What leadership development can learn from sales


I recently had a conversation with Richard Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews and several books on employee retention. In our conversation, Richard made an analogy between retaining employees and managing a sales pipeline. His point was that good managers manage their team a lot like a good salesperson manages their pipeline of opportunities. The conversation stuck with me and is an idea worth further exploration. 

Sales methodology as a model for front-line management? 

Once upon a time, I was an entry level salesperson. Fresh out of college, I had no idea what I was doing. The onboarding process consisted of a few product knowledge sessions, being sent to a half-day public workshop on sales process, and then I was expected to start getting results. Sure my manager held a regular check-in, but these felt pretty unfocused. I made my phone calls, even got a few appointments, but it was a rough first year, more memorable for the lessons learned than any sales success. Within 12 months, I was gone.

Today’s best practices in selling look quite a bit different from the experience I described above. They are organised around adopting a methodology. The pieces aren’t so different from what I experienced, but the way they are tied together is very different. It’s a comprehensive system:

  • The organization adopts a process with clearly defined steps
  • Training addresses technical knowledge, but also the knowledge and skills to execute the process
  • Metrics are put in place not only for overall performance but for interim steps as well
  • Responsibility is shared by the salesperson and their manager
  • Technology is put in place for salespeople and managers to document their activity, adding a level of transparency to the process.

So what do the systems in your organisation look like for people management? Does my experience as a new salesperson feel familiar to you or do you have a methodology that drives success?

Plotting a Path Forward

If you can relate to my early days as a sales person and your organisation is trying to improve the performance of front-line managers, here are a few concrete steps you can take to get the process moving forward.  

  1. Define success:
    As the old saying goes, you get what you measure. In sales, the goal is fairly clear – a money target or percentage growth – and salespeople and their managers are clear on the consequences of not meeting them.  It’s time to look for a new opportunity.  For front-line managers, the KPIs aren’t as clear-cut but there are some likely suspects.  Some global candidates might include retention and engagement while others will be more business or role-specific like customer service scores, productivity and more.  Whatever your goals, it’s critical to gain agreement with stakeholders and communicate them to employees and managers alike. 

  2. Define your methodology:
    Once you have an agreement on goals, ask what role do managers need to play for you front-line employees to be successful in your organisation? How will they monitor performance?  How will they support employees?  How will they develop team members?  How will they facilitate change?   

  3. Identify capabilities:
    Identify the skills and competencies your manager needs to succeed.  This will be both technical skills and management skills.  We’ve compiled a list of management skills for our ManagementPlus programme that may be helpful.

  4. Assess skills capability and address gaps with training:
    Assess your manager’s starting point and provide training. Assessment can be done with 360 tools, formal knowledge assessments and self-assessments. Training can be either developed in-house or outsourced.

  5. Capture activity:
    Put systems in place that capture the actions of both employees and managers.

  6. Measure:
    Compile both compliance data (are people doing what they’re supposed to do) and KPIs and track your success.

  7. Improve and Repeat:
    Of course, you probably won’t get it all right the first time and company priorities will change, so you need to constantly reassess your programme and make improvements.

What do you think?  Does the analogy hold water or has it sprung a leak for you?  I’d love to hear how your organisation is supporting front-line managers. Please share your stories and successes in a comments. 

Click here to learn more about ManagementPlus, a solution that is changing the way organisations train and develop front-line managers. 

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