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Promoted! You’ll Need Sales Manager Leadership Skills, Too!

The role of a sales manager involves sales outcomes and manager responsibilities. There’s something else, too, that sets the most successful sales managers apart from others. That something extra is what inspires members of the team and ignites engagement and performance. It’s leadership. To be one of the best, you’ll need it all -- sales manager leadership skills.  

 Developing a full skill set starts with understanding the difference between managing and leading. Both are important, and both are essential. Let’s start with this table to draw a stark contrast.

Task Managers vs People Leaders

Task Managers

People Leaders

Establish performance goals and standards with no input and no explanation; goals focus exclusively on immediate tasks. Engage employees in a collaborative process for goal setting, focusing on development as well as current tasks.
Spend too much time looking for things that are wrong and too little time looking for things that are right. Publicly recognize positive performance and look hard, every day, for the potential in each individual person.
Have not thought about what success will look like in the future and, instead, use command and control tactics to drive high levels of performance in the short-term. Micro-manage tasks without providing clarity about the desired outcomes. Have a vision for the future and believe that long-term success requires people development along with strong performance. Use coaching and candor to set clear, measurable expectations with people and provide necessary support for reaching goals.
Position themselves as authority figures with all the answers and all the power to grant or withhold permission. Ask questions, listen to others input, seek diverse opinions and appreciate the ideas of others.
Respond to “put out fires” and constantly shift focus in a reactive mode. Often delay meetings or follow-through due to “triage” handling of issues that surface.   Follow through on commitments made (DWYSYWD). Treat people with dignity and respect, honoring time scheduled with them.

sales manager leadership skillsSales Managers tend to spend more time in the “Task Manager” column thank in the “People Leader” column. The nature of the work drives short-term thinking and an intense focus on results. Make no mistake – the work of managing tasks is important and can get the job done. But the work of leading people is important, too. It’s another way of getting results, one that is more sustainable and can be more effective. But it’s not an either/or choice. You’ll need to know how to do both and when to choose behaviors from each column.

 Said another way, your job is to simultaneously manage work AND lead people so that you can deliver sales results. Check out this free PFPS webinar that describes the sales manager role this way. 

What’s the Difference between Leading and Managing?

 Let’s break it down even more. 

To manage means “to handle.” It’s from the root word “mano” (which means “hand” in Spanish). Managers handle things. They coordinate others to ensure that the work gets done and the desired results are produced. Their focus, because of those expectations, is typically short-term.

 To lead means “to guide.” It’s from the root work “leden.” Leaders guide people to new places. They help people get where those people want to go. They step out in front to clear the path and show others the way. Their focus is long-term and future-oriented.

 Management comes with a formal title. It’s a job role that has a specific set of measurable objectives and responsibilities. To become a manager, you earn a promotion in rank based on your job performance and potential.

Leadership is informal. You can find leadership at every level. It has nothing to do with job title or position on the org chart. Although some companies call their senior executives “leaders,” that’s actually a misnomer. To become a leader, you earn others’ trust and commitment to follow you (even when they don’t have to). 

 Managers rely on authority. Leaders don’t need authority because they get things done through influence.

 A leader doesn’t have to be a manager. But a manager should work to become a leader. Successful managers know how to manage and how to lead. They also know when to use management-style responses and when to choose leadership behaviors instead.

 Leadership stretches management to a point where others are continually engaged and developed. If you can simultaneously manage work and lead people, you will have clear advantages over others who merely manage.

 This illustration may help. Avoid the extremes at either end. The left-hand column describes someone who is passive and ineffective. The right-hand column describes someone who is aggressive and, over time, ineffective due to strong-arm tactics that others resist. The two middle columns show an effective managers (in purple) and someone who is stepping into their full potential as a leader (in green)

sales manager leadership skills

You’ll notice that the main distinction of leadership is the focus on and inclusion of others. Leaders have followers because those who follow willingly choose to do so.

