Sales Management Lessons from Army Generals

By Heather Baldwin

Sales managers are like Army generals. The ones who stand on the front lines and lead their troops into battle – or into a sale – are certainly heroic, but usually wind up going down in a blaze of glory. Great generals, on the other hand, don’t get into the thick of the battle. Instead, “they are planning the next battle – and the battle after that,” says William “Skip” Miller, CEO of M3 Learning and author of More ProActive Sales Management. Even during today’s fight, they are getting their troops ready for the next three to six months.

“From a sales management perspective, way too many sales organizations have their sales managers running around trying to close business,” says Miller. Sure, it looks good in the moment as sales numbers get a boost and the sales team sees their manager in the thick of things. But these “lead from the front” managers are doing their team a long-term disservice. They’re making their sales team dependent on them and they’re failing to ready them for the future. Imagine if George Washington had been surprised by the snow and cold at Valley Forge, explains Miller. Imagine his troops untrained to fight in these conditions and lacking the proper supplies because Washington had been too “busy with the troops over at the gun-cleaning seminar” to ready them for this battle.

With that in mind, ask yourself: Are you readying your troops to fight the battles of the future? Or are you hovering over them at the gun-cleaning seminar? Instead of helping sales reps close sales, Miller says there are five things sales managers should be focusing on:

  1. Predict the future. What will the market and the competition be doing six months from now? What will your sales team need to know and do to succeed in that environment? Most important, what are you doing to get them ready for it?
  2. Get involved. You can’t teach your sales team new skills if you haven’t learned them yourself. Get educated so you can coach and instill new skills in your salespeople. And by all means, apply what you’ve learned. Miller says countless managers sit through training classes and then go back to their subjective ways of management, asking, “How’s the deal coming? When do you think we’re going to get it?” – and Miller laments that managers “ask these things right after a training class! It’s frustrating.”
  3. Establish a process. Do you have a sales process? When you make changes to it, are you documenting it? “This is what sales managers should be working on, but because they have had no training in process management, they do not feel the need to work the process,” says Miller. “Big mistake.”
  4. Make the “Best” better. What are you doing to get your “A” players to “A+” status? There should be a documented plan for this that’s worked on at least weekly. Your top performers will be able to recommend modifications to the sales process, help mentor your “B” performers, and more, in addition to making quota.
  5. Overcome your fears. Fear of the unknown and fear of failure are strong motivators for maintaining the status quo. “More and more, we see managers holding their sales teams back, rather than the salespeople holding themselves back,” observes Miller. “The managers must have the faith, trust, and confidence in their salespeople to get out of the way, and focus on the next three to six months.”

When you stay focused on these five areas, you’ll be doing far more to help your team than you could possibly accomplish by riding with them into battle. As good generals do, train your team, make them ready in all ways to fight the battles of the future – and then step back and let them fight while you continue to look down the road.