Death of a Sales Rep: How Promotion Fells a Superstar

In many companies, people are promoted into management because of seniority or as a result of strong performance in their previous role.  Unfortunately, this often results in unqualified, untrained managers.  If you haven’t read The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. by Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull, it provides insight into this principle, commonly stated as “”Employees tend to rise (or be promoted to) to their level of incompetence.”

Of course, HR professionals know that incompetence can often be addressed through additional education, training, and mentoring in the new role—not so with lack of fit. In the worst-case scenario, promotion, based on seniority or past performance in vastly different roles, can lead to an extreme management misfit.

Flickr/Creative Commons/Ed Sweeney, Navicore

This is seldom as obvious as when a top sales performer is promoted to sales manager. The typical high-performing sales representative is competitive, self-directed, and often unsympathetic to non-performers; this is especially true when compensation is fully (or largely) performance-based. The individualism of many high-performers is not well suited to the coaching and mentoring role that sales managers must play and, as such, may not support appropriate management decision-making. Combine this with continued personal sales activity (common in many commission sales organizations), and new sales managers can find themselves battling conflicting motivations on a daily basis.

Conflicting Motives Break Trust

In this circumstance, when a top sales person has to choose between her personal performance and that of the salespeople she manages, at best she will be highly stressed—at worst, she may undermine the success of her own team as her competitive nature takes precedence.  

In this type of sales organization, even if the new sales manager has all the necessary skills and the right mindset to be an excellent sales manager, the nature of the environment may work against her. When managers continue to sell, no matter how effective they are at developing their people and how committed they may be to the success of the team, the perception of conflicting motivations remains. This will erode trust and effect long-term performance across the team.  

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how this happens.

  1. In sales organizations, the manager is often the conduit for incoming business referrals. How many of those referrals get distributed to the team when the manager must also maintain personal sales?
  2. Similarly, the manager is typically the person contacted when a customer has a concern—will the manager be objective about the situation, or is it easier to take over an account than repair the customer’s relationship with the current account manager?

Whether or not these practices happen, some sales people will assume they are happening, because the individualist considers personal benefit to be the most important factor when making a decision. In other words, sales people will assume that a top performer promoted to management will still operate on the same fundamental principles that previously resulted in success.

Promote for Fit First

Trying to fit the competitive, self-directed, individualistic, sales superstar into a sales management role may simply lead to the end of a great sales career and the beginning of a frustrating, unproductive management career.  In fact, you may be setting your top performer up for failure, while at the same time breeding discord within the sales team. 

This scenario is one example of what can happen when people are promoted to management for the wrong reasons. A manager has to put the good of the team and the organization ahead of personal achievement. More importantly, management requires specific skills, abilities and character traits over and above those required for prior front-line roles.  

Management promotion decisions should be based on the nature of the management role and whether candidates have the mindset and capacity to do the job they will be required to do—not on how long they have been with the company or how well they perform in their current role.

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