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4 reasons to look to the sales force for future CEOs

This tech leader makes the case for tapping more salespeople, with their unique insight and customer service experience, for the coveted corner office. 

4 reasons to look to the sales force for future CEOs
[Source image: arthobbit/iStock]
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“We are all salespeople,” as the saying goes. No matter their job or title, nearly everyone in a company must exercise sales skills to promote an idea, motivate others, or pitch themselves for a promotion, the list goes on and on.

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Given that, you’d think leaders with actual sales backgrounds would be a natural fit for the CEO position across the tech industry and would regularly fill their ranks. But it’s surprisingly rare.

There have been some notable exceptions through the years—Mark Cuban, former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, ex-IBM leader Samuel Palmisano, for example. However, other parts of the business, like product strategy, engineering, marketing, and operations, are far more likely to be the route to the top.

According to a 2017 study by the Korn Ferry Institute, only 8% of CEOs at the largest 100 U.S. tech firms have primary experience in sales and fewer than 30% have any sales experience whatsoever.

I don’t get why. As a CEO who started out in sales myself, I know firsthand that salespeople tend to have the unique knowledge, expertise, and mental makeup to succeed in the corner office. And I believe those skills have unprecedented importance in the rapidly changing digital era.

Here are four reasons why I believe sales should more often be a springboard to the CEO chair:

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Salespeople are on the front lines of customer digital disruption

The speed at which digital innovation is transforming business is stunning, and it keeps accelerating all the time. Salespeople witness these dramatic changes from working directly with customers and, consequently, knowing what a tech provider needs to do to serve them.

This powerful understanding of the customer base has never been more critical at a time when empathy for the customer has become one of the most talked about topics in business.

Companies face extraordinary pressure to delight today’s buyers, who have more choices than ever, can easily switch loyalties, and can make or break a brand’s reputation with a social media post. In a recent survey, 91% of CEOs who responded believe empathy is directly linked to a business’s financial performance.

Who better than a leader with a sales background to drive a mentality of “the customer isn’t everything, they’re the only thing” throughout the organization?

Their scrappiness is infectious

In any company these days, and especially in a tech startup, you need people who persistently and tirelessly get it done, folks who hustle. These qualities are built into the salesperson’s DNA.

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On a personal note: In my younger days, I sold a lot of stuff. At 10, I hawked chickens and horse manure while pushing a wheelbarrow down roads in my native South Africa. In my early 20s after military service, I sold gym memberships for an international fitness company then acquired by Richard Branson. I changed the focus to corporate memberships which proved very successful. In my late 20s, I got into the IT industry, and at 30 I cofounded a software business. Packing suitcases with swag giveaways and a few weeks’ worth of changes of clothes, I flew to the United States to sell at trade shows. Back home in South Africa, I’d prospect over the phone until past midnight. I did that for three or four years.

I was far from the world’s most talented salesperson, but no one was going to outhustle me. And though I now have more than eight years of CEO experience, I’ll always be the grinder I was then. And I’m glad. It keeps me hungry and staves off complacency. I try to impart that same energy as a leader. Any sales-leader-turned-CEO would.

Sales leaders have huge BS detectors

Salespeople’s success is defined by numbers—there’s no room for fudging or magical thinking. It’s either working or it isn’t.

As a result, a CEO with sales roots will always view the state of the business through a hyper-realistic lens, and they’ll aggressively drive the organization to make sure revenue and growth targets are met.

That’s just how salespeople are used to operating and it’s surely a healthy mindset to keep a business on track.

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It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle

 Sales expert Elmer Wheeler, who has been called the pioneer of persuasions, wrote in 1938, “don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” In other words, don’t sell a product but the exciting idea behind it.

This is just as relevant today. Take Elon Musk (a fellow South African), for example, whose Tesla, Inc. isn’t selling just a car but broader values around clean energy and software innovation.

I learned this lesson from my early experiences in sales, not from the Harvard degree I don’t have. I think every sales leader worth their salt knows it too and, given the chance, would work to make it a bedrock concept across an entire company.

So, what does a sales leader need to get to the CEO chair? My strongest piece of advice is to think beyond their sales silo and become experts on other parts of the business as well, from technical aspects of the product to how it’s marketed.

That software business I cofounded at 30? While I spent hours upon hours working the phones and trade shows to sell our product, I also worked with the developers on a daily basis managing the overall project, as well as doing the quality assurance. I also manned the customer support phone line. There was hardly a part of the business I didn’t have my hand in.

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My point is that salespeople who want to advance up the corporate executive ladder need more than hustle—they need to put in the time and effort to understand the whole business.

I can’t tell you why more people who start in sales don’t ascend to CEO. Maybe they get pigeonholed or, for whatever reason, just don’t want the job. But as these four traits show, they’re uniquely suited to run a company.


Anthony Brooks-Williams is CEO of HVR, a provider of real-time cloud data replication technology.