Promoting Top Sales Producers to Managers? Think Again!

It is one of the oldest clich?s in sales: “What happens when you promote your top sales rep to a manager? You lose your top sales rep and gain your worst manager.”

Chances are, many readers of this article completed the statement before reading the answer. Why, then, do so many companies continue a practice that sales executives deride? A vacuum of viable career options, unset expectations, and a culture of “earning your stripes” are just a few of the answers that plague sales organizations today. Unfortunately, there’s not much research based on the performance data of managers who have been promoted from top performing sales reps versus those who were either moderate sales reps or had no sales experience

However, there’s ample data to prove that the behavioral profiles of those who succeed in the two roles are dramatically different, meaning that those who succeed as sales managers are not the same as those who succeed in direct selling. A seller’s business attitude heavily influences his ability to succeed. If an individual possesses a progressive attitude about business in general by seeking to use new strategies and techniques in his role and always striving to reinvent his work, he has a leg up on other salespeople. On the other hand, a strong sales manager seeks a more conventional approach, in which success relies on what is proven instead of on the latest fad.

Another key difference is a star salesperson’s need for stress in his or her environment. For better or for worse, our data shows that higher levels of stress are conducive to top performing representatives, while more moderate levels are needed by managers. Spend one day in most sales organizations where a top performing rep has been promoted to manager and you’ll see a nearly manic environment in which tactical and strategic changes are the only constant. While the team may be able to adapt and change, these are not practices that lead to results. While the things that make a salesperson successful are related to culture, personality and cognitive skills are more important for a leader.

One example of these leadership skills is verbal reasoning ability. Without the ability to rapidly and effectively process and communicate information, the chance for success is diminished. This is connected to the importance of “mental flexibility” or one’s ability to “think on his feet.” While not as critical for the rep, the leader must be able to rapidly think through scenarios and adapt to a changing environment to maximize performance. Interestingly, as substantial as the differences are, similarities exist as well. Both top salespeople and top sales managers need something called “leadership impact,” which is willingness to take action when the situation requires it. Basically, can one take charge and lead naturally? Both star salespeople and star managers must possess this in abundance. A sales representative must lead the prospect, while a manager must lead the team. All of this discussion of behavioral characteristics really boils down to one simple fact: You must understand the differences between successful salespeople and managers to understand how to (or if you should) promote. What if the top performing salesperson is not the right fit for a management role? Are you necessarily going to lose him or her to another company’s sales management opening? Not if you’ve thought through suitable career path alternatives for the sales professional. You’ve got to have a place for top sellers to advance. Too often, the alternative to management is more cold calling with a higher commission level.

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Other paths could include more strategic prospects such as national accounts, project-based leadership in which a sales rep manages an ad hoc sales team to land one client, or training and mentorship opportunities. Whichever components you include in your sales professional career path, it must be thought out and communicated. Too often, a senior sales executive or HR professional believes that these options exist while field sales reps have not been adequately sold on why this may be a smart career move for them. Selling your sales team on why progressing their careers along a sales professional line instead of management must start early – as early as the initial recruitment process. It comes down to setting adequate expectations at the start and following through with your actions. The reason why most sales people expect to one day be promoted to managers is precedent.

Unfortunately, this is still the most common practice in companies. “Sell your heart out and one day you’ll manage a team of your own,” is the motto. You can change this by informing all sales candidates, pre-hire, that this is not the practice in your organization. By carefully illustrating that there are other good paths for their careers besides management, and by showing clearly what those options entail, you can help the potential rep select the most appropriate role for him or her. When combined with constant reinforcement of this message at review time, a deliberate decision can be made by both rep and manager on the best course for the rep’s career. To promote the sales managers who will drive your company’s bottom line growth, you need to understand the unique role of the sales leader and what type of person is needed. You must then provide options to retain those who are great sellers but stand little chance of success as a manager. And, you must communicate and sell the alternatives to your current and future team members.

