Teaching a Sales Leader to Fish: A Case for Graduate Education in Sales Leadership

By Michael Mallin

As the old proverb says: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Today’s sales leaders realize that achieving long-term sustainable results requires learning and practice. Rapidly changing competitors and technology, more demanding and knowledgeable customers, diminishing customer and employee loyalty, and mounting pressures to deliver results are but a few of the challenges in today’s sales landscape.

Sales managers, the primary directors of critical business decision making, are responsible for leading one of the firm’s most important business development assets – the sales force. Facing and navigating substantial challenges requires a sophisticated knowledge base with greater professional skills and managerial competencies than was required in the past.

Tasked with the accountability of satisfying the demands of multiple stakeholders, where is the time to invest in the activities Stephen Covey cited in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? Strategy development, planning, understanding technology, sales analysis, and sales-force efficiency/effectiveness are among the critical managerial competencies high-performing sales leaders need. Yet sales organizations tend to invest most of their training dollars in salesperson effectiveness – with little development focus on sales managers and leaders.

During a focus group to understand challenges facing today’s sales leaders, Brad – a sales director for a design firm providing solutions for industrial precision applicators – hinted that any training directed toward the sales manager was too broadly focused and that turning to MBA/EMBA programs for development opportunities was not the answer. “MBA programs just don’t offer the practical and relevant sales leadership skills to justify paying the steep tuition.”

Many of the other sales leaders present agreed. They felt there just wasn’t enough built into existing leadership training or graduate programs to truly benefit them. So the problem persists – sales managers and leaders desperately need exposure to context-specific business and leadership competency development that will help them be more effective sales leaders.

The Leadership Competency Development Gap
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there are currently more than 376,000 sales managers. Senior management anticipate a leadership gap due to retirements and 19,000 new sales management positions coming online over the next few years. At the same time, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) says existing MBA and EMBA programs are declining – and demand is increasing for more specialized master’s degree programs.

Just how to develop the next generation of effective sales leaders is a pressing issue – one many firms haven’t been able to address internally. Graduate education in sales leadership may be part of the solution if it can develop the abilities needed to address the pressing issues facing sales managers today.

As sales researchers, we set out to better understand this issue. We began by gathering a panel of 30 sales leaders across four focus groups. According to our focus group panels, challenges could be categorized in three key areas:

  1. Planning and Organizing the Sales Force. Challenges in this category included developing a sales talent pipeline; recruiting, hiring, and retaining sales talent; planning for careers and succession; developing optimal sales models; integrating multiple channels to maximize organizational sales performance (e.g., field sales, inside sales, and telemarketing sales); understanding the integration of other intra-company business functions with sales; strategic planning and adapting to the changing competitive environment; and designing incentive and compensation plans that motivate salespeople.
  2. Managing and Developing the Sales Force. Challenges in this category included training sales talent (specifically mentioned was ethical judgment and behavior); motivating salespeople across multiple generations (millennials, in particular); effective coaching of salespeople across all career stages; managing skill sets of salespeople with different roles (e.g., hunters and farmers); and balancing company needs with sales force needs).
  3. Evaluation and Control of the Sales Force. Challenges in this category were setting realistic goals for salespeople; selling in a digital world (including using technology and social media); balancing between selling and coaching; and getting salespeople to think critically and analytically (e.g., drawing qualitative conclusions from statistical data).

A Solution Emerges – Specialized Graduate Degree Education in Sales Leadership
One way to address these challenges is through formal and accredited specialized graduate sales leadership education programs. One such program is the Executive Master of Sales Leadership (EMSL) degree offered through The Edward H. Schmidt School of Professional Sales at The University of Toledo’s College of Business and Innovation.

Designed to address the professional development needs of sales leaders and senior sales professionals seeking advancement – as well as improve sales organization results, the EMSL degree program uses a blended online learning approach to deliver the competency set needed in today’s changing sales environment. The program provides accelerated learning through experiential and relevant coursework with direct applications to the candidate’s sales environment. The program culminates in an independent learning practicum that integrates coursework and applies learning to a project that will benefit the candidate’s company.

Sales leaders participate as a cohort and complete the 15-month program in lock-step to maximize relationship building and networking. They also benefit from exposure to a nationwide consortium of university faculty and industry experts. Upon graduation, they have earned a master’s degree and gained the specialized expertise and leadership competencies needed to more effectively lead a sales group, including sales-specific strategy, planning, enablement, talent management, analytics, technologies, and performance management.

As a sales director, Brad recognized his firm’s inability to offer him sales leadership development opportunities. Most of what he was provided would, at best, lead to short-term results – or “feed him for a day.” However, a solid option now exists. An investment in specialized graduate sales education programs like The University of Toledo’s EMSL will provide him with the skills and competencies needed to make him a more effective sales leader, thus giving him the tools that will “feed him for a lifetime.

Dr. Michael Mallin is a Professor of Marketing and Sales at the Edward H. Schmidt School of Professional Sales at the University of Toledo.  He researches and teaches in the area of Sales Leadership and is the Academic Director for the Executive Master of Sales Leadership degree program.