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Have you been thinking about sales leadership all wrong?

Lead the people but manage the processes that help them succeed.

Have you been thinking about sales leadership all wrong?
[Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock]

I was doing a sales coaching session recently, and I asked everyone in the audience to raise their hands if they preferred the title sales leader over sales manager. Nearly everyone wanted to be identified as a leader over a manager. But why? At a high level, maybe leadership-oriented tasks seem more noble, more thoughtful, even superior—while management-related tasks feel menial and monotonous. Lower-level thinking.

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This couldn’t be any further from the truth. There is a distinct difference between leadership and management, but it has nothing to do with superiority. It’s a matter of being people-driven or process-driven. Allow me to illustrate with an example at my wife’s expense.

When I first married Lisa, I was working as a salesperson making straight commission. She, on the other hand, had a really good, stable job for a large regional supermarket. She had worked there throughout college and finally got her first big promotion to manage the entire store, which is a big deal. The reason for her promotion was that the store wasn’t operating very efficiently. Her district manager explained that this was partly due to the employees not sticking to their schedules. When people miss shifts regularly, customers become frustrated and supermarkets lose money.

Lisa was pretty excited about the promotion to the new sheriff in town. I asked her what was one of the first things she was going to do to get the supermarket back on track. She said she was going to fix the schedules immediately. About three or four days later, she was wearing frustration on her face. I finally pried it out of her—she had changed all the schedules, but the employees weren’t buying in. A couple of days later, she came home even more frustrated. Apparently there was a small mutiny, and dozens of employees refused to even speak with her. I asked her if she wanted some advice. She said, quite certainly, no.

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A couple more days went by and things had gone from bad to worse. Lisa was ready to quit. I asked again if she wanted some advice. This time she agreed to hear me out. I basically summed up the situation: You’re the new sheriff in town. You found the gaps and issues with the schedule and fixed them. Then you announced the changes to the employees and waited for everything to fall into place.

She had gone right for the process and forgotten about the people. So I told her what I would do is go in the next morning and have a meeting with everyone about the schedule. Ask their opinions and hear their frustrations. Then, make the changes to the schedule, hopefully with full buy-in. Lisa and I have been married for over 20 years, and I’d wager I’ve been wrong far more often than she has. But that time I was right.

She came back the next day and said she had the meeting, everyone made suggestions and felt heard, and she created the schedule (which was essentially the exact same schedule she had created in the first place!). Lisa was managing alright, but she wasn’t leading. And those are two totally different skill sets.

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Sales management is a science. It’s metrics-based and data-driven. It’s all about leads, pipeline, goals, tracking, reporting, KPIs, and compensation. It takes planning, strategy, tactics, and execution.

Sales leadership, on the other hand, is an art. It’s interpretive and fluid. It’s about culture, expectations, experience, behavior, and values. Sales leaders need to have super-sharp people skills. They need to ask themselves questions like: How do I sell the vision? How do I sell my ideas? How do I understand people’s motivations? And how does this affect culture?

The word leader should not be any more appealing than manager. Both are required for a fully-functioning, high-performing sales team. Often, you will split your time between sales leadership and sales management. So, lead the people but manage the processes that help them succeed. People support a world they help create, and they support processes they feel help them succeed.

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Master them both and your sales team will be in a class of their own.


President/CEO of Tyson Group, #1 WSJ and USA Today bestselling author, expert sales negotiator and consultant for the world’s biggest brands

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