First things first: I don't like to call what you and I do for a living (at any scale) by the title "sales manager." In my view, someone who consistently does what we do at a level of quality is, by definition, a sales leader.
Sales leaders are those who fulfill all the responsibilities of the job--supervision, training, mentoring, and coaching salespeople--while simultaneously interfacing with the rest of the organization in such a way as to support the achievement of the sales team's objectives. The people who do that are, in my view, the most important people in the organization. Why? Because they're basically air traffic controllers.
Think about it. Air traffic controllers must make sense of many different inputs and ensure everyone lands safely. They're monitoring all the incoming and outbound planes, keeping an eye on the weather, checking the latest updates on where the ground crews are, noticing what other air traffic controllers are doing – you name it, they notice it, and they communicate about it. They process all that incredibly complex data, understand all those moving parts, and adjust their communication accordingly, so they can continuously reconfigure the approaches and the landing sequences. They don't allow themselves to be distracted by anything. They can't afford to. They're air traffic controllers. They have no time for drama. Result: everyone gets where they need to go.
Sales leaders face similar challenges. They, too, have a lot of different inputs to monitor, from both the external environment and the internal environment, and they, too, must continually communicate, both upstream to upper management and downstream to their teams. They often find themselves in the middle of other people's squabbles, or in discussions about projects that could take the sales group away from selling, but they don't allow that to distract them. They're sales leaders. They have no time for drama, and the result is the same: people get where they need to go.
Sales managers are reactive. They're about coping; they tend to move from one emergency to another. Sales leaders, by contrast, are proactive. They focus on keeping emergencies from happening in the first place. They are about keeping all those planes landing safely. So, with that in mind, here are five ways we can inspire and support the people on our team who have it in them to become true sales leaders.
1. Implement an up-front contract. Think of how much time gets wasted in meetings when there is no clear agenda, no clear sense of what you're trying to achieve after the meeting has occurred, or no sense of who is doing what as a result of the meeting. If we could have precision regarding our interactions, whether with customers, other employees, or prospects, that would be a sign of leadership. As it happens, the same skills required to set an up-front contract with a buyer can be used by a manager in interactions with salespeople and upper management. This creates clarity and momentum. To learn what goes into an up-front contract, check out this video. Once you know how to set an up-front contract – practice it! Show it off! Share it with your team! Get people to use it in their meetings! You will quickly find that mutual agreement and clarity in every single meeting your team conducts are truly magical things.
2. Identify a clear future commitment. This is another best practice we want to be sure we share with everyone on the team by consistently modeling in our own meetings. Getting a clear future commitment from every meeting we conduct, like the up-front contract, creates clarity and momentum: clarity on where we are and what must be done to progress this conversation to the next step; momentum because we are creating action steps with deadlines. That's how a process moves on. On each side, things are happening! If we identify clear future commitments during our interactions with salespeople, they will start identifying them in interactions with buyers. And they will be setting themselves up for success in a future leadership career, should they choose to pursue that path.
3. Manage the exit criteria. Having a predictable funnel is essential, which is why sales funnel management is one of the key concerns of a strong sales leader. How do you maximize forecast accuracy? How do you identify where people are in the sales funnel? What, specifically, does it take for an opportunity to progress to the next step? Sales leaders want a clean sales funnel, so they can not only accurately predict revenue coming in at a specific time but also allocate resources intelligently. The best way to accomplish this is to establish a clearly identified sales process. After solidifying that process, an effective sales leader is going to focus on the exit criteria for each stage: the things that people must do or know to progress from one stage to the next. Once those exit criteria have been identified, the leader can focus their time and energy on coaching and training the exit criteria for each stage. This will help ensure that salespeople own the process and become self-sufficient, which is, of course, a big part of the sales leader's job. The clarity that this critical, but often-overlooked, best practice provides saves us massive amounts of time and effort, and it also provides us with a strong team. Why wouldn't we want to model it regularly?
4. Practice. I'm a huge proponent of role-play for the simple reason that I have seen so many sales professionals unlock their potential by repeatedly doing it. Role play is yet another routine that lays the groundwork for a successful career in sales leadership. When the leader builds good role-playing sessions into their interactions with the team, three good things inevitably happen. First, the team gets to practice in a safe environment. Second, the team gets to build up the confidence and conviction necessary to succeed because they'll be ready in terms of tactics and attitude to face the challenging situations they will encounter within the buying process. Third, as sales leaders become better and better at role-playing, they become stronger and stronger in their role. Their confidence also goes up. They'll have the ability to help situationally because role-play enhances agility—and a strong sales manager must be agile.
5. Build strong cadences. A cadence is a clear, predictable, and repeating expectation that's fulfilled over time by someone executing, in a timely manner, one or more constructive behaviors. Sales professionals who learn to work effectively within strong, consistent cadences – by leading a meeting with a new prospect, for example, or by preparing for a weekly one-on-one with their team leader – are the ones who have the best chance of consistently hitting and exceeding their income targets. These people are not just more likely to become self-sufficient; they're also better positioned to become sales leaders themselves if they so choose. Why? Because they know from personal experience that consistency and following through are the keys to both personal and team achievement. Note that a consistent leadership cadence is the opposite of the "this too shall pass" syndrome some sales managers initiate. When there's a strong, recurring cadence, salespeople don't wait for it to pass. They mark the deadline, commit their time and attention, and take action to meet the requirements of the cadence.
These, then, are the five most powerful best practices for supporting an emerging sales leader – an aspiring air traffic controller, if you will. Note that all five require us to lead by example. That's the key to making any of this work. It's only when we actually practice what we preach that we find our sales leadership bench getting deeper!