Will Brooks on Cultivating Strong Sales Leaders

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Will Brooks, President of The Brooks Group and co-author of Playing Bigger than You Are: How to Sell Big Accounts Even if you’re David in a World of Goliaths to discuss some of the trends he’s seeing in sales leadership. Here’s what he had to say.

What sales leadership trends have you seen in this economic climate?

Needless to say, the most unfortunate trend we saw in 2008 and throughout 2009 was the termination of sales positions.  Sales leadership can simply no longer afford to keep poor to mediocre performers.  A strong economy is a great environment for inheriting cherry accounts and robust territories; areas weak sales performers tend to hide behind.  Based on these lay-offs, I think that once everything turns around, buyers will most likely be working with much more proficient salespeople due to the “cleaning” process this economy has forced sales leaders to take.

I’ve also seen a lot of course-correction as it relates to sales goals.  Goals and budgets set prior to the economic challenges have had to be re-worked to reflect economic realities and the fact that, in most industries, budgets have been slashed. Everyone – including B2B buyers – has been taking that infamous “wait and see” attitude toward investing in the non-essentials.

As far as goal-setting for 2010, I believe that identifying realistic sales numbers to work toward will be a moving target.  No one is really sure what 2010 is going to look like, but we certainly know it’s going to be better than ’09.

If a sales team is not achieving its numbers due to economic factors, how do you suggest it be measured or held accountable?

On a positive note, it’s my belief that in a slow economy it’s VERY important for sales leaders to help their teams celebrate the “small” victories.  Setting an appointment, having a positive sales conversation with concrete next steps, or simply getting the opportunity to respond to an RFP must be celebrated in a recessionary economy just as a completed sale was treated during a strong economy.  This is important to keeping your team buoyant.

While motivation is definitely important, sticking to the fundamentals of sales management and accountability is important also.  Sales leaders need to make sure that sales management training has been provided at the field sales management level.  Working with your people on an active and daily basis as opposed to simply checking in once a week and asking “Where are you with your numbers?” is absolutely imperative.  Again, training this level of management on process is critical.

Also, the name of the game in this economy is prospecting, prospecting and more prospecting.  And it’s not fun in an economy like the one we’re recovering from.  Potential buyers aren’t returning phone calls or responding to emails, traditionally reliable referral sources have dried up and, with everyone and their brother using social media to prospect for business (most of them in an inefficient and, in many cases, poorly executed way which only serves to confuse the market more), it’s been harder than ever to even score even a conversation with a good, qualified prospect.

Sales leaders need to measure their team against much smaller steps, moving the sales process along and then ultimately against their sales goals.  They must take a more patient and understanding approach once they’re sure that they’re working with the best talent they can keep.

How influential do you feel a sales leader is in the overall revenue achievement of a sales team?

Easy answer to a great question:  The sales leader is as key – if not more important – to the revenue generation of the sales team as the sales team itself.  Absolutely essential!

Here’s why. It’s been our experience that the sales leader is not only responsible for the day-to-day management of the sales enterprise, but he or she must also work to make sure that sales has an important role at the corporate table.  Here’s what I mean: aside from the typical sales management/leadership duties (motivating the team, coaching salespeople, ensuring accountability, spending time in the field, monitoring the numbers, developing and gauging the success of prospecting efforts, etc.), the sales leader MUST make sure that sales is a respected department within the organization and that it has a major seat within the organizational culture.

While each department within an organization is important in its own right, the sales side of the house is the one that brings revenue in the front door and that needs to be reinforced on an ongoing basis.  If the sales team isn’t getting the respect, support and resources it needs and sales leadership isn’t intervening on their behalf, revenue is going to drop substantially.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen sales leaders make?

One of the biggest and most consistent mistakes we see is the unfortunate tradition of promoting top-producing salespeople into leadership roles.   The logic behind this is that if someone is a top producer then he or she will naturally translate top performance into managing a sales team.  This isn’t the best way to choose your sales leadership.

While I’ve read many articles about this topic and most of these articles make the almost cliché point that “the best players don’t always make the best coaches,” organizations seem to continue to be incapable of actually avoiding this practice.  I’m not saying that there aren’t compelling cases of strong salespeople moving successfully into management; however, most of the time this isn’t the best way to go.

First of all, promoting a team’s number one producer into a management or leadership role can be dangerous in that you must have someone waiting in the wings who will step up and backfill the revenue the new manager was bringing in. Otherwise, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.  There are definitely successful “selling sales managers.” However, with a new role and new responsibilities, it’s been our experience that this new manager is not going to be able to consistently drive the same revenue he or she has in the past.

Secondly, we’ve been able to validate through our TriMetrix® Assessment process that the soft skills required for managing people are very different than those required of someone responsible for managing themselves and a book of business.

Would you say there are critical traits that you always see in an excellent sales leader?

