Leading isn't easy, and leading sales is one of the more difficult roles in business. Unlike some other leadership roles, there seem to be more variables in sales. Some of them include the sales effectiveness of the sales force, the economic environment, the nature of competition, and the variability that comes from trying to help people change their business results.
This list of qualities is necessary for success, although there are others.
- Experienced: It would be impossible for a sales leader to succeed without having worked in sales long enough to know how to lead salespeople. Leaders need to have firsthand experience making calls, booking calls, walking into a client's office alone, creating value in a conversation about change, and managing their deals in such a way that they eventually win the client's business. Without the experience of having sold, they will struggle to help their teams succeed, in part, because they will not have the confidence of the sales force.
- Exemplary: The sales leader should be an exemplar, the standard. On a plane trip, I sat next to a senior sales leader. During our conversation, he told me he only hired salespeople who were "crisp." It would only take a passing glance to know what the word "crisp" meant, because I was looking at it. The sales force is always a reflection of their sales leader.
- People-Oriented: You will never find great leaders, in sales or otherwise, without recognizing that they care about the people that make up their teams. The best leaders tend to know their people better than they know themselves, allowing them to see something in a person that they can't yet see themselves. By showing the person what they are capable of, they help every member of their team to grow.
- Visionary: Because the sales leader is responsible for the future, one of their critical qualities is their ability to create a vision of the future. Some part of that vision is going to be net new revenue, but a larger part is what the leader wants from their team. Maybe they want their team to be the best sales force in the company or their industry, or maybe they want their team to approach clients in a way that differentiates them in a crowded market.
- Great at Communicating and Teaching: One of the most important competencies is the ability to communicate effectively, in large part, because the sales leader is always teaching their team what they need to do to succeed. This is in part how the sales leader transfers their vision and their values to their sales force. It's also how they inform their teams of what is good and right and true.
- Values-Based: Excellent sales leaders work from a set of values. These values make the sales leader predictable. Whenever a salesperson says, "I know what you are going to say" when speaking to a sales leader, it is because the salesperson can already predict the leader's response. These values eventually become the sales force's values. Even though these values cause sales leaders to say "no" to something a lesser sales leader would approve, their values are well known, making it easy to work for them.
- Unsentimental: A sales leader should have the quality of being unsentimental, as they are engaged in a transformation. In the great game of sales, hitting your goal for the year only finds you with a higher goal the next year. This means the sales leader must constantly challenge the status quo, as the better results require change. This lack of sentiment needs to extend to the sales leader's preferences and their experience in sales, as the changes in the environment require changes in sales strategies and sales approaches.
- Has High Standards: Great sales leaders insist on high standards in what and how their teams sell. This quality is what builds effective sales teams. While high standards repel people who are not interested in improving themselves and their results, they are attractive to people who want to do the best work, even though it means they have to raise their own standards.
- Generous: There is a certain thing that distinguishes great sales leaders from average ones. That quality is to be generous with praise, gratitude, and recognition. Even though there is always someone who deserves recognition, average sales leaders are misers with gratitude, as if it is some sort of finite resource. A great sales leader is generous, always finding something worth praise, gratitude, and recognition.
- Creates a Positive Culture: An effective sales leader creates a positive culture. Without a positive culture, you cannot provide psychological safety. Without psychological safety, failure may become unacceptable. The problem is that failure happens every day in sales, as salespeople lose deals and miss their goals. A punitive environment stunts the growth of the sales force. Effective sales leaders look at every miss as an opportunity for growth.
- Accountable: Great sales leaders are accountable for producing growth, and they know that their team will fail unless each salesperson is held accountable for their own results. Accountability undergirds the sales leader’s results, which is one reason a positive, non-punitive culture is required. Accountability is doing the right work, in the right way, and at the right time to produce the right results.
- Builds Leaders: The most important quality of a great sales leader is not their ability to acquire followers. It's their ability to create leaders. No matter how well the sales leader does as it pertains to their results, their true legacy will be the impact they make on others, including building the next generation of leaders, all of whom need a great model to copy.
Sales leaders can acquire these qualities, provided they are willing to do the work to gain or improve these qualities in themselves and their teams.