The Secret to Effective Sales Leadership: Humble Yourself!

Five steps that will help you put the needs of your team first.

March 9, 2017

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A common question that sales managers ask is: “What’s the single most important best practice you can recommend to someone who wants to succeed as the leader of a sales team?”

The answer is, for many people, a surprising one: become a service-oriented leader.

In our experience, the very best and most effective sales leaders are the ones who are always focused on what they can do to help their salespeople. They know that when all the members of the team have what they need to be successful, they themselves as the managers are also successful. They take a “you-focused approach.” Such an approach helps them better understand the team as they interact with and support it. This is the single best approach to managing a sales team. (By the way, this you-focused approach is also the most effective way to interact with spouses, partners, children, loved ones, and friends.)

Two Big Ideas

Maybe you’re wondering how to make sure that you are following this you-focused approach. Begin by accepting two big ideas.

  • First and foremost, your relationships with team members matter a whole lot more than your job title.
  • Second, those relationships always depend on them believing you are serving the team.

Taken together, these ideas suggest that your primary goal as a sales leader has nothing to do with whether people are positioned “above” or “below” you in the organization, whether salespeople are obliged to do what you say, or whether anyone gives you credit for anything.  Instead, your primary goal must be to make sure your salespeople know and trust, deep down, that you have their interests at heart and will do whatever it takes to support them and help them succeed. Remember: you win when they win.

Unfortunately, this “you-focused” approach is typically not the default setting for sales managers. Most traditional organizations have a hierarchal, top-down organizational chart where the person at the top says, “I am in charge—so do what I say.” The most effective leaders, however, invert this chart. They say, in essence, “Hey, regardless of what the job titles says, you don’t work for me. I actually work for all of you. What can I do to make your jobs easier, and what can I do to support your goals?” In other words, the cornerstone of their management style is their attitude of service to the other members of the team—and they mean it. It is absolutely essential.

If you are authentic about this, if you are comfortable in your own skin, if you are willing to do what it takes to support your team in the most effective way, then you won’t be tempted to hide behind your job title or “pull rank.” On the other hand, if you’re not willing to support the team and you’re more interested in exerting authority based on your position, the team will pick up on this—and they will lose respect for you in your role as leader.

Our experience is that too many leaders, in sales and elsewhere, manage with their ego rather than taking on an attitude of service. This is a big mistake. Your management role should not be the source for fulfilling the needs of your ego.

Five Things You Can Do To Make “You-Based” Sales Management a Reality

Constantly remind yourself that your #1 job is to make sure that your individual team members are succeeding. You need to set up a plan to accomplish that. When creating that plan, bear in mind one of the many common reasons people leave a company is they don’t respect their manager. Note: It’s not disrespecting the institution of management—they don’t respect a specific individual. This is not the path you want your sales team to follow!

  • Think of the three people on your team you would most like to retain.
  • Ask yourself: How much do those people respect you, right now?
  • Ask yourself: Do they respect you enough to stick around for another year—or do you get a little closer to losing them with every passing day?
  • Ask yourself: Do they each know, on a personal level, that you fully support them?
  • Ask yourself: If a competitor came along tomorrow morning and tried to recruit them, what would happen?

With honest answers to those questions in mind, take a step back the next time you’re inclined to give an order without any kind of consultation, issue an ultimatum, or end a sentence with, “… because I said so.”  This behavior is not supporting the team It’s fixating on your own ego and job title.

Notice, too, that a “you-based” management style doesn’t mean you don’t make decisions. It does mean, though, that you explain the reasoning behind decisions you are considering making … and get buy-in from the team.

Service-oriented leaders in the sales arena take the opportunity to know, and pay attention to, their salespeople – as individuals. Just as buyers and customers need attention and support over time, so do your salespeople. Send the message to your salespeople that says you really are there to serve them. And mean it!

So make sure you’re paying attention to the needs of each member of your team. Ask directly, in one-on-one conversations, what you can do to help them succeed. Really listen to their answers, and do your best to take action on what you hear. Avoid the temptation to use your position as a shield against criticism, or as justification for decisions you make without talking to those whom the decisions affect.

Here’s what we’ve learned about sales leadership: Managers who use their position on the organizational chart to pump up their own position or to win arguments inevitably end up losing good people they could have kept. They’re leading with the title, instead of leading with the relationship. Don’t let that happen to you!

David Mattson is the CEO of Sandler Training, an international training and consulting organization headquartered in the United States.