Sales leaders are the vanguards of an organization’s bottom line, generating predictable and repeatable revenue to help grow the business.
Whether you’re a founder looking to make your first sales hire or an established business needing to disrupt your processes to stay ahead of the competition, there are a handful of attributes that distinguish your average sales leader from the exceptional performers.
When it comes to hiring a sales leader for your organization, this post will help you assess high-performing candidates. You’ll find out what makes them successful as individual performers and respected by their team, and in driving revenue for a business.
Key insights in this post include:
- What is a sales leader?
- What are the attributes that make an effective sales leader?
- Why the attributes matter
- How to choose the right sales leader for your business and questions to ask when hiring
What is a sales leader?
Sales leaders are the vanguards of an organization’s bottom line, generating predictable and repeatable revenue to help grow a business.
Whether you’re a founder launching a new venture or a profitable organization, selling your idea, product or service, and yourself, is the heart of any business.
In the most rudimentary sense, the person driving the direction, the strategy, and the approach in how to accomplish selling, is the sales leader.
A difference is that a great sales leader is someone who takes all of that and instills an array of visionary ideas with the know-how to leverage innovative processes to make it happen.
At early-stage or hyper-growth companies, this is usually the founder. There’s usually very little direction or even a fully-formed and established sales team in place. Here, it’s typically the founder (or the founding team) who are “doing sales.”
In established companies, where departments and roles are more defined, a sales leader builds out teams with clear direction and then assigns a few managers to lead the day-to-day operations of the department.
In the different environments, sales leaders also face contrasting challenges:
Common challenges for sales leaders in startup environments:
Resource allocation. Leaders in startups have to do it all but have limited resources and lack the human capital to do it. Figuring out where and when to allocate your limited resources is a big part of the job for sales leaders. In this stage, a sales leader’s time is spent selling the brand–from speaking on panel discussions at events, hosting dinners with other groups of business leaders, doing more in-person relationship-building meetings and less demos, and they’re leaning in on personal and professional networks for opportunities.
Lack of on-the-job training. Hiring sales people who can pull it off in a startup environment is tough. When asked, 25% of founders say sales leaders are the hardest people to hire for at a startup. A sales leader in a startup environment is like being in the wild wild west. They usually operate without a sales playbook, zero to limited sales training, and have to be incredibly proactive to make things happen.
Common challenges for sales leaders in established company environments:
Process changes. It’s much harder to build cases for change in processes, and in their own team’s behavior, in bigger and more established companies. A sales leader who may want to pivot approaches in team management, sales strategy, or training, will usually have to face more uphill battles to institute changes.
Economic uncertainty. Also in times where there’s a good deal of economic uncertainty, knowing how to retain and motivate the sales team during times of extreme competition and lower demand is a significant challenge for larger businesses.
Why hiring a great sales leader is important
With all that, when it comes time to adding a sales leader to your organization, you want someone who can navigate the challenges specific to your business, and not only do the job but do it exceptionally well.
Hiring the wrong sales leader can be demoralizing to sales teams and the overall business.
Let’s say you’re a founder of a rapidly growing technology startup who hires an experienced leader as their VP of Sales. While this person came from a large Fortune 500 firm, has extensive market knowledge and an admirable track record with customers, they couldn’t find success in such a high-growth environment that required experimentation and agility.
The mismatch between the startup’s need and the leader’s capabilities prevented the startup from meeting revenue targets so they could get an increase in capital, and eventually had to close shop.
Or, say you run an established pharmaceutical company and hire a new Head of Sales with an aggressive management style. He ruled the sales department with a tyrant attitude. Meeting revenue targets was the only thing he cared about. While the team consistently hit their numbers you later discovered it was because the team was fearful if they didn’t, and they were treated disrespectfully.
Everything in the department became a terrible competition, and the average salesperson tenure dropped to six months because the culture was awful. The damage to the company, culture, and its reputation was long-lasting.
Hiring the right sales leaders matters because a great leader will:
- Give their team and other employees clear direction and a strong understanding of the business
- Pick, groom, and keep the right people for the team
- Execute; good processes will be in place for customers experience
- Instill appropriate values which add to the core of a business
For employers and team members, the benefits of having a great sales leader include:
- An increase in employee tenure
- An increase in employee motivation
- More revenue
- Accelerated ramp-up of new employees
- More growth across sales reps and managers
- Improvement of selling skills of every team member
- Deeper relationships with customers
Let’s take a look at what qualities to assess during the hiring process so you can be sure you not only land qualified talent but a great sales leader who can excel in the right areas for your business.
