The Right Fit
So you’ve decided sales is the career for you. Now what? Here are some considerations from experts and old hands directed at newcomers to the professional B2B sales field.
First, consider whether sales is the right fit for your personality. If it is, do you want to advance as a rep, or do you want to go for management, even seeking the top job eventually? Good reps are competitive, but choosing a career path is tricky. This is especially true because, when assessed by competencies and personalities, junior members of a sales force are an amazingly varied lot.
“Be honest with yourself,” advises Patrick Sweeney, executive vice president of Caliper, a sales assessment company. “In sales you can’t fake it, or if you fake it, people will be able to tell. In sales you are who you are.” Sweeney shares the story of a very successful real estate salesperson: he started his own real estate agency but spent two years running the business and hating it before returning to what he loved all along – selling real estate.
“Be thoughtful and candid with yourself. Do you really want to do this?” says Todd Harris, director of research at PI Worldwide. “Many companies give salespeople career paths that are quite rewarding without the rise up the management ladder.”
The benefits of top management positions are money, perks, influence, and power. The downsides include enormous pressure, a high rate of failure, and a major time commitment. Harris says top execs put in 70 hours a week and still fail about half the time. “Think about it. You may want to remain an individual contributor.”
“If you want to get to the next level, do some of it now. Go to your current manager and ask how you can help out,” urges Chris Carlson, president of Sales Talent. But first, a rep should be performing his or her own duties satisfactorily.
“In order to be considered for promotion, you first have to be above plan,” Carlson notes. “I don’t care what kind of leader you are, you must make your numbers [if you expect others to listen to you].”
Carlson says the straightforward approach is usually best. Young reps should tell their manager that they’re interested in a management career. Most companies are looking for ambitious young reps and will try to guide them. If the company does not, “[the reps] will have to go to another company,” Carlson says.
Like Sweeney and Harris, Carlson says management is not for everyone: “Some people want to go to the top for egotistical reasons, but when they get there, they find they are miserable. But they can’t leave because their ego will not let them go back.”
There are indeed some advantages to staying in the field as a well-paid sales rep. “You are used to controlling your income,” Carlson says. “But at the top, the numbers are out of your control.”
If you do seek advancement, what qualities will you need to have or acquire? David Juristy, vice president of sales at Select International, looks for a total of 20 competencies in top sales execs, but a few are the most important: a drive to win, ability to adapt, ability to read people, an outgoing personality, and the ability to hold people accountable. Not quite as critical are time management and the ability to interpret sales information.
“There is a big difference between sales skills and sales-leadership skills,” emphasizes Scott Hudson, vice president of HR Chally. “Sales superstars are rarely a success in management.”
Reps focus on transactions and customers. Managers set the vision, teach, coach, and hold people accountable. “These are different mind-sets,” Hudson explains. “Managers must be profit-conscious, coach in a structured environment, and measure success quantitatively, not by touch and feel.”
Reps who are thinking of pursuing a management career should speak to a manager they admire. “Ask the manager what they do and how they see you,” Sweeney advises. Management responsibilities include coaching, managing performance and territories, hiring, firing, and plenty of working with chief finance offers on budgets. “Road test your aspirations,” Sweeney says. “Do not be fooled by the office, title, compensation, or trappings.”
Sales reps have clearer paths to success, more freedom, and more exciting rewards than managers. Managers must spend hours with other execs discussing when to enter new markets or introduce new products, or hiring and firing people. “[Selling and managing] are two very different jobs,” Sweeney observes. “Yet we try to recruit them from the same sales force.”
Sweeney thinks people can change a lot if they make the commitment to major work and effort. But he believes most people are still better off exploiting their natural strengths. For top positions, he argues that one of the most important qualities is the ability to work with leaders of other departments: “Some people can go to long meetings and understand and persuade others. Other people want to be doing something, not sitting in meetings.”
In addition to technical skills, good managers must have a strong degree of self-awareness. “We get things done with other people in the organization, and you must be aware of your impact on other people – the people who work with you and for you,” says Harris. “You must have the ability to get feedback and act on it. Your responsibilities change at different levels, and you must be able to evolve.”