 As an individual contributor, your success was based on your own, personal efforts and abilities. As a new sales manager, you may still be effective in similar ways – by being in control, informed, self-reliant, secure and confident, capable, and a risk-taker. You can be even more effective if you’ll stretch to share control, share information, be helpful to others, reinforce others’ strengths, trust others’ capabilities, offers challenges, and supports others’ efforts.

 Still grappling to pinpoint the differences in managing and leading? Try this. Think about managers you’ve reported to who directed and measured your work activities and KPIs. Think, too, about leaders you’ve known throughout your own life who inspired you to care more, work harder, and be your best.

 Maybe you’re thinking of the same people, of managers who were also leaders. Or maybe your thoughts went to two different sets of people or only some of the managers you considered also registered, for you, as leaders. Now you’re pinpointing those differences between what makes a manager and what makes someone a leader.

 If you’d like to learn more about 25 differences between managing and leading, download this chart from PFPS. You can use it as a self-assessment to better understand how often you’re showing up as a manager vs. how often you’re doing the things that make you a leader. 

The Impact of Leadership Behaviors

 By now, perhaps you’re wondering why knowing these differences even matters. Or you’d like to know why you need leadership skills as well as the skills found elsewhere in this series that are more specific to sales managers.

The reason to develop a full suite of sales manager leadership skills is that this is how you will become more effective long-term. Managing sales enables you to drive short-term results. Leading people enables you to strengthen your team and engage them in powerful ways that set you all up for longer-term success.

For contrast, let’s look at an example of two sales managers, Robert and Kelly. Both work for small SaaS startups and have a sales team of 8-9 people. Neither have a tech stack that helps with lead generation or auto dialing. Instead, these sales teams respond to inbound leads and make a lot of outbound cold calls. Both Robert and Kelly are the only sales manager in their organization.

Robert calls himself an “old school” sales manager". He focuses on basic “block and tackle” sales tactics, and he expects the sellers who report to him to do things “by the book.” He motivates people by “working the floor,” energetically popping out of his office 10-12 times a day to rally the group. He also responds positively every time someone rings the bell to celebrate another demo has been booked.

Robert maintains a large, public leaderboard and updates it at 9am and 1pm every day. If someone is at the bottom of the leaderboard for more than six consecutive postings (three days), Robert gives them a pep talk and a set of action items to “get out of the slump.” Being at the bottom of the leaderboard for ten days is an automatic trigger for going on a performance improvement plan.

Robert offers a lot of incentives to his team when he senses they need some “extra mojo.” He brings in lunch when he wants them to “pour it on” and work straight through the lunch hour. He stages call blitzes and awards gift cards, event tickets, or cash to the seller who performs best during these blitz periods.   

Robert also tracks activity in the CRM and rigorously enforces the playbook guidelines that say every interaction and connection attempt must be logged immediately. He uses this information to give daily updates to his boss and to track seller activity. Not making the requisite number of calls, everyone knows, results in a “come to Jesus” discussion and Robert sitting with the seller to monitor activity.

Robert is effective. His team usually makes their goals, one month at a time. Often, it gets right down to the last day and a mad dash to the finish line. On those days, Robert “wears out the carpet” and drives hard for sellers to push themselves (and their buyers). Deals are cut for buyers who sign that day and when upselling to current clients

When Robert’s not in the office, sales dip. He took a two-week vacation, and it took the team three months to recover due to their low activity levels while he was away. This dip was noticeable even after Robert was away for four hours on a 4-legged call to a local client.

Robert’s team is conditioned to being managed (and even micro-managed). They don’t choose the same pace and activities for themselves when he’s not there to drive them. They wait for incentives, blitzes, and oversight from Robert “working the floor.” They report burnout, and several are applying for jobs with other organizations. 

Kelly calls herself a “people-first manager.” She used to work for a hard-driving sales manager like Robert. She says she wants the people who report to her to feel differently than she did about their work. Kelly has high expectations and big ideas, and she believes the best way to get results is by tapping into each sellers’ intrinsic motivation.

