Closing the Leadership Gap

By Heather Baldwin

A recent survey of sales leaders found that 37 percent felt they were prepared for their first leadership position when they were promoted. It sounds pretty good until you flip it around and realize 63 percent of sales leaders felt they were unprepared to handle the leadership challenges of their new role. What’s more, the vast majority of that 63 percent said they learned on the job through trial and error. Imagine what the “error” piece of that equation is costing your organization.

The bottom line of Development Dimensions International’s (DDI) Sales Leadership Forecast 2005-2006 is that organizations cannot afford to roll the dice and assume today’s top performing sales reps will make tomorrow’s best managers. In most cases, they don’t. Instead, companies should implement a comprehensive sales leader development program to ensure that sales leader vacancies are filled by people who are trained and ready and possess the necessary leadership skills to step into that leadership role. Here’s how to create a successful sales leader development program, according to Jeff Burwinkel, general manager, DDI sales optimization practice:

Step 1: Define success. Organizational leaders must sit down to define leadership success in the context of the organization’s sales strategy and go-to-market strategy. They must define four areas:

  1. What kind of knowledge should the new leader bring?
  2. What kind of experience does he/she need to have?
  3. What kind of behavioral capability is required?
  4. What personal characteristics and motivators are important?

"If your whole focus is growing new business and opening new channels, you need someone with those capabilities," Burwinkel explains. Too many organizations promote people who are the best at executing last year’s strategy; effective organizations promote with future strategy in mind.

Step 2: Assess your current sales leadership ranks. Using your new profile of success, take a look at your existing leaders to see how prepared they are to move forward. By identifying strengths and weaknesses against the profile, you’ll see where the gaps are between what’s required and what’s available. Keep in mind that the gaps you find may not be true weaknesses in ability, but simply areas that have not been trained or demonstrated. Provide training in these areas and reevaluate the group. Then you’ll truly know which gaps exist.

Step 3: Look for future leaders. Start by taking what Burwinkel calls the 30,000-foot look: assessing everyone in the sales organization for the following five traits. With each trait, you’ll narrow your field a little further:

  1. Who are the good performers? They don’t have to be the best, but they need to consistently meet their numbers.
  2. Who has the promise of leadership? In other words, you’re looking for people who, in the absence of a leader, step up to take a leadership role. They enable and empower people so that others feel bigger and better about themselves after having worked with them.
  3. Who lives the culture and the values of the company?
  4. Who is constantly reinventing themselves? You need to find people who are receptive to feedback and are always looking to get better.
  5. Who can live with the complexity, ambiguity and faster pace of a manager?

Once you’ve got your short list, sit down with each person on the list to let them know they’ve been identified as a potential future leader, then create a personalized development plan for them so they’re ready to step into a leadership position when it’s offered. The development plan should match the profile of success you developed in step one, so any gaps in knowledge are filled in by the time the person is promoted.

"Organizations will say it’s expensive to develop sales leaders before they take over as leaders," Burwinkel concludes. "But it’s more expensive to develop them while they’re in the position when they have the potential to impact customers."

For more information about DDI and the Leadership Forecast, visit