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Sales Managers or Sales Leaders?

Sales Managers or Sales Leaders?

A recent study identifies the similarities and differences between executives, superior managers, and top salespeople.

Many studies show that the characteristics of the best salespeople are often in conflict with some of the key tasks required of managers. Yet many topflight salespeople have, in fact, gone on to become superb leaders. They bring vision, momentum, and energy. Being in a “power position” often can play to their strengths – if they know how to recognize talent in others, energize them, and make things happen.

But this begs the question: Why do some succeed in key leadership roles when others fail?

Difference between managing and leading

We have just completed a study in which we evaluated the qualities that distinguish the best leaders, managers, and salespeople. We assessed and compared the characteristics of 293 presidents and CEOs with the profiles of 1,460 superior managers and 629 top salespeople. What we found was a much closer relationship between top leaders and salespeople than between top leaders and managers.

In general, executives and salespeople are far more likely to be dominant, proactive, and persuasive in expressing their ideas. More to the point, the executives and salespeople we assessed generally will be more competitively motivated and will derive gratification when their point of view is adopted.

In addition, the executives and salespeople who participated in our study are far more likely to exhibit impatience and take risks, and are much less cautious in moving forward than are the top-performing managers. In general, both salespeople and executives are likely to present themselves in a direct, driven, although somewhat intense and impatient manner.

The top managers, on the other hand, present a more balanced profile of characteristics. Compared with the salespeople and executives, they are likely to be more willing to subordinate their own ego gratification in favor of an individual contributor or a team win.

Similarly, managers are far less likely to take risks and generally will be more cautious and less impulsive in their interactions with others. While they are capable of directing and influencing others, the top-performing managers are more likely to take a facilitative role rather than a dominant role. As a result, they may be more effective in supporting, coaching, and mentoring others, including the leaders they report to, than in taking the dominant leadership position.

For salespeople who are “leaders in waiting,” here’s one important point to consider: From an influencing and directing perspective, the executives we profiled differed from salespeople in at least one important quality. Top executives are likely to exhibit a higher level of empathy than salespeople in general. This suggests that for top salespeople to ascend the leadership ladder, they must be capable of guiding their vision and presenting their persuasive message with great sensitivity to the needs of their audience.

Building and maintaining relationships

In general, salespeople are strongly outgoing. Likely to be proactive in networking and establishing new contacts, they will be comfortable putting themselves into situations where there is an opportunity to interact with other people. Top executives, on the other hand, while having great empathy and the ability to relate to others, are, for the most part, likely to be somewhat private.

They have sufficient gregariousness to “play the game,” but will be highly selective in terms of with whom they choose to spend their time. Top-rated managers are empathic in their ability to relate, but generally moderate in their outgoingness, accommodation, and skepticism—not nearly as extreme as the other two groups.

Given these differences, it is clear that not all salespeople will be entirely comfortable in the solitary role of leader. We are reminded of the old saw, “It’s lonely at the top.” Leaders seek the advice and counsel of others, but will not seek out social situations just for their own sake.

Problem solving and decision making

As problem solvers, salespeople are, in many ways, more like the top executive group than the management group. While the top leaders generally score significantly higher than both salespeople and other managers on abstract reasoning ability and idea orientation, their style of problem solving and decision making is similar to that of salespeople.

Leaders tend to be somewhat more creative and bring tremendous problem-solving ability and flexibility to the core leadership tasks of recognizing issues and opportunities, developing strategies, and working through barriers that impede progress toward important goals.

However, like salespeople, they tend to be impatient to reach conclusions and take action, and have limited tolerance for minutia and aspects of detail that could impede progress. Again, the managers tend to be more balanced and moderate in their approach to problem solving—they are more comfortable with details and likely to be less impatient with the process of getting to the right conclusion.

Leaders and salespeople are less concerned with issues of due diligence and, thus, are much more likely to take actions based on instincts.
Personal organization and time management

Neither leaders nor salespeople are likely to be highly organized or disciplined in their approach. While top-level managers are generally oriented toward defining and setting goals, establishing and budgeting priorities, implementing tactics, tracking performance and other details, and managing follow-through, salespeople and top executives share a tendency to be spontaneous, easily distractible, opportunistic, and impatient. These groups thrive on chaos and often are responsible for creating it.

Exemplary managers, the people whom leaders surround themselves with and who are responsible for directing the efforts of salespeople, “do things right.” Salespeople and top executive leaders, on the other hand, because of their approach to personal organization and time management, frequently leave a mess in their wake for others to clean up.

Knowing who you are

Knowing who you are is the basis for engineering a future that “fits.” Tom Gartland, president, North America of Avis Budget Group, knew that he wanted to be in sales for as long as he can remember. “When I was 14 years old, I went to work for a place called Robert’s Rent-a-Tux. I lied about my age and told them I was 16. So there I was renting tuxedos but, more important, driving incremental commission by selling cufflinks, shoes, and bow ties. I understood how to make money. And that’s what has driven me my entire life.”

As a leader, you are hiring somebody for a certain position now, but you also are hiring them for the future, a future that is yet unknown. You knew that you always wanted to be in sales. Did you also always know that you wanted to be a leader?

As Gartland explains, “I probably knew that I wanted to lead when I was selling in the tuxedo store. I was thinking how I could run the store better. Leading has always been part of my DNA. I believe that you can develop leadership skills, but I’m not sure you can develop a leader. It’s either part of who you are or it is not. I was the captain of my hockey team when I was in school.

“For me, it’s been about being driven myself but also wanting to surround myself with a team of equally driven people. I don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room, but I know how to recognize the smartest people and the best talent, and I know how to position them to succeed. That gives me tremendous satisfaction.”

Herb Greenberg and Patrick Sweeney

First Appeared in:
Training & Development

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