ATD Blog

Making the Pivot from Selling to Sales Management

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Here is an all too familiar story: A sales organization that needs to fill an open position for a frontline sales manager promotes its brightest, best performing sales professional into the position. Unfortunately, after three to six months, it becomes apparent that the sales rep isn’t able to achieve the expected performance from the team. To make matters worse, the team has lost its best hunter, because this person is now spending her time trying to motivate, lead, recruit, manage, and coach the team. The new sales manager’s days are numbered if she isn’t able to quickly improve performance, and in the meantime, the organization struggles to hit its numbers. 

So, what happened here? 

The organization promoted a top performer based on her strong performance as an individual contributor, and then expected these skills to transfer to being a sales manager. They optimistically (and somewhat naively) expected the top performer to navigate this first significant career pivot—moving from being an individual contributor to managing a team—without a roadmap or the appropriate training support.  

Unfortunately, the skills, knowledge, and expertise necessary to perform as a great frontline sales manager are fundamentally different than the skills that made the individual excel as a sales professional. More importantly, organizations often fail to appropriately equip the new manager with the tools and skills required by the new role. 

Selling vs. Managing 

Consider the specific selling skills that top sales professionals need to excel:

  • prospecting
  • asking questions
  • building rapport
  • listening
  • presenting solutions
  • handling objections
  • ·negotiating
  • gaining commitment. 

While a sales manager must be proficient in these selling skills, ultimately, the sales manager must excel at achieving results through others. This requires a completely different set of skills, including: 

  • recruiting and selecting the right team members
  • setting team goals and priorities
  • managing performance
  • coaching and developing selling skills in others
  • leading and motivating. 

These management skills are not always obvious to the new sales manager, nor are they easy to develop on their own. Consequently, making this first major career pivot is challenging for many sales managers. 
We see a similar dynamic in sports: teams often expect the best athletes to make the best coaches or managers. There are numerous of examples in every sport in which the greatest individual contributors become mediocre managers, often because they lack the skills and aptitude necessary to make this career pivot. 

This is not to say that star performers can’t become successful managers. Instead, we shouldn’t assume that the transition will be automatic, based on exceptional performance in a different position. 

Making the Pivot 

Sales managers face numerous challenges making this first major career pivot. In some cases new sales managers will have a mentor or senior manager to teach them the skills they need, but this is usually the exception. New managers are more likely to use trial and error to develop their own repertoire of management techniques they can use to achieve a reasonable level performance from their team members. Hopefully, the manager is able to develop these skills quickly—so they can keep their position and become proficient as a manager.  


If the organization decides to procure training for their sales managers, they may find that many programs marketed as “Sales Management Training” are actually retooled sales process training programs designed to go along with a proprietary sales methodology also offered by the training supplier. (Think: Here’s how to manage the steps of the sales process we just trained your reps on.) They may also find generic management and leadership training programs that are lacking sales specifics, such as training on the key behaviors, skills, performance indicators, and sales coaching conversations necessary to manage a high-performing sales team.  

So, how can a sales manager successfully make this first major career pivot? 

New sales managers need a training program designed to develop the specific skills needed as a sales manager, conducted over a period of time necessary to practice, adopt, and perfect these new skills. It is not enough to send the manager to a one- or two-day workshop. Instead, the training needs to be integrated into an ongoing sales management development program. 

For more insight on how to help a new sales manager achieve results, download a free copy of the Developing Great Frontline Sales Managers whitepaper. 

About the Author

Ray Makela is CEO at the Sales Readiness Group (SRG). He is an author, speaker, and business executive with 25 years of management, consulting, and sales experience. At SRG, Ray oversees all client engagements and the delivery of sales and sales management training programs. He has delivered programs for clients such as Alcon/Novartis, AIG, Sysco, Nielsen, Timken, Follett, Pandora, Ritchie Bros, HERE, Infor, Galderma, and Walmart.

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