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Great Seller=Great Leader?

When I first became a manager, I had no idea what I was doing.  I had been selling for about 5 years and I just knew I wanted to be a leader.  When my company decided to acquire and develop a weak, direct competitor, I was the only one who volunteered to lead the sales effort.  Literally no one wanted to manage sales for  this new division–including current leadership.  

That’s where it all started–being thrown into a job that was way beyond my skill set, with no previous development, training or support.  I literally was selling one day, managing the next day.  I was not set up to succeed.

Discover the journey of a sales manager who transitioned from a top performer to a leader without initial training or support. This insightful blog post explores the challenges and lessons of leadership development, emphasizing the importance of ability, social skills, and drive. Learn how organizations often fail to nurture high potential talent and how early investment in training and coaching can shape great sellers into great leaders.

Fortunately, I was the beneficiary of positive market tailwinds so after 18 months, everyone thought I was a genius (including me).  The truth was, I was lucky.  I have the self-awareness to admit that now.

I wasn’t fooling the support staff.  One particularly salty inventory manager once told me that “I didn’t know what the f–k I was doing ” while throwing a stack of oversold inventory reports on my desk.  Sadly this was the only direct performance feedback I received from anyone on the team that first year.

Without the digital 1.0 boom of the late 90’s, I would have been a total failure.  It was only many years later, when I left to join a company that had built in management support structures that  I realized how little I knew about my strengths and more importantly my weaknesses.  Self-awareness in leadership only can come when appropriate feedback is given.

In the article How Organizations Fail High Potential Talent, the authors describe 5 factors that lead to the failure of “high potential talent”.  The last two factors are the failure to develop talent both before and after they are promoted.   I thought about my own experience where they just threw me in the pool and let me figure it out.  The problem was, the mistakes I made learning were costly to the organization and they never even knew it.

In sales, organizations often promote their best performing seller just because they believe their success is a proxy for how their management performance will be.  Those of us who have made this mistake can tell you, the traits in great sales professionals are often liabilities as a leader.   But the part many people don’t realize is that many great sales professionals can be taught to be a leader, not by being handed the job but by early investments in development.

This is not a recommendation to write a blank check for developing your best seller into a future sales leader.  Before you make the investment, think about what science tells us are the three characteristics for identifying future leaders:  Ability, Social Skills, and Drive.  Learn how each of these qualities can be assessed objectively and invest in the assessments before investing in training/development.

Great sellers who transition into great leaders ultimately need to transfer all of their self motivation traits into the ability to motivate others.  Those are skills that are generally teachable.  Giving the great seller the tools and coaching to learn is the key.

The truth is, many founders are self-taught, self-starters and often they made it despite the fact that no one invested in their early development.  But everyone isn’t like you.  People need specific training and coaching.   So if you have identified future leaders, be very deliberate about how you are investing in their training and development.  Start training before you promote them–see how they respond.  Continue developing them after the promotion in leadership, stay close to them as they make the transition.  Taking a high performing seller and having them fail as a leader is costly so protect your investment.

Key takeaways:

  • Great sellers will not necessarily make great leaders
  • Invest in assessing high sales performers with an eye toward their compentency in Ability, Social Skills, and Drive
  • Once a high performer is identified as a future leader, be very deliberate about their training, coaching, and development.


 5 Reasons to Offer Employees Learning & Development Opportunities - Wharton Online 


What Science Says About Identifying High Potential Employees-Harvard Business Review

How Organizations Fail High Potential Talent-RHR International

Great Salespeople Do Make Great Sales Leaders With The Right Help-Forbes Business Council