Sales managers have one of the most challenging roles in the organization, but they don’t always receive the ongoing development required to build and lead successful sales teams. Learning leaders and practitioners have a significant opportunity to change this with approaches that build current sales managers and the future pipeline of sales managers. This article outlines eight capabilities to address when training sales managers for world-class sales management programs.

Sales Growth Obstacles Facing Sales Managers

First, let’s look at several reasons why sales managers struggle to impact the overall organization:

  • Successful sales professionals are often turned into sales managers without leadership development or ongoing guidance. Additionally, hiring practices are often not conducted in a way that creates success.
  • Sales managers typically take on significantly more tasks than simply leading their teams. While a strong sales manager can certainly adjust to take on those tasks temporarily, often the situation becomes permanent, leading to burnout.
  • Sales managers are often running teams they have inherited from a previous leader. Many of those team members may not be suited for their role and thus underperform, which means the new sales manager has the task of remediating and possibly replacing those team members.

8 Capabilities of Next-generation Sales Managers

Now, let’s discuss specific skills sales managers need to learn to be successful leaders.

1. Goal setting. Sales professionals who routinely meet or exceed their sales goals have one practice in common: They have written goals and a written plan to accomplish those goals. In addition, sales managers who prioritize writing sales goals for themselves and guiding their teams in this practice will see significantly greater engagement (and success) than those who don’t require this of themselves or their teams.

2. Data translation. There is usually no shortage of data available to sales managers. The challenge becomes accuracy and necessity of the data. Savvy sales managers are skilled in uncovering what the data is telling them and then using that translation to build a better team.

3. Minimally viable metrics. Along with data, metrics and dashboards are typically plentiful. Sales managers who can decide on the top five critical metrics by which to measure growth will create a more focused environment for their teams. That focus will translate into more meaningful results.

4. Business acumen. Sales success is part tactical and part strategic. Business acumen allows sales managers to consider the holistic picture of the business, and not only the discrete opportunities in their segment. Business acumen is demonstrated by knowledge of the greater marketplace, trends and patterns, an understanding the competition, and the ability to assess your greatest opportunities and risks.

5. Leveraging sales structures. Your sales organization is only as solid as the structures supporting it. Sales processes, sales enablement technologies, skill development programs, hiring and onboarding practices, and territory planning are several critical structures sales managers need to master.

6. Self-leadership. Sales managers must first lead themselves before they can successfully lead others. Self-leadership describes how one leads their own life — setting a course, following it and adjusting as required. If sales managers aren’t willing to improve themselves, there isn’t going to be a high followership by their team.

7. Communication. Sales managers require communication skills that fall into four categories: upstream (executive level), lateral (peer or customer level), and downstream (team level). Each of these has unique scenarios that involve elements of presenting business cases, negotiating outcomes and even selling your company’s products and services.

8. Coaching. This is one area sales managers de-prioritize when other tasks and situations arise. Sales managers aren’t typically taught how to coach; it’s assumed that because they’re in a management role they already have the skills. Formal skill development, along with informal learning opportunities in coaching, will have significant positive impact on sales teams.

L&D Can Lead the Way

Below are three strategies learning and development (L&D) can use to lead the way for next-generation sales managers:

1. Audit current programs for these capabilities. A sales manager development track should exist, as well as a review of current programs. This will help to identify if programs are teaching these capabilities and, if so, to what depth. Consider designing a simple matrix to visually identify where learning content exists and rating its quality.

2. Host “At the Table” discussions with sales leaders and senior leaders. The results of your audit can be presented in several “At the Table” discussions. Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, you may opt for these conversations to have a macro view of the entire organization or take a segment-by-segment approach. The outcomes of these conversations are to present findings, gain buy-in from executive leaders on new approaches and to identify potential champions.

3. Select one or two capabilities for implementation. First rank your top priorities and then select no more than two capabilities to deploy. Consider the value of “quick wins” with easier-to-implement priorities or by taking a phased approach to show fast progress toward longer-term priorities.

Learning leaders and practitioners are uniquely positioned to connect the business needs of sales teams to the learning needs of sales teams. Infusing these eight capabilities into your learning strategy improves today’s sales managers and builds your future sales managers.