Some traits of top salespeople and managers cannot be taught, such as the drive to succeed. But others can, such as time management and the ability to interpret sales information, and for those, Juristy thinks Franklin Covey’s course on SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham is the best sales-training program.
Hudson recommends Richardson, AchieveGlobal, and Advantage Performance as exemplary courses. But he agrees that while some leadership traits can be learned, some must be present at the outset: “You have to have some of the raw materials to start with.”
Above all, reps who want to climb the corporate ladder must be willing to take on new challenges, such as regional or national-account management. This can even mean moving out of sales altogether and into operations, customer service, distribution, or marketing. Hudson says the best assignments will still be customer facing, not in the IT, supply chain, or finance departments: “Get into corporate for a while. Get outside your comfort zone.”
Hudson recommends spending about two years in each assignment and says a rise to the top in 10 to 15 years is reasonable. Good performance will get attention on the sales track. “You can move up quickly in sales. A lot of eyeballs are on you,” he encourages.
Hudson also thinks an MBA is pretty much required of those who want to rise to the C-suite, especially if they are switching companies: “If you try to move from one large company to another, a lack of an MBA will be held against you.” Fortunately, MBAs can be obtained part-time now, or executive versions can be earned within six classes. But online schooling is still not as respected as in-class work, partly because the latter shows more effort, Hudson says.
A rep’s progress to the top can take different routes, depending on how his or her firm’s sales force is organized. “You may have to move laterally before you move up, or you may have to move into different product lines,” Juristy notes, “but sales leaders can spot the top performers in each position.”
Juristy sees a lot of people from marketing and operations getting into sales, but not many people shift from sales into those departments. He thinks ambitious reps should try, one way or another, to get involved in the production of what they sell: “Sit in on the implementation planning after you sell it. You will get an understanding of the business.” Participation in the delivery of the product makes a rep a better consultative salesperson, a trusted adviser, and a much better candidate for higher management.
Ambitious salespeople used to stay in each position for about 18 months and then move up the ladder for a $20,000 raise, Juristy says. “Now if I see someone stay in a position for less than three years, I wonder if they are a turnover risk.”
But total time to make chief sales officer still depends on the size of the organization. “For a Fortune 500 firm, it will take fifteen to twenty years at least,” Juristy says. “For smaller, more progressive firms and people with the right education, the same trip can take only ten years.”
Harris urges ambitious reps to seek mentors, possibly several – one for sales skills, one for product knowledge, and another for company and industry knowledge: “When people fail, it is because they were not good at an aspect of their work, so you must be strong at it all.”
Harris agrees that MBAs and other degrees are helpful but also cost time and money, and their worth varies by company. He says the critical requirement for upward movement is to always be developing better skills, and he thinks the fastest route to the top is usually within one company: “If you go with another company, you lose the experience and the political and social capital you have developed. So there should be a strong reason for leaving – more money, more responsibility, or the opportunity to experience new things.”
Carlson also thinks that company switching is inadvisable unless really necessary. He continues, “You do not advance your career by job hopping. If you go to another company for your first management job and are unfamiliar with the products, you are set up to fail.”
Educational requirements for top sales jobs depend on company and sector, in Carlson’s view. “If you are selling to such highly educated people as surgeons or consultants, higher education is highly valued. In other markets, the value is in performance.”
Carlson thinks even hotshots should spend three to five years in each position. So total time required to reach the top will depend on how many levels there are, and that, in turn, depends on company size. Carlson cites one acquaintance who is VP of sales at a $250 million a year company at the age of 35, after spending three years at each position prior. This is a significant-size firm but hardly a global giant.
Hudson thinks sometimes top sales execs have been pushed up too fast and without enough experience, especially in working through the inevitable down cycles. “Top management is all about setting a clear vision, making tough decisions, and holding people accountable,” he says. “Some people are just not comfortable with these things.”
And, as with everything else in sales, time goes faster and careers are more successful when the following rules are observed: “Have a plan, have goals, write them down, put dates by them, review them yearly, and make adjustments,” Juristy says. “Recently, I spoke with a great sales rep who thought he would be further along in his career. I asked him, ‘What is your plan?’ He didn’t have one. If you don’t make a plan, it is like shooting without aiming.”
– Henry Canaday
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