Are You a Helicopter Manager?

Helicoptering behaviour: it isn’t just limited to parenting. It’s a real problem in the workplace today. And it’s especially damaging in sales organizations.

Ask yourself if this scenario sounds familiar. Imagine there’s a sales manager responsible for leading a team of sellers. Each time one of their staff members is about to close a deal, the manager swoops down—out of the clouds, like a dramatic scene from Apocalypse Now—engaging their target, firm in their belief that it’s their job to save the sale and to close at any cost.

Maybe you’ve seen this behaviour in others. Or maybe you’ve done this yourself. If so, you’ve likely even rationalized your actions by saying, “But good deals are getting closed. So, it’s all fair play.”

If you find yourself nodding your head at this point, you need to listen up.

If you’re a sales manager, it’s not your job to close sales. That’s the job of your team. You are responsible for giving them the tools and support to do that job—not to rescue them from it.

If you fail to heed this, you’re putting your entire sales organization at risk. You’re needlessly driving up expenses, making it necessary to spend double your budget on resources rather than just on one seller for every sale. There’s also the lost opportunity cost: every time a hovering manager engages their sales team’s customer, it represents a missed opportunity for those sellers to further hone their skills. That undercuts people from reaching their true potential and fosters an unhealthy dependency between seller and manager. Even worse, your sellers will never learn how to close. And that’s their number one job!

Here’s how to ground that helicopter management behaviour once and for all.

  1. Avoid temptation. Ensure that you or your sales manager(s) have no accounts of your own. People either lead or they sell. They don’t do both. That includes you.
  2. Communicate your confidence in others. Insist on regular sales meetings and coaching sessions that drive skills development and help guide behavioural change. This has the effect of instilling confidence in your team. It tells them you believe in their ability to close the sale that they’re working on.
  3. Show, don’t rescue. If your team is struggling with a particularly challenging client, engage that group in a roleplaying exercise to show them how they can use tools at their disposal to do their job skillfully. That’s empowering. Swooping in to somehow save them is not.
  4. Coaching all the way up. Provide coaching by you to your sales manager(s). And get some for yourself, too. Yes, leaders of managers also need to have regular coaching. If you skip this, how in the world can you expect anyone (including yourself) to spot damaging behaviour in themselves and know what they need to change?
  5. Make it a non-negotiable. The best way to put an end to a damaging behaviour is to spot it, name it, and create consequences for repeating it in the future. If you have a helicopter manager who persists, reduce their travel budget. Reward the ones who do change their behaviour and pay them for the profitability of the deals that their teams are closing.

All successful sellers want mastery and autonomy. I’m with Dan Pink on that point (as outlined in his book, Drive). Helicopter management undermines both of those needs and the drive of your talented people. Then they leave you much sooner than the current average tenure of 16 months. That turnover cycle only accelerates—while your results decelerate—the longer you let this destructive behaviour go unchecked. So, put a stop to it now!