The Sales Leadership "Right Stuff"

It’s one of the toughest jobs out there at the best of times. There’s no education program you can sign up for—or diploma you can achieve—that gives you a direct transfer of the skills needed to perform at an elite level. And to be truly gifted at this job, you first have to master a wide range of people-based skills.

For nearly two decades, I’ve had the great fortune to study the habits of the very best sales leaders in the business. I’ve seen people succeed in tough situations where nearly everyone else would have thrown in the towel. And I’ve seen well meaning, ambitious people fail because they couldn’t correctly solve a problem that was right under their nose.

In every case I study, I ask why…and have gone digging for answers.

Sharing with you what I’ve learned, here are six defining, non-negotiable, must-have characteristics for you to emulate to become the best of the best in leading people in sales today.  

1. You’re not there to be liked, but to be respected.

Sales leadership is not a popularity contest. Everyone on a sales team is paid to perform. Period. That includes you. And being liked is not the same thing as performing well. That’s not to say that being a leader is akin to being given a license to be a jerk. Rather, it’s to understand how likability and respect work together for the best result. Likability is not a per-requisite to respect. It’s an outcome. You only get it after you’ve given people on your team what they need—and what they need is more success as sellers. To give people what they need, they have to respect you first. That means you have to be willing to have difficult conversations, push them to achieve more, coach them through tough situations and make unpopular decisions required to create success.

2. Don’t ever get emotional about numbers.

Nothing is personal when it comes to money or metrics. Treat numbers as cold, hard facts. They tell the story about how things look now—not how people wish them to be. Numbers don’t have excuses for why they miss targets. The best sales leader treats their data like a scientist, objectively. They understand exactly how many leads are needed to convert into prospects and then into sales. They know the conversion time frames, retention ratios, and sales velocity ranking. Achieving these numbers isn’t an emotional undertaking. Rather it’s a scientific process that looks at the problem with detachment. The more emotional you get about numbers, the more you risk compromising yourself and undermining the sales targets you have.

3. Have a strong, compelling belief system.

Sales leaders have an unwavering belief in their ability to deliver value to clients. They know the keys to success are transferable because they have field tested each one themselves. People look up to leaders because they too want to have a belief system of their own. When you are able to communicate that you know exactly how a seller can achieve value in their selling process—and you match that claim with results—they sit up and pay attention. A strong belief system improves your influence, your negotiation skills and, just as important, helps you identify who in your sales organization buys into your beliefs and who doesn’t. Knowing this helps shape the coaching plan that you need to formulate for each member of your team.    

4. Always be solutions focused, not problem focused.

A misconception about leadership is that you must spend all your time looking for problems to fix. That’s the least effective way to manage anything. It reminds me of an old proverb: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In fact, identifying problems ought to occupy just a small fraction of your time. Your job is to be solutions focused. That means you must always have a toolbox of sales solutions that you can share with your team. Not just made-up ideas to throw at a problem. Rather, each solution must be proven based on the work you’ve done in the field yourself.

5. Be comfortable talking about uncomfortable things.

There’s a wide range of uncomfortable topics that have to be spoken about in sales, and money is the biggest one of them all. I’ve seen many competent managers engage in avoidance behavior on that very issue, simply because talking about money made them nervous. Whether the issue at hand is negotiating a price with a customer or discussing salary and bonus compensation with staff, money is a conversation you must be comfortable with. Otherwise get ready to start losing things that matter to you. To illustrate I know a high-ranking salesperson who was regularly out-earning her boss by a significant margin. She sensed his resentment and could see that he was avoiding having a conversation with her about boosting her goals and compensation even further. She left the company and brought her powerhouse sales record with her.

6. Coach first, manage second.

It’s a mistake to assume that coaching is a subset of a wide range of issues you have to manage as a sales leader. In fact, your job consists of 70% coaching. Everything else fits in the remaining 30%. All of it ought to include a healthy habit of micromanaging your people. I’m serious. Coaching is the good side of micromanagement. It’s purposeful and outcome oriented. That is where you remain focused on the metrics that matter to your organization and to the ongoing sales success of your team.

As you can see, these six characteristics aren’t easy to emulate. Nevertheless, each one is vital if you are to attain that much sought after all-star status: cementing your place in the organization as the trusted, respected and effective leader who gets people to perform at a high level and achieve dynamite results.