Kelly did something unusual on her first day in this role. She met with every seller 1-to-1 and didn’t talk at all about sales, performance or goals. Instead, she asked about current challenges, future goals, preferred ways of being recognized and of being corrected. She also asked what people thought about the company’s mission and vision and how they saw themselves contributing to it.

On her second and third day, Kelly sat with each seller for 90 minutes and observed their sales calls. She took notes, but she didn’t offer any feedback. On the last two days of her first week, Kelly combed through sales data and called a few customers to introduce herself and ask about their experiences with the sellers they interacted with.  

The following week, Kelly called a team meeting and shared her personal philosophy of leadership. She told the team that this was what they could expect from her and that this philosophy would guide her decisions and priorities. It read: 

  • “I believe in the potential of every individual and will work hard to understand and unleash that potential.”
  • “I believe that people deserve to know the purpose of their work, and I commit to always tell people why I ask them to do a task.”
  • “I believe in people’s ability to make the right choices and work autonomously when they know the expectations and desired outcomes, have been trained, and have access to support when needed. I will stay out of people’s way so they can do their best work their own way.”
  • “I believe we can all improve continuously through challenging ourselves, learning, stretching, and receiving helpful feedback. I promise to coach people for ongoing development and to remain open so that I, too, am always improving.”
  • “I believe that people want to succeed. I will always strive to remove any obstacles to success and to be a source of encouragement and support so people can reach their goals.”


Over time, Kelly demonstrated that she meant what she said. When she asks someone to do something differently, she puts her request in the context of what that person wanted to achieve. For one team member, a conversation about making more outbound cold calls included the rationale that this was the way to get noticed and promoted into an account manager role (the same future goal this individual shared on day one with Kelly!).

Soon, the team started producing more than it ever had before. People seem happier at work and more committed to the organization. They talk about the mission and vision and take pride in helping achieve it. The team is more motivated, more resilient, and more stable than they were with the two former managers. They reach their monthly goals early in the month and have been crushing their goals consistently for six consecutive months.

Unfortunately, Kelly had to take a six-week medical leave after she’d been in the job for only five months. While she was gone, there was no dip in team performance. She joked that “maybe they don’t need me after all!”

Back on the job, Kelly spends about two hours a day observing and coaching. (Be sure to read about what coaching actually is! That’s in a separate post in this series). She is described by team members as “the best manager I ever had” and “someone I’d follow to the ends of the earth.

What Kelly knows (and Robert doesn’t) is that leadership behavior impact employee engagement levels. Management behaviors don’t have the same impact on employee engagement. Leadership behaviors include the types of things Kelly put in her personal leadership philosophy. If you want to learn more about the behaviors that are proven to engage people, check out the book Stop Selling & Start Leading.

Employee engagement is the emotional connection a person feels toward his/her organization that causes them to apply additional discretionary effort to the work they do. The emotional connection and additional discretionary effort translates into higher rates of retention, improved productivity, higher levels of customer satisfaction, more top line revenue, and stronger profit margins.

All of that comes from leadership behaviors. That’s why this is such an important aspect of your work as a sales manager.  

Putting People First

What Kelly did was prioritize the needs of people.

She believes in building people so they can build the business. She understands that nothing happens without people. She works, intentionally, to dignify the experience and abilities of every individual. Because she did this first, team members have been very receptive to her feedback. Kelly, according to team members, really cares and helps them reach their goals – not just their sales goals, but their personal and professional development goals, too.

You can put people first and step into your full potential as a leader, too. Int his series, we’ll continue covering what it means to lead and how to simultaneously lead people and manage sales. The good news is that leadership doesn’t require any special characteristics or experience. It requires just one thing: you making a choice to lead and subsequently making daily choices to behave as a leader.

If you’d like to get a head start on learning more about leadership, check out our popular email course for Emerging Leaders. It’s free, and you can work through it at your own pace. You’ll get a series of ten emails with tips and tools for becoming a leader. Enjoy!  

Sign up for Free Emerging Leaders Email Training!

Topics: sales leadership, sales managers, sales manager leadership skills

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