Developing Leaders over Sellers

Want more sales? Develop better leaders, not better sellers leading sellers. Through hands-on experience and working with some of the best leaders in the world, Cody Rowland tells us why.

Sales and revenue growth are in every for-profit organisation’s goals every year. Some companies ride industry trends to achieve growth, some time the market right, and others just get plain lucky. But there are teams and organisations that consistently manufacture growth, regardless of most external factors. How do they do it? 

The easy answer is that their sales reps are better trained. One study has shown that companies that implement a sales training programme can lead to sales figures that are 10% higher than comparable of companies without a sales training programme.1 Another study showed that sales training programmes can increase individual sellers performance by 20%2. And the list of studies could go on and on. For most of us, this formula passes the most basic ‘smell test’:

Better sellers = better results

But this oversimplification can lead to a major oversight when searching for the real answer as to how some teams routinely beat quotas and drive growth. 

The best sales teams are the result of great leadership, not just great sellers.

One study rated all the sales leaders in an organisation in overall leadership effectiveness. They then looked at the sales results of the sellers working for each of those leaders. The results were astounding. They found that sellers that worked under a sales leader rated in the top 10% of their company had sales results that were, on average, more than six times higher than sellers working for leaders in the bottom 10%.3

Another study showed that 69% of sellers that sold more than their quota rated their sales manager as being “excellent” or “above average.”4 

So our formula for more growth is shaping up as follows: 

Better sales leaders = better sellers = better results

While this also passes our ‘smell test’ there is a flaw in this formula that far too many sales leaders and organisations overlook. The problem is in the title of “sales leader”. Too many sales leaders and organisations focus on developing better sales leaders, and not enough focus simply on developing better leaders. 

Is it just semantics? Not according to the Peter Principles. Named for the late Laurence J Peter (Ed.D., Washington), this theory broadly states that employees are promoted one level beyond where they have proved to be competent. This phenomenon plays out in many functions where specialised skillsets are required to perform at a high level. For example, a highly competent individual contributor that is routinely rated as a “top performer” will most likely get promoted to a position where they are now leading the team doing the work, rather than doing the work themselves. But they were promoted due to past performance (not an accurate predictor of future success) and their performance in another job. They weren’t prompted for being a good leader, they were promoted for delivering results as an individual contributor. 

Now that they are leading the team, many new leaders focus on leveraging their technical or functional knowledge. They may even misapply strengths-based development concepts and double down on the skills and knowledge that helped them be successful in the past. The best will even try to transfer those skills and knowledge to their team (on the logic that better trained sellers = more sales). But in so doing, they are focusing on the wrong word in their title: sales. They’d achieve better results by focusing on simply being an effective leader irrespective of function. Teams need the best leaders to get the best out of them, not the best sellers. 

And this leads us to one final question: if it’s the best leaders we need, what do those leaders do? While there are many leadership competency models out there, we at Interactive Workshops routinely use the following model: 

We’ve found that leaders that focus on making improvements in these eight areas will see a meaningful improvement in their overall leadership effectiveness, regardless of what function or industry they are in. But specifically for sales leaders, these eight qualities can be the guide for transforming an excellent seller into a leader. And this transformation will unlock the potential of the team to deliver the needed sales growth.

So, we can finish our equation:

Better (sales) leaders = better sellers = better results