick process. In the short term, everyone may be happy.
With four clear and compelling reasons to move forward with the promotion, what is the dilemma? Why not simply promote the top seller and move on?
Well, in practical application there are two potential problems with this approach:
- You may end up losing your most productive sales person.
- You may have just hired a terrible sales manager who actually reduces the effectiveness of others on the team.
Either issue represents a meaningful risk, but if you are among the unfortunate leaders who have experienced both outcomes at once, you know the combined negative impact on performance can be significant! So, while promoting our top producers is a common practice, doing so often provides further evidence of the inherent truth in that classic management observation, the Peter Principle, whereby people get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence – and that’s when the problems start.
Why are we facing this dilemma?
First of all there is the expectation of sales people themselves.
They are ambitious, and they should be. However, there are two types of ambition: the vertical one: desiring to become the manager, and the horizontal one: desiring to be the best sales person in the company. It is the vertical ambition that can cause tremendous problems. In my observation, the vertical ambition is very often driven, not by the sellers themselves but by their social environment. Becoming a manager provides more status, and potentially a pathway to more money. So even if they love to sell and dislike being a sales manager, many sellers are subtly coerced by their spouse, relatives, and friends to become a manager.
The second reason is the selection process for hiring sales people.
You see, when we hire sellers we often make our selection in part based on their vertical ambition. So when asked where the candidate wants to be in five years, the preferred answer is often, “I’ll have your position.”
Finally, a major reason for this dilemma is fear.
Many companies are afraid of losing a top performing sales person if they don’t offer him or her the obvious promotion. And in many cases, they should be. Because they have failed to effectively communicate an acceptable alternative career path, failing to at least offer their top rep this position may well result in bad feelings all around.
How can we avoid this situation and get the best person for the job?
Here are several concrete actions we can take to avoid this situation and keep our high-performing seller happy:
- Create job descriptions for both positions and be certain internal and external candidates understand the differences between the two jobs.
- Stop making vertical ambition a hiring requirement for all sales people.
- Assess all interested sales people for management potential based on the job of sales leader and coach. Share candid feedback with these people about how qualified you think they are well before a management position becomes available. Define an alternative career path for sales professionals who are not qualified to become managers. I know of some companies where top sales people are eventually able to earn VP titles without having direct reports.
- Have the potential managers participate in sales management training before promoting them as this will help them better understand the role and responsibilities and afford you an opportunity to evaluate their performance.
- Have top reps take over sales management roles on a temporary basis as often as possible, e.g. during the absence of the actual Sales Manager, and openly and objectively assess their performance in those temporary roles.
By being thoughtful about this challenge beforehand and taking some basic precautionary steps we can avoid the Peter Principle and provide our best sales people with a career path that affords them the recognition and rewards they need without promoting them into positions for which they are poorly suited.