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Why some salespeople would be the worst sales managers
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Patrick Sweeney
Patrick Sweeney

The psychology of sales managers is an interesting area. Conventional wisdom may assume that the best salespeople will transition beautifully into management. However, nothing can be farther from the truth.

To promote the star salesperson to a managerial position often induces a classic application of The Peter Principle. This practice seems, on reflection, to be almost purposefully self-defeating because it removes that rare breed, the top sales producer, from the opportunity of continuing to produce sales and places this person in a job for which his or her competence may be, at best, questionable. Yet this practice would appear to be the rule rather than the exception. In fact, it is almost institutionalized by some company recruiters, who promise young people that a beginning in sales is the sure and usually the straightest road to a managerial career.

The philosophy underlying this strange practice is that if a person can sell successfully, he or she can manage salespeople with equal success. On its face, the assumption can be recognized as patently wrong. Certainly, some salespeople can manage, and some managers can sell. But the psychological realities strongly favor less than desirable results when the roles are indiscriminately interchanged.

Most frequently, executives live to regret the promotion of their top salesperson into a management position. The first and most obvious result is the loss of an outstanding salesperson and the gain of a mediocre or worse, manager. The misfortune is compounded by a secondary consequence: The former salesperson, who fails as a manager often will not, indeed cannot, go back to the sales force of the same company because this is a tacit admission of failure to his or her associates. This person will be more inclined to leave the company, sometimes taking a sales job with one of the competitors, and then he or she will have an even renewed reason to tap into his or her inner sales abilities, which will cause you even more harm as he or she woos away your clients.

But there is a rational approach that can lead to a permanent solution: By all means reward your best salespeople in the most imaginative and suitable ways. But promote to management only individuals who have the ability to manage.

While successful people strive to grow in their careers, it must be kept in mind that not all salespeople are cut out to be sales managers. In fact, the characteristics of the best salespeople are often in conflict with the tasks required of sales and operational managers.

The differences
There is considerable evidence that argues that sales and managerial abilities are actually quite different. In essence, the personality dynamics that make a top salesperson successful and those that make a manager excellent are frequently in unremitting conflict.

Recently, we completed a cross-industry study that contrasted the personality profiles of 629 top-producing sales hunters with the profiles of 1,470 top-performing sales managers who were working for 267 companies located throughout the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Japan. In general, our findings clearly confirm that successful salespeople exhibit fundamentally different personality profiles and characteristics than successful managers.

In general, hard-driving salespeople (typically in hunter positions) personality dynamics were significantly higher in the measures of:

  •  Ego-drive—the motivation to persuade
  • Assertiveness—the inclination to be proactive and forceful in expressing ideas
  • Urgency – the need to get things done
  • Risk-Taking—the willingness to consider and take chances
  • Sociability—the desire to be around and work with other people
  • Gregariousness—the inclination and confidence to network and proactively establish new relationships

By and large, salespeople are likely to derive considerably more gratification from the act of persuading others than are the managers. They are also more inclined to be proactive and forceful in expressing their ideas, have a strong need to get things done, and are more willing to take chances. In addition, the salespeople will tend to be naturals at meeting and developing relationships with new people.

Top-performing sales managers, on the other hand, while having more moderate profiles on the characteristics just noted, exhibited significantly higher scores on:

  •  Cautiousness—an inclination toward due diligence and “looking before you leap”
  • Thoroughness—an orientation toward working with and managing details
  • Self-structure—a tendency to define priorities and exercise self-discipline
  • External-structure–an orientation toward working within and maintaining established rules

Quite simply, the managers are built differently from the top-performing salespeople. They are more likely to have a natural orientation toward structure and details and do not have as strong a need to score every point themselves. As a result, the best sales managers are more able to work through others and are more comfortable with delegating, coordinating, organizing, coaching and monitoring aspects of the role.

Basically, the successful individual contributing salesperson is vastly different from the effective sales manager. And it all comes down to the competencies and personality dynamics needed for success.

What salespeople have to ask themselves is: Do I want to be a sales leader? Or do I just want to be called a sales leader? Am I really interested in leading others? What motivates me?

The answer, either way, is fine. The role has to be right for that individual in terms of how it plays to their strengths and whether it is something they would be naturally motivated to do. High levels of sales responsibility are just as prestigious as a management role. Where the salesperson is driven to close, managers are driven to watch their teams close. And it is in that where the successful salesperson and sales manager differ.

About Caliper - For nearly half a century, Caliper has been helping companies achieve peak performance by advising them on hiring the right people, managing individuals most effectively and developing productive teams. The accuracy, objectivity and depth of our consulting approach enable us to provide solutions that work for over 25,000 companies. To find out more about how Caliper can help you identify and develop people who can lead your organization to peak performance, please visit us at  or call us at 609-524-1200. Email to contact Herb or Patrick.