Why great salespeople make terrible managers

by Steli Efti
michael scott iamge

How do you find a great sales leader? In most organizations, it goes something like this: A rep hustles, grinds, and outperforms. Leadership takes notice, and thinks, “how can we spread their magic to the rest of the team?” So they make them a sales manager.

Which feels natural, right? Putting a killer sales rep in a management position means they can share their unique insights and techniques with the rest of the team. Unfortunately, this assumption is terribly flawed.

In fact, 99% of the time, the best sales people make the worst sales managers. And I should know.

How I discovered I was a terrible sales manager

The easiest way to explain just how terrible of an idea this is, is to tell you a quick story.

I’ve always had the right personality for sales. Charismatic. Outgoing. Creative. Tenacious. So, when I started managing a team early in my own career, I thought the best way to inspire them would be to lead by example.

I would call a sales kickoff meeting and have a rep pick a random phone number out of the Yellow Pages for me to call and pitch on the spot. I had no idea who these people were, but I would make up a pitch on the spot and close deals.

My team would leave feeling excited and ready to crush it. But they didn’t. In fact, they kept failing and I couldn’t understand why.

The best piece of advice I ever received on how to be a great sales manager

Eventually, I ended up at a workshop with one of the most legendary sales managers in my industry. He had a team that was consistently doing millions in sales, and I wanted to impress him and learn from him as much as possible.

We were all asked to do an example pitch and show how we would teach it to our team. So when it was my turn I went into my usual antics—loud, creative, funny, and totally unique. Everyone was engaged and excited. Except him.

Instead, he calmly waited for his turn and then pulled out 10 laminated pages and proceeded to do the most basic, boring, pitch I’d ever heard. I couldn’t believe it. And so I asked him straight up: “Is this it? How can you inspire your team with a pitch that’s so old school and boring?”

What he said completely changed my approach to managing salespeople:

“I give every new employee these 10 pages. If they’re going to use them to pitch, I need to do the same. How else will they see what a good example looks like? I want a process that is predictable and repeatable that people can learn, master, and perfect and get us all aligned as a sales team.

The qualities that make you a great salesperson are what make you a terrible manager

The reason this advice is so important is because it shows just how much of a distinction there is between a great manager and a great sales rep.

Think of it like a professional sports team. The best coaches were almost always never great players. Because coaching and playing the game are totally different activities. They take different skills. Different mindsets. Different personalities.

It’s the same in sales. As a rep, creativity is one of your greatest asset. But in sales management, it’s a weakness.

My style of pitching only worked for me. It was a unique way of doing things for a unique person. And by trying to inspire my team to do the same instead of coaching them on the fundamentals, I was taking good, hardworking, ambitious people and setting them up for failure.

Instead, sales management isn’t about inspiring your team through your own actions, but putting your ego aside and focusing on giving your team the tools they need to succeed as a whole.

That means creating a sales process that is repeatable and predictable. Not one that is unique to every situation like I was trying to do.

It means looking at the big picture and knowing what’s happening in the next week, month, or quarter and preparing your team.

It means focusing on individual growth and helping even an average sales rep be successful at their jobs.

Most of all, it means breaking out of the short-term sales mentality of thinking about the next call or pitch or demo and looking at the big picture and asking “What do we need to do to move forward as a team?”

Not every salesperson can (or should) become a sales manager

Sales attracts a certain type of person. We’re ambitious and driven. We crave closing deals and getting the win. And it’s not easy to go from being in the game to being on the sidelines. But for those that can, the results can be even more impactful than when you’re a rep.

Sales managers get the opportunity to shape an organization. To lead them to success. But it means sacrificing some of the things that made you a great rep in the first place.

So, before you take the leap to management or if you’re a founder looking to promote an exceptional sales rep, I want you to ask one question: Can you get the same high you get from closing a deal through coaching and managing?

If you can’t, that’s ok. It’s infinitely better to be a great salesperson than a bad sales manager.

Have you had a great sales manager (or a terrible one) you want to talk about? Tell me your stories in the comments below.

Want to know how to hire and build the best sales team possible? Get your free copy of The Sales Hiring Playbook:

Download The Sales Hiring Playbook

Want our best sales advice?

Join 200,000+ sales professionals and founders. Get our best tips on growing revenue every week.

No, thanks.

Thank you for subscribing.