Never promote your best salesperson

Company and organization leaders in all industries far too often choose their “best salesperson” for the manager role. In this instance the “best salesperson” refers to the best employee in terms of efficiency, productivity and output. This is not just specifically applicable to sales teams, it refers to other disciplines also, such as promoting the best designers to design managers or promoting the best engineers to engineering managers. The logic and thinking behind this is that because they are great at selling or performing in their current job, they’ll also be a great manager. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case and can end in disaster.

Scott Hudson, Vice President-Sales and Marketing at HR Chally says, “85% of sales superstars fail in sales management.” – Source: Dave Stein

The problem with promoting the best employee is two fold. Firstly, the skills that make the best “salesperson” are different to the skills required to be a good leader. Secondly, you lose your most productive employee by promoting them to a managerial role. So what’s happening is you’re losing your best employee and gaining a bad manager. It is quite possibly the worst outcome for an organization and can cause a lot of problems.

“The characteristics of a good salesperson are money motivated, large ego, and a bit selfish,” says Greta Schulz, founder and CEO of Schulz Sales Consulting. “These are the opposite of what a sales manager should be.”

When looking at employees, they are measured on productivity, efficiency and their own personal output. On the other hand, managers need to have strong people management skills and be able to motivate people to achieve targets. They are measured on team performances and on their ability to motivate their staff to succeed.

Typically there are three misalignments that make promoting your best salesperson to a manager a bad idea. They are:

  • Transition from peer to superior – This can destroy a team if not managed properly. When the best sales person gets promoted to a managerial position they are making the transition from co-worker or friend to manager/supervisor. This can be difficult for both the person being promoted and the team as a whole. If this transition isn’t managed and dealt with by both parties problems can arise.
  • Difference in performance measurement – For employees their performance is usually measured on personal achievements and output. This changes once someone get promoted to a managerial role. Their performance is measured on the team’s output and how they motivate the team to perform. This requires a change in focus from individual sales and performance to concentrating on getting the most out of the team as a whole. This can be difficult for someone who is used to always focusing on their own performance.
  • Difference in compensation – Top sales people get rewarded with large commissions because they are able to bring in the large sale numbers and big deals. When they get promoted to a manager postion often their commission and compensation structure is based on the teams performance as a whole. At times a manager’s commission could be less than that of the best sales person. This could demotivate the newly promoted manager and cause the team to suffer as a whole.

At times as a leader, the best salespeople in your team will come to you asking for promotions to manager positions. You want to ensure you are able to handle these situations properly as you want to keep your best salespeople motivated while at the same time promote the right people to managers. Here are two ways to deal with this:

  • Explain to them clearly what the manager role entails and how it requires a very different set of skills compared to the skills that make a great sales person. This alone at times is enough to make some people realize they may not be the best fit.
  • Provide dual career paths which is explained in an article in the Harvard Business Review Blog.The article quotes Sandy Cantwell, Vice President of Sales Operations of Carinal Health “This enables our sales organization to keep many of the best and brightest salespeople who are most valuable as individual contributors. You can succeed by becoming a manager or by becoming a ‘super salesperson.’ We have a formal career road map for both management and individual contributor roles. Our top sales role, the Strategic Account Vice President, is roughly equivalent in level to a Regional Vice President on the managerial side.”

Organization leaders need to remember that it is important to identify who your best sales people are and also understand that the best sales people don’t always make the best managers.  

  • Marius Fermi

    Brilliant article again Alaister – we’ve found that a lot of the times the request to be bumped up to the sales manager role will come mostly from the sales veterans (stepping carefully with my wording there) as the long trips, endless phone calls etc start to become a bit tedious for them.

    The young guns tend to love the sales position as its basically uncapped earnings potential, the more hungry they are the more success (money) they see.

    We always promote the chance of experiencing the role first hand before anyone makes the decision to cut the idea into pieces, no one can really make the judgement call without seeing someone in action in the field.

  • Thanks very much for reading Marius. Yeh, that is a great point with allowing people to experience part of the of the roles to see if it is a good fit.

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  • Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Frank

    Agree with some elements, I’m the top salesperson in my organisation who’s just been promoted to the Sales Manager role. I know this is how its viewed in the industry but you have to balance this view against providing the individual with personal development and career progression. If thats what someone wants and you won’t give them the opportunity they’ll go do it somewhere else and you’ve lost a good employee completely. A bit about me…I’m an aspirational sort, I’m in my mid twenties and felt Sales Management was the right move for me. I’m not a typical salesperson and prefer a facilitative style which works for my industry (Management Consulting), I’ve been at my current employer for two and a half years and delivered outstanding results as well as process and organisational benefits. I knew what I needed to do so I’ve just completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Mamagement and I’m studying for an MBA now at the OU. I did it off my own back and funded it myself. I’ve studied this concept at length. My opinion is if, as a senior manager, you’ve kept an aspirational hard working individual from reaching their potential then it is you who has failed. If look at the most successful organisations and places that are consistently ranked as Top Employer their internal promotion policies are strong and their top staff have often been there from day dot and risen the ranks. Especially those in sales.

  • John Harris

    Couldn’t agree more !! I worked in big IT Company which made this mistake many times.
    However they did see the light and created two sales career streams whereby successful sales guys were given the same perks as the guys promoted to managers. Worked a treat and everybody was happy with their prospects.