Greg Moran is CEO of OutMatch. The company's passion is helping to build winning teams, companies, and cultures, fueled by its data-driven approach to talent selection and development. OutMatch transforms the ability of companies to find the right employees to fit all of their jobs, from hourly to executive, by using predictive technology that measures potential and predicts how candidates will perform. OutMatch’s cloud-based platform uses competency-based job-fit assessments, behavioral interviewing, and online reference checking. Whether hiring new talent or promoting from within, OutMatch adds a new level of confidence and clarity to the selection process that enables businesses to make the best decisions about job fit. Visit


5 Comments on “Promoting Top Sales Producers to Managers? Think Again!

  1. Great article on an often ignored topic.

    I’d also like to direct your attention to a piece that covers a bit of different ground — potential career tracks for great sales producers besides management — in our UK magazine, Recruiter. Go to our web site, and look in the archives for ‘Everyone’s Next Step Is Different,’ in our Feb 8 06 issue. DeeDee Doke, Editor, Recruiter Magazine, London.

  2. Awesome article.

    Sales people are trained to hunt. They tend to be very competetive, focused and single minded. If they don’t sell, they don’t eat.

    Managers, on the other hand, need to be mentors and coaches in addition to ensuring the departments sales goals are met. Very different mentalities.

  3. Hi Greg;
    I beg to differ from your view-point. Sales is one aspect where there is a limitation for people to go hands-on.A Sales rep with 3-4 years of exprience will not prefer to do as much of cold-calling as a Trainee. At some point of time these guys need to get into a macro-level profile, where they strategise and deliver the effective sales pitch through a team of individuals. May be a designation of a ‘Manager’ is not given to him, but implicitly he is managing things.
    I agree with the leadership aspect of the job involved. Some are born leaders, some are taught. Just ask them to do how they would like be done, and they will become good leaders.
    In fact I think that a top performing Sales rep, has got a better probablity of becoming a good Manager. The reason for this is that he knows the nuts and bolts of the job. He has practised innovation, and will surely do that while he is managing a team. He can personalize the expriences and problems faced by his fellow sales reps and would guide them on the way-out. Or rather would tell them how he found the way-out fron the daily problems.
    Its the performance that will beget you the performance.

  4. As I have been both a top performing ‘sales rep’ and Sales Manager I would like to make comment. You say that there is evidence that suggests top sales people like stress but then say that when top sales reps become managers they create a stressful environment as if its a bad thing: ‘nearly manic environment in which tactical and strategic changes are the only constant’ – isn’t this stress a positive thing for top sales reps? Seems a contradiction to me!

    And aren’t: ‘culture, personality and cognitive skills’ important for every recruit? Also, when you say that ‘the importance of ‘mental flexibility’ or one’s ability to ‘think on his feet.’ is not as critical for the rep, I completely disagree! I want all of my sales reps to be able to display these characteristics.

    Further, I would be very interested in the ‘data’ you refer to frequently in your article, are you able to provide reference / source information? While agree with a lot of what you have said, I think that what makes a good sales rep versus a good sales manager is too complex to be written off using a few generalisations. There is so much more to consider than just the recruitment process and a couple of behavioural attributes.

    I have seen really good sales reps not get promoted to Sales Manager because of a belief in some of the issues you have raised above, only to have them go and work for a competitor as a sales manager and become very successful.

  5. I have enjoyed a full career in Sales and Sales Management, including sales for 10 years. When you are an achiever,32 years old, weary of reporting to people who are not well experienced in selling and feel that you have hit the limit of what you can do in your career (except to make more money you will eave your company or do something new just for the challenge. Sales pros need challenges not stress.

    What is missing in a lot of the modern companies is the structure and mentoring that existed a generation ago. While it was tedious to ‘go through the chairs’ on your way up in a company, it built solid foundations. Extensive training and coaching have also taken a back seat to fast growth. In my 10 years in the IT Staffing Industry I witnessed a lot of the 2 year hot shots being put in a position to lead a team with only a new business card and a title to guide him or her along. Many careers are wrecked and a lot of frustration and turnover is the result of what I and the author have outlined.

    More profiling, more mentoring, and yes, even coaching, are needed to develop both top managers and top sales professionals. I welcome your comments and even more so your ideas as to how to support the future of Selling and Sales Management as a profession.

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