How to hire a great sales leader
Great sales leaders will be proficient in several areas but when you distill it down to the five most common ones, they are:
- Target fixation
- Strategic thinking
- Culture carrier
- Data driven
- Coaching ability
Let’s take a closer look at each of those traits and why they matter.
1. Great sales leaders set realistic targets
All sales teams share the same goal: Win clients by providing solutions to their problem and generate revenue for a business.
A sales target is the number of sales (and resulting revenue) a leader decides the team should hit in a specific time frame. It’s how much money you want your team to bring in this month, quarter or year, for the business.
Sales targets are necessary as your business scales to, well, grow and forecast what your team needs to hit–or the minimum amount of money the sales team needs to generate to meet company budget or quota.
Sales leaders have a deadline-driven mindset. But great sales leaders know there’s a fine line between being ambitious and unrealistic. They have the natural disposition to fixate their team on achieving their revenue goals and know how to find balance between a challenge in meeting numbers and being realistic.
When assessing sales leaders, you need a clear understanding of their target fixation process and how they set quantifiable goals.
Some questions to consider asking during the interview process is to have them walk you through what they’ve used in the past.
- Do they use a simple formula to determine the best sales targets?
How do they adjust their formula? How do they know when to pivot a strategy?
2. Great leaders strategically maximize (unseen) opportunities
In sales and in business as a whole, numbers mean everything and figuring out how to reach them requires a very specialized type of thinking.
Great sales leaders are always evaluating and looking to maximize opportunities that others might not see.
Take for example, Napoleon Barragan, the founder of 1-800-Mattress. He was a genius at using technology to open new sales channels for his Simmons and Sealys.
He was one of the first and most successful adopters of the 1-800 number, correctly predicting that consumers would be perfectly willing to have mattresses delivered to their homes sight unseen.
The greatest sales leaders out there are constantly thinking of new and different approaches to solve a problem. They question obstacles and try to find new ways around them. They think about how they can grow faster.
When hiring, ask them to demonstrate this:
- How have they increased revenue at other companies using unconventional approaches?
- How would they propose making your business more profitable, from an outsider’s eye?
3. Great sales leaders are true culture carriers
A recent Harvard Business Review study reports, “69% percent of salespeople who exceeded their annual quota rated their sales manager as being excellent or above average.”
Great sales leaders build people up and create a stronger team, which is a win-win for everyone.
They can do this because they pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the team and individuals.
They communicate honestly and with transparency which builds trust and relationships within their team, and in turn, they create a greater level of productivity.
Questions to ask when hiring:
- How do you create a winning environment? Please share examples of strategies you’ve used.
- When you’re not at work, what do you do to enjoy yourself?
4. Great sales leaders embrace digital
Today, businesses and consumers look to technology to explore options and get information about a product, service, or before making a purchase. They form opinions and look to their in-person colleagues and online friends for insight.
The greatest sales leaders today understand this.
Great sales leaders focus on discovering what customers have learned through their pre-buying research, and look for ways to identify opportunities to add value for customers. They’re proficient with digital tools like LinkedIn to connect with customers.
Questions to ask when hiring:
- What was your best decision and worst decision with your sales approach within the last 12 months, and what did you base that off of?
- How would you involve marketing, operations and customer success teams in your sales efforts at our stage of business?
- What tools do you use and why?
5. Great leaders have impeccable coaching and mentorship abilities
This means great sales leaders are more like coaches and find ways to develop the people on their team, helping them reach their fullest potential.
The best sales leaders also have the ability to be coached and coach others. They take input and feedback, and put those into practice to become better.
When hiring, some questions to ask:
- How would you describe your leadership style?
- What do you look for in your sales reps when building your team?
- How have you built high-performing sales teams in the past?
- How do you prefer to give and receive feedback?
For businesses, it’s becoming more and more competitive to attract great sales leaders every year and it can be challenging to stand out with today’s generation of talent.
In today’s evolving talent market, it takes a new approach to sales leadership style to train and grow today’s talent and new generation of sales reps, and leaders.
The pressure is on for businesses to bring a streamlined recruiting experience to the table.
When hiring a sales leader, if there’s misalignment in any area, it causes a wave of problems for the organization, and missed revenue targets. Leverage a network of professionals to help you hire your organization's next great sales leader.