5 Sales Leadership Mistakes that Can Cripple Your Team (and How to Avoid Them)

Last February, when the New England Patriots won their fifth Super Bowl and Tom Brady made history as the only quarterback to ever win five trophies, I began to wonder what keeps spurring the team and their main man to success. What turns a group of good players into the best team of the year? All 32 NFL teams have elite players, college All-Americans, Pro-Bowlers and highly-coveted Free Agents, yet the Patriots have won two trophies only in the last three years, not to mention the two consecutive wins in 2004 and 2005. What is the secret to their success? The answer is teamwork, vision, strategy and training. In other words, a great coach.

The same is true for sales teams. Just as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make the most successful Head Coach-Quarterback tandem in the history of the NFL, good salespeople and their sales managers have the potential to go down in sales history by working together. This synergy between players and their coach, between sales reps and their manager, is what keeps the team on track and focused on winning.

So, it’s no surprise that, according to a recent study cited by HBR, 69% of salespeople who exceeded their annual quota rated their sales manager as excellent or above average.

If you’re a sales manager, you already know how much your team members rely on you to guide and support them. Every day as you juggle dozens of different activities (planning, hiring, training, optimizing territories, tracking how close you are to reaching your sales goals—need we say more?) you feel the pressure to meet and even exceed their expectations. But the list of tasks you need to complete on a daily basis is long, highly demanding and sometimes unpredictable. Inevitably, every now and then you end up overlooking sales metrics, letting sales performance issues slide, and skipping your coaching sessions. All the time knowing that losing your focus may cause your whole team to stray from their goals.

To help you overcome these challenges, I have compiled a list of 5 leadership mistakes that keep sales managers from achieving their goals, along with the solutions to fix them:

1. Ignoring the leadership role

The nameplate on your door might read “sales manager,” but you are more than that. You’re a leader. Though managing and leading share similarities, they call on profoundly different characteristics. In the words of Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

If you’re like many other managers, you may tend to get so caught up in doing everything right that you lose sight of doing the right things to help your salespeople achieve sales greatness.

Amazing execution requires strategic leadership. It’s a well-known (and sometimes forgotten) rule for doing effective work. Stephen R. Covey writes in his famous work, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that “the metamorphosis taking place in most every industry and profession demands leadership first and management second… Proactive, powerful leadership must constantly monitor environmental change, particularly customer buying habits and motives, and organize resources in the right direction.”

Solution: Block your calendar for “Vision Time.” 

Look at the bigger picture, not only at the multitude of little tasks you have to check off your to-do list every day. Brainstorm ideas and insights about the best course of action to maximize revenue using the most efficient sales model. Your salespeople need more than a list of “how-tos”; they need direction, they need vision. Great sales leaders possess the knowledge to correctly deploy salespeople, and to specialize sales teams by product or customer type when necessary.

2. Failing to solve performance issues

“Do your job” is Bill Belichick’s favorite mantra. He bases his coaching philosophy upon the conviction that every player on the field needs to know his responsibilities. Winning requires a team effort; every time a player fails to do his job, the whole team suffers. Like Belichick, you realize this (although sometimes it gets lost on your priority list). And the only way you can ensure your salespeople “do their job” is by constantly monitoring their performance metrics. When you don’t keep an eye on their results, you lose a great opportunity to help your salespeople achieve better outcomes. How many calls are your reps making? How many meetings have they scheduled? How many deals are they closing? What’s the average value of their deals? This data is the ace up your sleeve guiding you towards the right course-correction actions.

In fact, 75% of high-performing sales managers said that their salespeople are consistently measured and held accountable against their quota, compared to 58% of underperforming sales managers, according to a study published in HBR.

Solution: Use indicators to ascertain performance, and discuss your observations regularly.

A sales performance solution provides you with real-time views of your team’s work and their individual results. This constant, easy access to rep performance enables you to quickly detect any issue that might affect the overall performance of your team. Talk with your reps about your findings, schedule coaching sessions, help them overcome their shortcomings, and build their confidence. Come next quarter, you’ll reap the benefits.

3. Neglecting to create and follow a process

Establishing a solid sales process, with firm rules and work methods is crucial to building a highly effective and happy sales team. Sales reps need structure and guidance to work at their best. Letting your salespeople develop their own methods of selling will lead to confusion, a lack of collaboration, and ultimately low quota attainment.

Managers who closely monitor and strictly enforce a sales process are more likely to exceed their quotas. In a study cited by HBR, 43% of high-performing managers state that their sales process is closely monitored, strictly enforced, or automated, compared to 29% of underperforming sales managers. Conversely, 44% percent of underperforming sales managers indicate that they either have no process in place at all or follow one that’s very informally structured.

Solution: Develop a process and ensure the whole team complies with its rules.

Each of your sales reps should use the correct workflow and follow the same sales process stages. Define specific and concrete steps for moving a prospect from one stage to the next and regularly check that your team has adopted and internalized these rules. At the same time, rigidity will backfire. Don’t get stuck in a “perfect method.” The needs and desires of buyers change over time, and you’ll have to redesign the sales process to fit the new conditions.

4. Missing the opportunity to teach selling skills

Just like a football coach, you have to help your salespeople improve their skills, develop new tactics, and tap into their talents. Bill Belichick built his winning team around his star quarterback. Let his coaching mastery inspire you to find your top performers, identify, nurture, and replicate successful selling behaviors among your team. Invest time to train your new and middle-performing sales reps, and focus your training on selling knowledge. Remember, training is not an event, but a process.

Solution: Practice the fundamentals.

Make a list of all the essential skills your sales reps need in their toolbox to close more deals. One of those skills is practice. Have some fun while equipping your salespeople to handle all sorts of sales situations. Use role-playing to reenact customer interactions, create different scenarios that sales reps might find themselves in, and give them the info they need to seize opportunities.

5. No individualized attention

Salespeople need your attention. And you need their feedback. Focusing on each salesperson is invaluable. If you’re not conducting regular, one-on-one meetings with your team members, you’re not gaining crucial information about their struggles and about what happens in the field. Weekly coaching sessions represent an important opportunity to review each rep’s personal sales metrics, offer personalized sales guidelines, and spot areas that need improvement. Meeting one-on-one is also a great way to hold your reps accountable for their activity.

Solution: Be consistent with individual coaching and mentoring, but remain flexible.

Scheduling regular meetings with each of your sales reps will help them feel valued and respected – which are both great motivators. Focus on their most recent activities, and create a comfortable atmosphere in which they can talk about their challenges and pain points. Once you know what those are, you can address them together, guiding the rep toward possible solutions and building plans for improvement. As you get to know your reps, you’ll naturally be able to adapt your coaching style to suit their individual styles and personalities.

To recap, the best sales teams have strong leaders who exercise control and hold salespeople accountable through a clear set of rules. They use their experience to set a strategic direction, and coach sales reps individually. Most importantly, great sales leaders challenge their people and inspire them to be their best.

As Bill Belichick says, “there are no shortcuts to building a team each season. You build the foundation brick by brick.”

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Mitchel Bell

Sales Director

Mitchel is focused on sales improvement for his clients as well as for himself, making sure people get compensated accurately and building efficiency into Sales Operations. He specializes in helping companies align sales goals and compensation to drive precise selling behaviors and improve revenue.

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