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When You Shouldn’t Promote a Top Sales Rep to Sales Manager

If finding star sales reps seems difficult, finding stellar sales managers can be even more challenging. Many companies engage in short-sighted thinking, promoting top reps to manager roles under the misguided notion that their success will automatically translate into more of the same in their new role. The reality is frequently the opposite. Your best sales performers far too often will have no business just being promoted to the leader of a team. In this post, we’ll discuss why.

  1. The most important skills of a sales rep and those of a sales manager have little in common.

    At the most basic, fundamental level, sales management calls for a completely different set of skills than a frontline sales role. It’s one thing to be able to win prospects over into committed contracts – it’s another thing entirely to be able to advise sales reps on how they can improve their selling game. Even if it seems logical that selling skills should transfer from former rep to current manager, no two sales reps are alike in personality and approach. What works for a top performer might well not work at all for your up and coming sales people.

  2. Top sales reps frequently love the game and managing takes them out of it.

    One of the biggest reasons why star sales reps generate the income they do is because they love sales. The thrill of the hunt, the game of converting prospects into customers, the ecstasy of that big commission check – it’s a rush akin to that of star athletes in their sport.

    What happens when the star athlete leaves the field? There’s a sense of loss, as the high of playing the game is gone. Some try coaching, the athletic equivalent to becoming a sales manager. It often ends in disaster. As Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago writes, “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to… help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse”. It’s a notion supported by the idea that well-honed activities, such as throwing a football or closing a deal, become so engrained at the elite level that they’re instinctive. Hence the old adage about overthinking making things worse and to instead, in the words of Nike, “Just Do It”.

    The same analogy applies to sales – the chase is gone, and you have to shift your mindset and role, which you might be ill-prepared for – especially communicating skills and knowledge to others. For many promoted sales reps (and former athletes), they’ll be adrift, searching for that lost glory and unable to articulate to the next generation.

    Another reason why top sales reps often struggle with the promotion to manager is that as sales reps, they get their energy and excitement from closing their own deals. Managers, in contrast, are energized by helping others grow and perform better in their roles.

  3. Surrendering control is hard to do.

    In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the Narrator (Edward Norton) are arguing in the car when Tyler lets go of the wheel. At one point, (and yes, this quote is ironic considering our business), Tyler says, “Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a (expletive) seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go! Let go!” While this blog post is about promotion rather than bottoming out as in the dark comedy, the quote nonetheless applies to sales reps moved to sales manager roles.

    Top sales reps frequently love the control they have over the process. But as a manager, they need to delegate responsibilities, let go, and trust in their direct reports. Far too frequently, they fall into the trap of micromanaging, unable to trust their sales reps to get the job done and meet quota. In doing so, they can stifle other top reps, decrease morale in the sales team, and increase sales rep turnover – always a costly endeavor.

All of this said, it certainly isn’t impossible for a former sales star to become an equally successful sales manager. But rather than blindly commit to automatically promoting top sales reps to a manager role, companies need to be aware of the potential pitfalls in doing so and prepare the new manager with the tools & skills to be successful. Next time, we’ll examine what to look for when deciding to internally promote a sales rep to the manager level.