Today it is more important than ever to have a sales team that is a competitive advantage. That goal cannot be accomplished without great leadership at the sales executive level. Unfortunately the job of the senior executive is tougher than ever.
Boris Groysberg at the Harvard Business School has shared that the job of the senior executive is more complicated today than it was a decade or two ago – and that trend will continue. Groysberg writes about senior executives in general but his ideas are particularly relevant to the world of sales. Let’s take a look.
- Soft skills are more important than ever. While many sales managers graduate from business schools with technical skills, they are weaker on the “softer side” of management – communication, collaboration, cross-cultural and cross-generational understanding. In today’s business environment these skills are becoming increasingly important and, as Groysberg points out, they are hard to learn.
- Technical skills are also more important than ever. Technical knowledge is vital to making good judgment calls, being legitimate in the eyes of your team, and allocating resources. In sales the changes in the buying environment are more frequent, the competition is keener, the systems more sophisticated and the products more complex. So, when it comes to technical skills they are more important than ever and yesterday’s knowledge is unlikely to be adequate.
- Senior level jobs are less circumscribed. As Groysberg notes senior executive jobs are increasingly interdependent. In sales it is very difficult to make any significant strategic change in the sales force without the involvement and assistance from other departments such as Manufacturing, Distribution, Human Resources, and Marketing. This requires knowledge about and relationships with these other units.
Well it makes fair sense that if something is important and it is getting tougher and tougher to accomplish, then we ought to get serious about thinking about what we can do about that. Here are four steps we see our clients taking to address the importance of developing great sales leaders.
- Talent management. Putting in place well-defined efforts to identify and develop high potential front-line managers. The key is having someone in charge and committing resources to the developmental effort.
- Job rotation. For both front-line sales managers and senior sales reps, companies are putting in place structured job rotation programs. The rotations include placement in different functions such as Marketing, as well as, different geographies including international experience when appropriate.
- Leadership training. Leadership training has been around for a long time. But some companies, like GE and IBM, have committed substantial effort to develop state-of-the-art programs. Given the importance of sales leadership more companies might want to explore the best practices emerging from the experiences of these leading companies.
- Selection. Some companies are revisiting their selection process for front-line manager with more emphasis on leadership skills. This emphasis has an immediate payoff for their work as front-line managers and improves the talent pool for executive level positions.
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