From Individual Contributor To Influencer

By Malcolm Fleschner

Ian Wilcox refers to the fact that top performing sales reps do not always make the best sales managers as a great paradox facing today’s pharmaceutical sales organizations. As vice president and pharmaceutical practice leader for the Hay Group (, a global organizational and human resources consulting firm, Wilcox has worked with nearly every major player, as well as some of the smaller companies in the pharmaceutical industry. He says many organizations cling to the notion that frontline reps should earn their ticket to management by putting pegs on the board. The reality, he says, is that this is a shortsighted approach to managerial development.

“Going from individual contributor salesperson to manager is a far right- or left-hand turn,” Wilcox says. “The reason for this is that as a salesperson you’re focus is on the end point, meaning walking into the doctor’s office and closing the sale – behaviors that go along with being a successful sales rep. Most reps also are goal-focused and wired around achievement. In many ways these traits differ from what it takes to be a successful manager because at its heart management is an influence role. It’s not that managers aren’t goal-focused, but that the goal they’re focused on is achievement through others. Managers who are all about the task of getting sales end up being frustrated and will be seen by salespeople as micromanagers.”

There’s more to solving this problem than simply acknowledging that not all top sales reps are cut out for management, however. As Wilcox points out, even forward-thinking pharmaceutical companies face a challenge when determining accurate predictors for which reps will excel at management.

“The challenge is the following,” he says. “How do you prepare somebody who is essentially in a one-dimensional job where they’re focused on walking into a doctor’s office eight or nine times a day? How do you begin to say: Well, I’m going to develop you to be a manager. The question management grapples with is: Where are the opportunities within an individual contributor role to function as a manager?”

One solution Wilcox suggests is to pair new salespeople coming on board with more experienced reps. This gives the organization the opportunity to ease new hires into the field while testing potential managers’ coaching mettle.

“For example,” Wilcox says, “the sales organization wants to know: How does this candidate perform in a team context at making someone else be successful? This sort of pairing helps you see if the person pays attention to the coaching and care of others, which are critical traits for a district sales manager. The other piece of that is giving potential managers a realistic perspective by saying: OK, you’re a high performer. Now how do you do when you have to work with someone who might not be a great performer? Why don’t you try and coach that person through the process?” This essentially gives a realistic job preview.”

At its core, Wilcox says, the issue boils down to understanding the role managers play in the sales development process and how the best managers transition into that role after establishing themselves as individual contributors.

“It’s interesting that some people view the role of being an effective DM as: Let me tell you how I did it. Effective managers, however, are all about questioning and helping sales reps reach their own insight rather than being a teller,” he says. “It goes back to the way superior reps are wired. Superior reps often are more comfortable wanting to tell and wanting to show. The reps you want for managers are those who can make the switch to saying: Selling is interesting. I’ve enjoyed it, but now I want to focus on helping others succeed and feeling good about that.”