Perfecting the Sales Operations Balancing Act

What happens when two Sales Operations leaders get together to discuss the future of the role?

December 17, 2020

LinkedIn Sales Solutions Blog 2020 Sales Operations

Sales Operations has always involved a balancing act: between keeping the day-to-day on track and transforming your organisation for the better; between supporting your sales teams and helping to push them forward. Over the last year, that balancing act has moved to the high wire. Salespeople have new needs of data and systems to help them keep operating and building relationships remotely; there are more fires for Sales Operations to fight than ever before; and yet, at the same time, businesses need a strategy that can adapt to an uncertain future. With more urgent demands on both sides, how does Sales Operations respond – and how does it define itself as a function going forward.

As part of our recent LinkedIn Sales Leaders Summit, we brought together two people with first-hand knowledge of evolving the role of Sales Operations – and long experience of the different pressures involved. Steven Kang is the Director of Sales Strategy and Operations for LinkedIn Sales Solutions in EMEA and LATAM and has helped to lead Sales Operations for our business for over seven years. Ade Adefulu is the Director of Sales Operations for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions in EMEA, helping to drive the development of strategy over the past four years. With Steven asking the questions, they talked through the changing definition of operations, the opportunities to generate greater value for the business, and the changing skill set involved in supporting sales effectively. Here are the highlights of that conversation:


Sales Operations can mean different things in different organisations. How do you define it?

“We see Sales Operations as a partner function. It partners very closely with Sales to set and execute strategy, deliver operational rigour, and ensure that day-to-day operations are consistent and repeatable. However, the ultimate goal for Sales Operations is to help deliver value to end-customers. The way we see it, that link isn’t two or three steps removed. There’s a sense of ownership. We’re aware that the choices we make ultimately impact the customer and that’s our True North.”


What are the terms of the relationship with Sales? When a new VP Sales comes in, can they just rip up the existing strategy and tell you what to do?

“Ultimately, the Head of Sales takes the final decision – but we’re both part of a leadership team, and that Head of Sales won’t be getting full value from me or my organisation if they literally dictate things we then have to execute on. We have an excellent relationship and it’s characterised by challenge. LinkedIn’s UK Country Manager and VP EMEA and LATAM, Josh Graff, puts it like this: if you find yourself always agreeing with your Sales partner then you should take another look at the dynamic.”


One of the big questions that comes up about Sales Operations is whether your role is to keep the organisation running – or transform it. In a year like this, when there’s a lot of firefighting to be done, how do we balance those two roles?

“When I started at LinkedIn four years ago, I’d say that the team was 95% focused on operations, firefighting and keeping things running. However, we realised Sales Operations wasn’t delivering on its potential that way. We needed to pivot to ensure we were driving strategy for the business while still delivering the operational cadence we were known for. It was a case of changing the way we thought about the role. As a result, I’d say we’re now focused between 60% and 70% on operations and between 30% and 40% on strategy.

It’s important to recognise, though, that one of these areas is not better than the other – and this year really demonstrates as much. It doesn’t work if you have lots of former consultants coming into Sales Operations, who love the 20,000-feet perspective but don’t want to deal with firefighting situations and the nitty-gritty. We need to hire people who can exist up there but can also get really deep into the detail.

We adjusted this year, to respond to a change in what customers are looking for. As a business, we needed to be partners to customers helping them to navigate a once-in-a-century challenge, and so as Sales Operations we pushed back on futuristic conversations to be relevant to what was needed at the time. It’s not about transformation but about getting all hands together, sitting together with our Sales partners and using insights and analysis to figure out the best way to help customers through the challenges and keep the business on track.”


With Sales Operations so closely involved in leading through change, have soft skills and emotional intelligence become more important to what you do?

“In a word, ‘Yes!’ Sales Operations gets a bad rap – and it’s sometimes deserved. We can come off as analytical automatons telling people that we’ve thought through what needs to be done and they need to go off and do it. But, like I said, this is a partnership. We can’t afford to phone it in; to deliver a tough message and walk away. Thinking about how that message is delivered is an important part of the partnership.

I spend a lot of time talking to my team about the challenges for Sales, in order to create understanding and empathy. We think about ensuring Sales leaders have the context for every decision, and we partner with Sales managers if they are going to have challenging conversations with their teams, so that we can help craft the narrative. Every time we make decisions, we think about how they’re going to be received. We’re concerned about morale pretty much across the board, because that’s what the business leaders are concerned about.

Our objective is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be successful, and we remind ourselves of this every time we hand out quotas. That includes me, because I’m on the Sales Compensation Plan too, and I have skin in the game. However, it’s also our role to stretch and grow the business. We’ve shown that the combination of Sales Operations and Sales can push the business to more growth than expected when we’re prepared to be ambitious and feel that bit uncomfortable.”


How do you see the role of Sales Operations evolving as we move forward?

“I don’t think you get the full potential out of Sales Operations if it stays as a back-office function – and I think we’ll see more and more of a crossover between developing strategy and helping to implement it. We’ll hear much more about the concept of a partnership between Sales and Sales Operations as more businesses recognise it as a winning formula. And I think that partnership will become more seamless over time as people move between the two teams. I know Sales Operations people who are passionate enough about the customer to want to pivot to Sales – and I can see people moving in the opposite direction as well. If you think about team members who live and breathe the product and the business but also understand the systems and the processes: that’s where we’re headed, and it will help to take the partnership to the next level.”


We’ve analysed the strategies that Sales Operations leaders are adopting to support their organisations through the pandemic and the return to growth. Download your free copy of Top Sales Operations Strategies during Covid-19 here.