Great Sales Leaders!

I am really curious what this sales community thinks a great sales leader is? What defines that person to you? I have written my column this week on sales leaders and offer some of my initial thoughts on what a great sales leader should look like.

As sales professionals, we have all worked under a variety of leaders and, as a result, have been shaped and sharpened by those experiences. I think about my sales career and how much influence some really great sales leaders have had on me. Of course, that works both ways, and I can also point to areas that have not been as…hmm…should I say not as helpful, but have shown me what not to do and by default, pointed me in the right direction. I have some great anecdotes and stories of some of my best sales leaders, which I will share in the future. I am still friends with many of them today.

Now, somewhat tangential and very much related is this question – How do leadership styles need to be different to create a successful sales community from the leadership styles necessary to lead non-sales professionals? Can sales leaders be great leaders of non-salespeople? I am sure there are skills and values that intersect and are similar, but where do they diverge? I have taught sales training classes to the non-sales professional, and if nothing else, I have learned that everyone wants to work with great leaders who inspire them to do great work!

25 thoughts on “Great Sales Leaders!”

  1. Everybody wants to be around great leaders. Great leaders create an environment that enable people to be effective and maximize their potential, but to do that, great leaders connect with their organization. It’s that connection that allows leaders to adjust their styles to meet the needs of their organization and be effective in creating that environment. In one sense, when the discussion ranges to the difference in leadership between sales/non-sales, manufacturing/engineering, exempt/non-exempt, students/employees — whatever the delineation — then, yes, there is a difference as those organizations will have different needs. But in another sense, when you consider that a key attribute of great leaders is to be able to connect, sense and make that adjustment, then you can say there’s little difference.

    A good way to make that connection is to have a background in that field — sometimes the best coaches are ex-players, and sometimes the best sales leaders are former sales professionals. But this is true only to the extent that they utilize that background to connect with their people, understand their needs, and create the environment they need to be successful. However, even without that background, leaders can still be effective if they are conscientious about connecting with the organization. J. L. Chamberlain had less than a year of military experience on Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, but his ability to connect with his organization and meet their needs to that point allowed him to accomplish one of the great feats of military history. Interesting that before the war, as a civilian, Chamberlain was a successful teacher — no doubt due to his ability to connect with students.

    Of course, considering aspects of leadership such as the ability to connect and respond enables us to understand poor leadership as well. Being disconnected and non-responsive are hallmarks of poor leaders — poor leaders do little to support their people or meet their needs, and the environment they create is far from one where people maximize their potential, it’s one where people struggle to perform.

    This is a great topic, Todd — one that could go in any number of directions. It’ll be interesting to see future responses and opinions!

  2. I’d add that great leaders inspire with their passion and above all else can articulate a clear vision of what is the company/product goal. That vision gets repeated constantly so that all members of the sales team can easily repeat it and it makes sense to them, they become true believers. Without the vision, sales is simply a tactic. With the vision, sales is the solution to a dream fulfilled.

  3. The list you articulated is dead-on accurate, but it is missing a key element from one of your previous discussions – listening skills. Good listeners are good learners, and good learners are in my experience the best leaders, teachers and mentors. Also, it would be interesting to apply “weighted measures” (percentages of importance) to your criteria to see what the consensus skill mix of an optimal sales leader might be.

  4. Ron-

    Great point about vision-I put that with the ability to communicate. I have seen some sales leaders do everything right technically, but not be able to get people engaged emotionally and with passion.

  5. I think that the best sales leader I ever had was from my first job and she was a deeply compassionate person-she always made sure we knew that she cared for us as people.

  6. When I was doing my graduate work, I looked at classroom leadership competency models — a lot of them. But what always puzzled me is that, to a certain extent, you can perform well on all the individual competencies but still not be an effective leader.

    Of course these competencies are what WE think leaders should do to be effective, and many are developed after a massive amount of study, but then I ran across a collection of research that captured what students think good teachers do. All the basic competencies were there — but with one glaring exception. In the top three items of every study was something to the effect that: good teachers care, or good teachers want me to succeed, or simply, good teachers like me — in essence, as Jackie put it above, good teachers and effective classroom leaders care deeply and very evidently about their learners.

    That’s when it made sense to me that the competency models we all know and love are really held together by the compassion the leader must have for her/his organization. When you don’t care, the competencies can actually be performed with little effect — but when you care, the competencies fall powerfully into place. In fact, you might even be more effective with less proficiency in isolated areas, simply because you care.

    Sorry to ramble again, but Jackie’s comment struck an important nerve. There are few thing worse than leaders that don’t care about the people that are their responsibility, but there are few things better than seeing a team or organization you care deeply about be successful!

  7. Great leaders are people who have the confidence, the vision and the commitment to positively impact a team, an organization, or a business. A sales leader does not have to be the best sales performer per se; but, is the one that, when you look at their results, their attitude, their ethic, and their contribution to the organization have established themselves as someone that most people look to for advice, feedback, suggestions, strategies and ideas.

    As a sales leader, it is entirely possible, and very likely, that the contribution that this individual provides would stretch way beyond the narrow scope of the sales organization. Other functional groups, staff and resources often benefit from the vision, the passion, and the insights provided by a true sales leader. It is their perspective and interaction that provides a positive productive commitment and result to the organization. Effective leaders promote positive change and effective interaction. They focus on results that are measured in much broader terms than the “what’s in it for me” superstar. I love strong leaders, especially when they are focused on positive team based interaction that leads to reliable and sustainable results.

  8. Todd,
    Thanks for sharing what you and others have picked up over the years.

    To the good points that have already been made, I would add two thoughts, both of which contribute to the empathy and compassion for others that you and others identified:
    1. Sales leaders build trust by exhibiting the highest integrity.
    2. Sales leaders are fanatical about timely follow up.

    These behaviors can then be emulated by others, resulting in better results, and a more satisfying career.

  9. Todd, thanks for kicking off another insightful and terrific dialogue. Here’s my personal two cents:

    I rely on my leader strategically for coaching and thought leadership around how I lead my internal team. I quarterback a team of over 10, none of whom report to me directly. So one aspect of a great leader to me is someone who can help me tap into those 10 individuals to leverage their skills and diversities to arrive at a better collective outcome for the business than we would get working individually.

    Of course, it’s vital to get feeback (communication) along the way so you know how you’re doing in this process. It’s important that any leader has the right visibility and exposure to you and your behaviors in order to provide relveant feedback. So a great leader should also be present; not always a given as I’m sure many of us, like me, do not work in the same office as their leader.

    (p.s. – at the end of the day, we own this process. I attempt to get my leader out on calls with me at least once a month, and also communicate regularly through formal and non formal ways.)

  10. Ethan-

    You have one of the most challenging situations-managing in the matrix organization. The internal team is needed to make the number but you have to use your influence and skills to make the team function well and to the mutual benefit. Not everyone can do this well, and I applaud you for be successful at it.

    Good Selling!

  11. Todd – this is a good topic. Tim highlighted a couple leadership attributes that I feel are key to making a great leader – learning and motivation. Change, especially positive change, is based on new knowledge – new ideas from customers, changing competitive environment, industry knowledge, etc. A great leader knows how to create a learning environment in a way to facilitate this positive change. A great leader also knows his team and how to motivate each individual. I think you are right to include empathy on your list.

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