Micromanagers in the Making? Why Salespeople Struggle to Lead

Published at Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge in April 2019

When salespeople become managers, they often do a horrible job. Four key steps can help them—and all soon-to-be managers—make the shift, says Frank V. Cespedes.

This sad scenario plays out at many firms: Top-performing salespeople get promoted to become sales managers, but don’t actually know how to manage. The result is a disaster—productivity takes a dive, disgruntled salespeople start heading for the door, and the new managers themselves burn out.

Why are so many salespeople so terrible at managing?

It’s because even after they put on their manager hats, they continue to suffer from the “super salesperson syndrome,” unable to disconnect from the thrill of selling. They hover over their salespeople and micromanage every deal to make sure it closes, says Harvard Business School’s Frank V. Cespedes, the MBA Class of 1973 Senior Lecturer of Business Administration.

“Every company has examples of people who persist in their behaviors as salespeople, and as a result they flame out as managers,” says Cespedes, who teaches management strategies at HBS and recently wrote an article called Sales Managers Must Manage for Top Sales Magazine.

“It’s all about the difference between learning to take care of yourself and learning to take care of others, from being an individual contributor in sales to being a manager who gets things done through other people. That’s a big transition that many people can’t make.”

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Source: Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

It’s a problem that can permeate any layer of a business—a star performer is tapped to become a manager, then flops on the next rung of the career ladder. But the sales department is where a company’s promotion mistake can be particularly glaring. Sales is the pounding heart of a company’s cash flow, where the numbers coming in that day, week, or quarter often dictate the direction of the entire operation.

The answer to this problem is not as simple as deciding that salespeople shouldn’t ever manage, Cespedes cautions. Quite the contrary; sales managers make important decisions that affect salespeople’s lives—doling out territories and quotas—and it’s hard to gain the staff’s respect if managers have never walked in their shoes.

“The common advice you hear is that companies shouldn’t make salespeople sales managers, but I don’t think that’s good advice,” Cespedes says. “Sales managers determine how much money salespeople make and how well they eat. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop the relevant credibility to make those decisions if they haven’t demonstrated they can sell.

“At the same time, companies shouldn’t simply be saying, ‘You’re a great salesperson, and I’m sure you can manage.’ I do think sales managers must learn how to manage.”

Setting up sales-to-management success

Cespedes outlines four key steps toward setting sales managers up for success—strategies that could be applied in a variety of business departments.

1. Managers must assume a new professional identity. It’s crucial for managers to acknowledge they are shedding one professional identity to take on a new role with more of a focus on their teams than themselves.

As independent contributors, salespeople aim their attention at their customers and products, worried mostly about how to do their own job well. In becoming managers, they must pivot toward clarifying to their staff what the job requires, helping them build skills, and ultimately trusting them to skillfully handle the work of winning deals on their own.

By letting go of micromanaging every transaction, a manager’s time is freed up to immerse themselves in other duties, like developing a staff they can delegate more responsibility to and making broader contributions to their companies.

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Source: Top Sales Magazine, “Sales Managers Must Manage”

“A micromanager’s growth is bounded by what they can personally get involved in,” Cespedes says. “Managing is about leveraging not only what you do, but how you get other people to do things. If you persist in your behavior as an individual contributor, you’re not managing.”

2. Managers must learn how to hire and nurture talent. Companies should provide training and development for management trainees on how to recruit, hire, and nurture top talent. One common hiring misstep: Managers rely too heavily on interviews and vastly overrate their ability to judge whether a person is fit for the job by falling victim to a “cloning bias.”

“They’re interviewing and asking themselves what made them successful as salespeople, and they look to clone who they were six to eight years ago,” he says. “But what made you successful five to 10 years ago may not be what is needed today.”

Organizations should supplement interviews with on-the-ground work by asking candidates to role play, complete a job trial, or do an internship. This gives managers insight into how well they will sell for that particular company. “Selling is a performance art,” Cespedes says. “It’s not about how well you answered questions in an interview. You need to put in place processes that give you more data about the person’s behavioral fit.”

And once on staff, workers benefit from constructive feedback. So companies should train managers to conduct effective performance reviews, especially since many supervisors treat them as an afterthought, Cespedes says.

“They’ll begin to pay attention to someone a few days before the performance review, and then it becomes mainly a compensation discussion about whether the person did or didn’t meet the sales quota,” he says. “Compensation is important, but the research tells us that good coaching and performance reviews actually have a bigger impact on performance, and this is a tangible skill that managers can be taught.”

In working with high-performing salespeople, managers should also look to be talent developers–rather than talent hoarders, who hold back their hardest workers from moving on.

“Many of the best people are ambitious, and if they feel blocked from advancing, they’ll leave to look for respect and status,” Cespedes says. “The best sales leaders are what I call talent magnets; they develop a reputation as someone you want to work for because not only are they good managers who help you get better, but once you work for them, you move on to bigger and better things.”

3. Managers must know their numbers. With the rise of e-commerce, some question whether sales jobs might be declining. That’s not true, Cespedes says, noting that according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 percent of the workforce is listed as salespeople, a figure that has grown in the 21st century. Plus, the $900 billion that is spent on sales forces by US companies is three times what firms spend on all of their media advertising and 10 times what they spend on online advertising.

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Sources: SBI Magazine, “The World’s Largest Sales Forces”; Selling Power, “500 Largest Sales Forces 2018”; Interactive Advertising Bureau, “IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report 2017.”

The internet has certainly changed the sales landscape, creating a new ability to collect and store an incredible amount of data. And that has made sales management a more complex job, requiring a level of analytical and business acumen that wasn’t needed 20 years ago.

Sales managers who have a shaky grasp on the difference between return on investment capital and accounting profit margins, for example, should be trained in “Finance 101,” Cespedes says.

Besides, the best sales managers are not only adept at bargaining for a chunk of the company’s budget to benefit their own people, but look for ways to increase enterprise value from a holistic company view.

“Finance now has a clearer line of sight on the enormous amounts of money they spend on sales, so they’re now asking questions,” he says. “Sales managers need to have answers to those questions, and that puts new pressure on their financial literacy.”

4. Managers must be sure they want to be managers. Managers are often stretched in various directions, including hiring and reviewing staff members, developing spending forecasts, and reporting to the C-suite. These responsibilities entail a lot of administrative tasks, like filling out employee rating forms and building budget estimates—work that can feel like sheer drudgery.

A person’s pain threshold for this type of busywork is something a company should consider when choosing managers and also something an individual should weigh when deciding whether to accept a management offer. Many companies spend a lot of time and money training their sales managers, but they’re not choosing the right people for the job in the first place.

“The company has a responsibility to clarify these expectations about the job, and many don’t,” Cespedes says. “Salespeople spend their lives bemoaning and developing end-runs around administrative tasks like entering data. So an individual who wants to be a sales manager also has to recognize that those tasks are exactly what they’ll need to do as a manager. And then they’ll need to decide whether to embrace the job at all.”

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is senior writer at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.