Success in a sales force requires having strong talent up and down the organization. A weak salesperson will weaken a sales territory, a bad sales manager will damage their team and dampen results in their region, and a poor sales leader will eventually ruin the entire sales force. For even the most seasoned among us, it can be difficult to recognize the signs of a poor sales leader and the possible damage the person can do — especially when they appear to do some good early on.
Consider two examples.
An education technology startup hired a sales leader who came from a large, well-respected firm. He had extensive market knowledge and a stellar track record. Although good at scaling and operating a sales organization, the leader was unable to succeed in a rapidly changing environment that needed experimentation and nimbleness. The mismatch between the startup’s need and the leader’s capabilities set progress back at least a year.
A medical device company hired a vice president of sales with an intimidating management style. He ruled by fear. Achieving goals was everything. He tolerated (and even encouraged) ethically questionable sales practices. Results looked excellent at first, but the sales culture became so unpleasant that good performers began leaving in a trickle, and then in a flood. The average tenure of salespeople dwindled to just seven months. The damage to the company continued for years after the VP was replaced.
The reasons that sales leaders fail fall into four categories:
- Direction. Poor understanding of the business, leading to errors in vision and strategy
- Talent. Inability to pick and keep the right people for the team
- Execution. Poor processes serve customers and manage people badly
- Culture. Inappropriate values damage the very core of the organization
When such failures are coupled with a leader’s egotism or lack of self-awareness, it’s unlikely that the leader can lean on others to overcome his own deficiencies.
Yet ineffective leaders can do some good in sales organizations. They can bring about needed change quickly. Leaders who lack sensitivity have an easier time eliminating poor performers. Leaders who are intimidating can use their muscle to implement difficult changes that past leaders avoided — for example, an organizational restructure that disrupts an existing power hierarchy.
But unless a poor leader can overcome or compensate for his deficiencies, eventually the bad will overpower any temporary good. A tyrant, for example, may fix some things in the short term but create other problems at the same time. For every gain, there are likely to be multiple missteps with the sales force’s vision, team, execution, and culture. A key and very visible marker of ongoing or impending trouble is when talented people on the leader’s team become frustrated and depart the company.
It can take years to repair the damage done by an ineffective sales leader.
First, it takes time to replace the leader and reconstruct the sales team. When a health care company hired the wrong leader for a sales region, it took more than three years to rebuild the team and recover from the initial error of putting the wrong person in charge.
Second, it takes time to reverse the questionable decisions that ineffective sales leaders make, especially decisions that affect sales force structure or compensation. Weak leaders at a technology company made a decision to restructure the sales organization using a model from their own past that did not match the current situation. Again, it took more than three years to undo the damage.
Third, it takes time to rebuild the culture a poor leader creates. Poor leadership at a medical device company had allowed an unhealthy “victim” culture to pervade the sales force. Salespeople had no confidence in their leaders, and managers were willing to accept salespeople’s constant excuses for poor performance.
Bringing about change required replacing the company’s president, followed by more than two years of sustained focus on transforming the sales force using the following process:
- Create a fresh vision, reflecting a culture in which salespeople trusted their leaders and in which all salespeople were held accountable for results.
- Communicate the vision using every opportunity, including sales meetings, videoconferences, and the company’s intranet.
- Rebuild the team starting with a new vice president of sales who had integrity and judgment, and was willing to replace anyone on the sales team who could not adapt to the new culture.
- Realign sales support systems and rewards by overhauling the systems for recognizing and rewarding performance and creating accountability.
These four steps are a good starting point for any company seeking to recover from poor sales leadership.
Bad sales leaders can sometimes bring about change in a broken environment and make temporary gains. But they will wreck a sales force unless they are replaced quickly.
By Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer – hbr.org