Absolutely.  Per my answer to your above question, I can emphatically say that the ability to develop and coach others, hold your team accountable and be willing to be accountable for your team when necessary are all critical traits top performing sales leaders display.

Further, a strong sales leader must have the emotional maturity to genuinely allow salespeople to receive the recognition and credit for success instead of the sales leader him or herself.  In other words, the strongest sales leaders must have a true coaching mentality and be able to relinquish the credit for sales success to the members of his or her team.  Oftentimes, that’s a very difficult pill to swallow for a top salesperson who has been placed in a sales leadership role.

In the past 5 years, have you seen a specific change in how successful sales leaders lead, due to web-based marketing?

I really think the answer to this question depends on the industry and how sophisticated the sale is.  The more sophisticated and complex/consultative the sale, the more I’ve seen the sales and marketing organization embrace web marketing as a powerful lead generation tool.

In less sophisticated selling environments, I’ve seen sales leadership rely on the old stand-bys of cold calling, trade show exhibiting, seeking referrals, etc., in spite of the opportunity that lies within good Internet marketing.

With that said, in my opinion the most successful sales organizations MUST embrace web technology as a lead generation tool moving forward.  The reason I say this is that regardless of what industry you’re in or how simple or complex the sale, the playing field is now more level than ever before due to the explosion of the Web and the information it brings to the buyer long before he or she makes contact with the salesperson.

Some eye-opening statistics recently published by CSO Insights, a wonderful research-based organization, cite that 80% of closed sales currently happen when the buyer finds the seller.  Only 20% happen when the salesperson finds the buyer.

What are some of the biggest hiring mistakes you’ve seen when hiring a sales leader?

There are many potential landmines in this area, the most dangerous of which (and many may disagree with me on this) is hiring someone based only on industry experience.  Another is assuming – as I mentioned earlier – that strong sales performance is going to automatically translate into strong sales leadership capacities.

Another one of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen is rushing to fill a position because it is such a critical role.  We have a saying here at our company: “Hire slow and fire fast.”A sales leadership position is SO important to an organization’s overall viability that the hiring manager(s) need not cave in to pressure from the powers that be to hurry up and fill the position.  This often translates into filling the position quickly with the WRONG person, which as we all know can be enormously costly from a revenue and morale standpoint.

Based on what we do at The Brooks Group (sales and sales management hiring, training and development), we are huge proponents of using some sort of pre-hiring selection assessment tool to identify the talents the individual being considered for the position is likely to bring to the organization.  Regardless of what tool you use (make sure it is statistically valid, of course), using something is better than using nothing.  Experience is obviously going to figure into the equation, as are the candidate’s interviewing skills, background and education checks and overall impression as it relates to dress, style and image.

Other than terminate, what is your advice on how a company can turn around a bad sales leader?  Or is it even possible?

This is another great question, and there are hundreds of opinions out there.  Mine is that upper management needs to first determine if the person is worth the investment of time, energy and resources it will take to turn them around.  Secondly, they should take a fact-finding approach to determine what is driving the poor performance.

I would personally recommend using an assessment tool with the individual to try to gauge what’s going on under the surface.  Oftentimes, a good assessment can tell a lot about an individual’s engagement within his or her role, whether or not they understand their role, etc.

There could also be an issue with how the individual is being managed.  Some of the strongest talent needs strong leadership and effective management. If these elements are absent, it may create a “bad” sales leader.

With all of that said, my personal recommendation would be to have a candid conversation with the individual to gain an understanding of what’s really going on.  Is it something in the person’s life outside of work that’s affecting work performance (be careful here…this can be a slippery slope)?  Has the person been given proper sales management process training and is he or she being held accountable for managing within that process?

Sometimes these conversations can be uncomfortable (it might be that you, as the sales leader’s manager, aren’t providing them with what they need to do their job), but this conversation can mean the difference between making the tough decision to let someone go and turning them around and helping to make them successful.

In conclusion to this question, a “bad” sales leader doesn’t become “bad” overnight.  If the organization is serious about the sales effort and has a true sales culture, then through ongoing monitoring, “coaching of the coach” and meaningful course-correction, sales leadership gaps should be readily apparent and addressed in real-time.  If the organization’s attempts to work with the individual yield no results, then the organization needs to be in a position to terminate with proper documentation.

Closing thoughts on sales leadership?

I believe that we are going to continue to see a monumental shift in the ways companies (and their salespeople) go to market, so if you’re a vice president of sales, sales manager or small business owner managing a sales effort, I urge you to hold on tight!  We’re witnessing a fundamental and foundational shift in the world of selling. If you love challenges and change, 2010 is going to be a great year for you!

I would also like to close with this: stay positive and keep your team positive.  Those of us who have weathered the storm and have made it through are going to be in a phenomenal position in 2010!

Good selling!