Lessons in service-leadership from a Former US Marine turned VP of Sales
In an earlier article, titled "So, you want to be a Sales Manager?", we explored the significant differences between the expectations of performance in a sales rep role and the new responsibility found as a front-line sales manager. If you're thinking of making the leap into this next stage of your career, that particular article provides valuable insight and can help you to determine if this move is indeed, appropriate for you.
If you've made the decision, have recently been promoted, or are currently serving as a front-line sales manager or leader of salespeople, then the article that follows is for you.
A Different Perspective - Aligning the Military World with Civilian Objectives
In this article, we will explore the 11 basic leadership principles taught to every Marine from boot camp through the highest echelons of command. These principles, when taken in the context of sales leadership, hold true. Using these as the foundational building blocks, they present a compelling set of principles which, if followed, can speed the process of transition from high-performer to high-performance manager.
In the paragraphs which follow, I'll provide insight into the introductory principles of front-line leadership using core principles I was taught as a young Marine. In subsequent posts, I'll explore the various functions of this, role, but for this article, we'll keep it focused on behaviors - principles to adhere to as well as cautions against the self-limiting, yet common behaviors that may stand in the way of your success.
1) Know Yourself and Seek Self-Improvement
- Self-awareness often requires others input. Seek it wisely and often. Remember; you were not promoted because you know how to do the job - you were promoted for your ability to learn how to do the job. I've rarely seen first-time-managers fired for asking questions; however, they often find themselves in trouble for assuming and not knowing. Be open to criticism and learn to learn from other's mistakes.
2) Be Technically and Tactically Proficient
- The skills required of a manager are fundamentally different from those of a high-performing rep. Constantly look to improve and seek feedback from managers within your network. There are various sources of leadership information online and within videos easily found on YouTube. I will be posting a series of these in the near future and you can always reach out to me.
3) Know Your People and Look Out For Their Welfare
- Each salesperson on your team has unique strengths and abilities, but we all need improvement. Don't ask them to do what you have not taught them to do. It is unfair and they will resent you for it. An open door policy also means taking the time to understand the strengths and opportunities for improvement of your team and then to only commit them to what they can do. Do not overcommit them to targets or goals that are unreasonable or unfair.
4) Keep Your Personnel Informed
- To effect change, it's important to keep your team informed on the "why" of decisions - especially when it comes to activities. Reps will always resist any action that they don't understand. Resist the impulse to gain credibility or favor by blaming the actions required on those above you. You will lose credibility with your team and your manager and you lose all authority and influence. You are a part of management now and will have insight into matters above the pay grade of your team members. Ensure you are not over-informing your team, while also explaining how what they are doing influences the success of all.
5) Set The Example
- As the front line leader, you set the tone for your team. This includes integrity in thought and action. Don't pretend to know something you don't - but do pass along what you know. Be teachable and be a teacher.
6) Ensure That the Task Is Understood, Supervised, and Accomplished
- There are two pitfalls here; over-scripting actions and failure to inform. Inspect what you expect, set reasonable goals and hold your team accountable. Remember: if you are trying to help people that don't want to be helped it's called bothering them. You will bother many people in your career in the pursuit of excellence; however, this can be curtailed by the effective use of the 90-day self-reporting system taught first by Lee Iaccoca, and later by my mentor, Mark Dillon. Reach out to me and I'm happy to share!
7) Train Your Marines and Sailors as a Team
- It's your job to link Marketing, Sales & Finance with your team's objectives. Ensure that all areas are aware of the impact they have on other teams. Wherever possible, involve Marketing on your sales calls and Salespeople on marketing and strategy meetings. Have the two teams learn from one another and to speak the same language. This reduces the chance of Marketing creating ineffective material that the sales team cannot utilize. Over time, messaging shifts and products mature. Your team knows this better than anyone - ensure their voice is heard.
Regarding Finance, you will need to develop an ability to quantify the return on investment for requests for your team and to defend the need for their training. In the Marines, it took 8 Marines in support roles to effectively support one forward deployed Marine. So, in addition to forecast accuracy, you will need to learn how to identify the cost of attrition, reasons for rep departure (using HR exit interviews) and design effective promotion structures, sales contests and compensation systems.
8) Make Sound and Timely Decisions
- You are the leader. Make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time and then move forward. This is your team. You are responsible for it. It's rare that someone is fired for making mistakes, but I have often seen managers fired for defending them.
9) Develop a Sense of Responsibility Among Your Subordinates
- Accountability without training is a form of professional abuse. Train your team on how to do their job, provide the tools and then allow them to perform. Provide a reasonable amount of authority proportionate to the level of responsibility you are giving them.
10) Employ Your Command within its Capabilities
- Do not over-promise results from your team. You should know your team better than they know themselves and it is your job to know how to employ them against quota. Do not make the mistake of committing your team beyond its capabilities. You may win short-term favor with your CRO or VP of Sales, but you will pay a long-term price in credibility with your team and with your leaders.
11) Seek Responsibilities and Take Responsibility
- When you are first promoted to a role, you are not expected to know how to do the job; instead, you were given the responsibility because you have demonstrated the aptitude to learn how to do the job as well as the drive and discipline to make it successful. One of the things we were taught, early, as Marines, was to take on the stature, composure, and intellect required of the position above you. Your rank should be a reflection of who you are and as we used to say "any Marine who has to remind you of their rank to get you to perform, doesn't deserve to hold it."
A final word about Teams - Now that you're a manager.
A final word about teams. Once you are a sales manager, your team is not the sales team you are responsible for - that is the team you are responsible for developing, not the one you are responsible "to." Your peers are now the other divisional leaders within your corporate leadership team - including all the other sales managers, financial managers, marketing, HR and IT.
In the Marines we were taught this hierarchy: mission first, then our team members and then ourselves. We cannot place the needs of our team above the needs of the mission, but their needs must come before our own. In a high-performing sales team, the success of the leader is the cumulative success of those under their influence and the success of the brand is dependent upon the successful execution of strategy across all functions of the organization.
Next Steps and the Path Ahead
Understand that becoming an effective sales manager is not an overnight practice. It requires the ability to blend persuasive, old-world analog leadership skills with today's most advanced automation and artificial intelligence systems. It demands an ability to shift teaching styles to meet your salespeople where they are and the ability to train them to become what they could be. Becoming an effective sales manager requires the ability to bridge the gap in communication between a multi-generational salesforce and senior leadership.
The role and indeed, this way of life, is not for the faint of heart; however, it is a role well worth the effort. In it, you will find the ability to positively impact the trajectory of an organization, to influence the lives of dozens of men and women and to build a career for yourself as a servant leader. Remember - 'leaders eat last,' is a saying in the military for a reason. Becoming a leader requires an equal ability to remain teachable as to teach and the need to learn that your team's success is your success - to put their needs ahead of your own.
Stay in Touch!
As for myself, I've dedicated my career to developing, learning, practicing and teaching the skills necessary for successful execution of one of the challenging roles in business. Drawing on over 20 years of leadership experience - ranging from the USMC to SVP of sales, I've walked the ground you now traverse. During the journey, I've had the good fortune of having my share of teachers - both in what to do and in what not to do and along the way have uncovered the underlying principles and actions required to prepare the next generation of leaders for this critical role.
The goal of these posts is to share with you, that which was shared with me - and the lessons I learned along the way, with the hope that you and your teams can avoid some of the mistakes I made while capitalizing upon the various successes.
So, stay tuned for more posts and an upcoming series focused on the fundamentals of successful sales management. I hope to meet many of you as we walk this path together and trudge the road to our happy destiny as sales leaders!