Promote and Prosper? Why Promoting Top Salespeople to Sales Managers Can Be a Big Mistake

September 18, 2012

bad promotion

Do you really want to stick your top sales rep in a management position?

When top salespeople tell sales management strategist Lee Salz that they aspire to be sales managers, Salz’s response often catches them off guard: Why do you want to take a pay cut?

Salz, the founder and CEO of sales management consulting firm Sales Architects, doesn’t pose that question to insult top salespeople or squash their ladder-climbing aspirations. Instead, he asks it to ensure that they want to be a sales manager for the right reasons. Money, quite simply, isn’t one of them.

Salz recently sat down with OpenView to talk about when (if ever) it makes sense to promote top salespeople to manager positions, what those salespeople and their companies need to consider before making that move, and why sales success doesn’t necessarily translate into management success.

Do great salespeople make great managers?

Sometimes. And sometimes simply adequate salespeople make great sales managers. I don’t know where I first heard this, but I love it: In sales, it’s common to think in terms of “me.” In sales management, it’s common to think in terms of “we.” While some salespeople can ditch their me-first attitude and transition to a team-centered mentality, they are the exception rather than the rule.

More often than not, A-level salespeople are successful because they’re wired differently. They have certain skills that most other people don’t, and their “me” mentality is actually a strength on the job. A-level managers, on the other hand, are successful for very different reasons. On paper it sounds great to take your best salesperson and make them a sales manager, but it can be a disaster if you put someone that’s solely motivated by “me” in a position that is supposed to be motivated by “we.”

Why do the typical perceptions of promotion and career advancement not jive with sales like they do with most other business functions?

In sales, success and advancement are two very different things. In most professions, if you’re successful then you get promoted, and it’s this very natural linear progression. You aspire for that next level, which is management, and your compensation typically reflects your elevated role and responsibility. But in sales, it’s just not set up that way.

The most successful salespeople, quite honestly, may never feel the need to advance because there are certain things they would sacrifice by taking a promotion (money being one). So when you’re talking about an environment in which top salespeople can succeed and advance, it’s really two different environments. And, to be frank, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with successful salespeople who don’t aspire to advance.

The biggest issue I have with sales advancement is the use of the word “promotion.” In sales management, the move from salesperson to sales manager isn’t really an elevation — it’s a completely different job. Unlike some other business functions, being a salesperson doesn’t prepare you to be a manager. You aren’t taught how to hire, onboard, coach, manage, and compensate a sales team, and those aren’t skills inherently learned by being a top salesperson. In that sense, it’s not really a linear progression at all.

Should companies avoid transitioning top salespeople to sales managers altogether, or are there things they can do to make that move work?

It can work, but a business must treat the salesperson-to-sales manager transition like a job change. So if one of your top salespeople is the perfect person for a sales management role, then you’ve got to figure out a plan to onboard that salesperson into their new role just like you would a newly hired employee.

To do that, companies need to determine and consider:

  • What the salesperson already knows about sales management, and what they will need to be taught.
  • What the salesperson will be expected to do as a manager (coach, run a sales meeting, hire new salespeople, structure compensation plans, etc.), and whether he or she is equipped to do those things.
  • What that salesperson’s management style is and whether it meshes with the existing sales culture.

Another thing that’s critical to remember is that top salespeople aren’t wired to ask for help. They’re so used to being rejected, having to think on the fly, and figuring out things on their own that it’s very unlikely they’ll raise their hand and say, “I don’t know how to do this.”

That’s where a company’s senior management needs to be proactively helpful. The term I use for that relationship is “sales marriage.” It’s about coming up with a plan so that a mutually beneficial relationship can be structured. You really need to put all the cards on the table, to be honest about the position’s plusses and minuses, and schedule regular check-ins to make sure the salesperson-turned-sales manager has everything he or she needs to be successful. If you don’t do that, then your sales marriage will probably fail before you ever realize something was actually wrong.

Can a company do more harm than good by setting a clear sales advancement track for its top performers and pushing them toward that path, even if they have no desire to advance?

Absolutely. A lot of companies mistakenly think that if they promote their top salespeople to sales manager and put six less successful salespeople under their watch, that they’ll get six times the sales. Not only does that not happen, it actually tends to go the other way. You lose your top salesperson and the revenue that person was driving, and you put that person in a position he or she might be less successful in. So now you’ve traded your top sales performer for a mediocre sales manager, and the six people that person is managing aren’t getting the training or guidance they need.

I think companies need to figure out what really drives or motivates their salespeople before they transition them to sales managers. You don’t want to coerce someone into thinking they should aspire to be a sales manager. You want them to figure that out for themselves, or make it blatantly obvious to you that they would fit into that role. When that’s the case, then you can begin having the conversation about a sales management transition.


Lee SalzLee Salz is a leading sales management strategist and founder of Sales Architects. He specializes in helping companies hire the right sales people, effectively onboard them, and align their activities with business objectives. Using his sales architecture™ methodology, Lee’s clients migrate from being “people-based” to “process-based” resulting in explosive, profitable growth.



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Kristin McLeod is Senior Digital Marketing Manager at OpenView where she focuses on all aspects of digital marketing. She previously served as Director of Digital Marketing at Cayan, a payments technology company, running their demand generation programs via paid, organic, social and affiliate marketing.