The Four Stages of Becoming An Excellent Sales Manager

Frank Cespedes

Front-line sales managers hire reps, organize and allocate sales efforts across market opportunities, conduct  performance reviews and reinforce good behaviors (we hope!), and in most firms are the core means by which linking strategy and sales is or is not accomplished.

Studies find that, in the short term, excellent reps with an average manager outsell average salespeople with an excellent manager. But over time, people working for an average manager tend to decline in performance.[1] Why? Many of the best reps get promoted, retire, or otherwise leave and, as the saying goes in talent management, “First class hires first class, and second class hires third class.” In addition, an excellent rep is excellent within his or her territory or accounts while a manager has, for good or ill, influence across multiple areas and customers.

Sales manager is not just a bigger sales job. Moving from doer (individual contributor) to manager (someone who gets things done with and through others) is a challenge. You move from established performance in the doer role to being the new person in the management hierarchy, who does not yet know the ropes. Moreover, sales people usually undergo this transition while learning about their reports, judging diverse strengths and weaknesses, performing administrative tasks, and making the numbers. It’s not surprising that nearly every firm has examples of successful salespeople who are disasters as managers because they persist in their behaviors as reps rather than managers.

In finding sales managers, de facto practice in most firms is still mainly gut-feel and on-the-job learning—that is, “the school of hard knocks” with a high drop-out rate and much collateral damage. To accelerate learning, you must define the behaviors required and then screen for and help to develop those behaviors. And to do that, an organization needs a relevant, shared language of development.

The Four Stages Framework

There are many models of career development. Most are psychological in emphasis, focusing on individual motives and aspirations. But other research[2] examines how people behaviorally increase their professional contributions over time—what they do to increase their ability to transition and grow as managers. Often called a “four stages model,” it identifies progressive behaviors that enable people to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope.

Stage 1: Helping and Learning. When someone joins an organization, he or she must demonstrate the competencies relevant to that organization. There is no such thing as “performance” in the abstract. What matters is contribution here—in your customer and company context—not there. A new sales person’s responsibility is to learn, actively and practically, what’s required and feasible in their current organization while building trust with people who affect his or her performance.

Stage 1 could be called an apprenticeship, but many people stay there for their careers: some people have 10 years of experience, while others have one year of experience 10 times. How many people reporting to you are like that? It doesn’t matter what title those people have, they are in Stage 1. One purpose of a shared language of development is to communicate responsibilities early and consistently. It’s the individual’s responsibility to learn the organization and perform the core tasks effectively. It’s the organization’s responsibility to make these expectations clear at the outset.

Stage 2: Contributing Independently. Those who move to stage 2 do so by developing a track record and reputation as someone who produces significant results. Stage 1 people are learning their craft. Stage 2 contributors perform at levels consistent with widening responsibilities. The analyst must be able to analyze it, and the salesperson must be able to sell it—profitably, consistently, appropriately.

It’s from successful stage 2 performers that sales managers are typically chosen. So note the issues at this stage. Many reps want to stay in stage 2: they are valued and often highly compensated. But their contribution is ultimately limited by what they can personally accomplish. To remain highly valued, they must also remain at the top of their game as technology, market, or buying behavior changes. It’s the individual’s responsibility to recognize the benefits, risks and requirements of remaining in stage 2, and the organization’s responsibility to provide the relevant support: more technical or sales training if the rep is going to stay a salesperson; increased management training and transitional assignments if the rep is a candidate for sales manager.

Stage 3: Contributing Through Others. The only way to perform beyond the limits of the individual is to leverage the contribution of others. That’s what good managers do. They support, influence, and align the efforts of others without themselves needing to “be there”—to open the client door, get access to decision makers, close the sale. Stage 2 individuals learn to develop and take care of themselves. Stage 3 managers learn to take care of others and assume responsibility for collective behaviors. They spend time developing people—not because they are “natural” coaches, but because the only way to keep increasing performance as a manager is to find and develop more people to whom you can offload responsibilities. That, in turn, enables managers to move on to additional opportunities.

Managers must also broaden their perspectives and understand the interdependencies required for their group’s effectiveness. They proactively develop networks beyond their function so they can access the resources and cooperation of other units. It’s at this stage, for example, that sales and marketing coordination is typically a vital part of a sales manager’s responsibilities.

Stage 4: Shaping Organizational Direction. Sales managers—if they are managers—should be at stage 3, and they can have successful careers without moving beyond this stage. But stage 3 managers are optimizing the cards they have been dealt; they are in-touch with their functional area and company environs. Stage 4 is about helping to reshape the deck and the continued relevance of the cards; those managers are students of the changing landscape of their external market and industry.

Further, stage 4 managers don’t just diagnose market changes. They shape organizational direction and feasible options for doing things about them. As one senior sales executive put it, “I’m not the smartest person in this company. But I have a perspective on the relationship between our assets and opportunities. My job is to ensure our firm is utterly realistic about any difference between where we are and where we want to go, and the changes required to get there.” It’s from these ranks that firms can find future C-suite executives.

This model of managerial development does not imply that all or most people in a firm or function should be stage 4. All organizations need a portfolio of talent with people in different roles and stages. But it does imply that all firms, and especially the sales function, need a communicable view about what it takes to become a manager and sustain performance as market conditions inevitably change. Don’t leave this to gut feeling. Keeping the stages research in mind can help you better select candidates and provide the training and experiences relevant to that journey.


[1] See the research cited in A. Zoltners, P. Sinha, and S. Lorimer, Building a Winning Sales Management Team (Evanston, Illinois: ZS Associates), 2-7.

[2] For the research, which now spans four decades across cultural and functional contexts, see G. Dalton, P. Thompson, and P. Price, “The Four Stages of Professional Careers,” Organizational Dynamics 6 (1977); G. Dalton and P. Thompson, Novations: Strategies for Career Management Scott, Foresman, 1986); J. Younger and K. Sandholtz, “Helping Professionals Build Successful Careers,” Research-Technology Management (1997): 23-28; J. Younger and N. Smallwood, Agile Talent (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016).

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