Sales managers are arguably the critical success factor in most sales organizations:

  • They drive and motivate their teams.
  • They provide direction and coaching to salespeople and account managers.
  • They provide feedback and leading indicators to the company on both the team and the market.
  • They are a point of leverage: You can work with a few people to reach many.

Yet sales managers are also a hugely underdeveloped talent pool in most companies. They are all too often promoted from the ranks of excellent salespeople and then left to their own devices. Not surprisingly, they gravitate back to their comfort zone by selling, or at best telling their salespeople what to do.

Sales managers are rarely trained in the full set of skills they need to drive team performance. Sales training companies and internal training departments see sales managers as a way to embed new sales skills but also as too diverse, difficult and relatively unprofitable to train in the unique and varied set of competencies that underpin modern sales management.

Developing your sales managers represents a huge opportunity to change the performance of your sales team as a whole.

How do your managers spend their time?

Sales managers, like any managers, need to spend time working on their team as well as working in it. Yet many sales managers spend much of their time working on specific tasks and firefighting as part of the day-to-day functioning of the team and don’t step back to shape and lead the team.

You can find out if this situation is happening at your organization by asking a sample of your sales managers how they split their time among three types of activities:

  • Leading: working on team strategy and developing, communicating and inspiring people
  • Managing: reviewing, coaching and performance managing
  • Doing: working on specific tasks within the sales team (e.g., selling or firefighting)

Once you have that data, you can ask where those percentages should be. What, then, should sales managers do with their reallocated time? In our work with global sales teams over the last 18 years, we have found a hierarchy of skills that sales managers need to master in order to maximize sales performance. Let’s take a look at those six skills. 


The question of whether sales managers should have a direct role in selling is a common one. Certainly, they need to be able to sell to give them credibility and an understanding of the environment in which their teams are working. Specifically, they must be able to execute four main sales processes: lead generation, opportunity management, account management and margin management.

However, it is not generally advisable for sales managers to carry a quota, despite the large number of companies trying to compromise with “player managers.” People gravitate to the tasks that they know how to do and from which they gain satisfaction – and that generate commission for them. In other words, player managers end up selling to meet their quota rather than working toward the far larger number that their team needs to deliver.


Closely linked to this problem, though dealing with a distinct skill set, is the importance of the ability to coach team members. Coaching is widely recognized as a vital way to drive the skills and performance of salespeople and account managers. Our own research and experience supports the correlation between the coaching skill (and frequency) of a manager and the performance of his or her team.

That said, coaching is a difficult skill to build in individuals and, even more so, into an organization’s culture. According to the Institute of Leadership and Management:

“The current generation of graduates want to be coached rather than controlled and directed: 56% of graduates want their manager to be their coach. But while three quarters of managers believe they are a coach, only one quarter of graduates agree.”

Once again, the challenge is that sales managers are good salespeople, so the temptation to tell the coachee what to do is very strong. The best sales managers are flexible but tend to work at the more non-directive, coachee-centered end of the spectrum. The specific competencies involved in coaching include providing feedback, identifying the skill/will gap, coaching process, coaching skills and handling resistance to coaching.

However, training managers in coaching tends to show a poor return unless you also measure the quality and quantity of coaching to support what is sometimes seen as a “nice to have” activity. Coaching as a skill itself benefits greatly from coaching, whether by an internal master coach or an external one.

Building the Team

As important as coaching is, the ability to build a team goes beyond coaching to encompass wider issues, such as selection and assessment, team motivation, talent management, and fostering collaboration.

If I have learned one thing in 18 years as a CEO, it is that the single most important task of a manager is choosing and cultivating the right team. This is never truer than in a sales team, yet even bad salespeople can be good at selling themselves in an interview.

Our research shows that the full cost of hiring salespeople in their first year is at least 2.5 to three times their base salary, once you include the time and cost involved in hiring, inducting and training them; any guaranteed commission; and the opportunity cost of the ones who don’t work out.

There are some fairly obvious good practices in selecting and assessing salespeople, such as a thorough walkthrough of their CVs/resumes, deep-dive interviews on specific competencies and taking references. But you really must observe salespeople in action, whether that’s in a roleplay, simulation or assessment center, to judge how well they will sell for you.

Managing the Team

The next skill level is team management, and it is perhaps the area in which most experienced sales managers feel comfortable. The specific skills required include performance management, increasing active selling time, forecasting and managing disciplined sales execution.

However, many sales managers – not least because they are often busy with day-to-day work – tend to be reactive in their management style, rather than proactive.

One area where we see a particular opportunity to be proactive is the percentage of time that salespeople spend actively selling, in the right way, to the right customers.

In this case, “doing the right things” includes identifying needs and decision processes, building momentum with the customer, managing decision criteria and alleviating risks rather than activities such as meetings and social events that don’t seize opportunities.

This figure will be different for each organization, of course, but because these factors multiply, it will, in most cases, be a small number. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity to increase your effective sales capacity by helping your managers think proactively about how their teams are spending their time.

Leading the Team

As sales managers begin to master team management, their ability to lead the team becomes more important. Leading the team will allow them to instill vision and values and deploy other skills to shape team performance. The crucial team leadership competencies include pipeline management, leading through vision and values, communication, emotional intelligence, and creative problem solving.

Pipeline management could be considered part of team management, but it should be a more strategic activity than a simple pipeline review. Analyzing the team’s pipeline is a powerful way to set its overall direction:

  1. Size: Where are we compared to our plan? What’s the trend?
  2. Shape: Do we have enough prospects at each stage?
  3. Must-win deals: How are they going? Do we have a plan?
  4. Leakage: Where are we losing deals? What are the conversion rates between stages?
  5. Mix: Are we selling the right business?
  6. Velocity: How quickly are deals running through the pipeline?

Leading the Function

Finally, as sales managers become more senior, they need a more strategic skill set as they begin to lead the sales function rather than just a team. This skill set involves competencies such as understanding the strategic context, defining the sales strategy, designing the sales organization, adapting the sales strategy and decision making.

Strategy is a much-abused term, but one simple and powerful way to express a sales strategy is “where and how to compete.” Your decisions about where and how to compete must complement each other; the best competitive positions for a salesforce are attractive in their own right and fit your strengths.

What types of sales manager do you have?

Almost all sales managers will need training and coaching to reach their full potential. In Imparta’s client work, we have identified five main types of sales manager, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and development needs: the Senior Salesperson, the Best Friend, the Coach, the Process Junkie and the Balanced Achiever.

The ideal type of sales manager, as the name suggests, is the Balanced Achiever. Balanced Achievers are relatively rare, but a careful development program, focused on the specific competencies of each manager and of the team as a whole, can create more Balanced Achievers and in turn, have a significant impact on your ability to grow the business.