24 April 2024 |

Why Sales Managers Fail

By Gabrielle "GB" Blackwell

Sales management can function quite a bit like a black box. 

Assumptions rule the day for what makes a great manager and it’s not always clear what a top performing manager is doing differently than a lower performing manager.

But, there’s one factor in particular I believe 1000% needs to be addressed for sales reps and teams to get better performance.

That factor is a lack of self awareness.

Couldn’t be me…could it?

Hear me out – everyone, and I mean everyone, is susceptible to lacking in the self awareness department. Especially if you’ve:

  • Just started in sales management
  • Inherited a team at a new organization 
  • Only received positive feedback aka you work or have worked for a ruinously empathetic or manipulatively sincere manager
  • Worked at an organization which treated people like numbers instead of people

I’m sure there are tons of factors which contribute to this, and if you found resonance with any of the above bullet points…pay attention.

What are the telltale signs?

The biggest way to know whether or not you’re missing in the self awareness department, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • How do I respond when I receive constructive feedback? 
  • How often do I seek out help or find ways to delegate?
  • How often do I avoid independent decision making?

How do I respond when I receive constructive feedback?

Becoming defensive towards constructive feedback is one of the best ways to demonstrate you lack self awareness.

Let’s say a rep on your team who is highly technical shares concerns about the feasibility of a new process you want to roll out. If your first inclination is to see your rep’s feedback as problematic instead of as helpful, there may be a gap in self awareness. 

Also, if a cross functional partner provides data that contradicts what you believed to be true, if your initial reaction is to try to discredit what the data shares, that’s a red flag.

Instead of armoring up when constructive feedback is coming your way – because trust, it’s coming – embrace what’s being shared and get curious about what the specific feedback is.

For example, when the highly technical rep shares concerns about the feasibility of a new process, consider running through discovery questions:

  • Help me understand, what’s leading you to have concerns about this new process?
  • What might I be missing that you’re aware of? Show me. 
  • Knowing the objectives of why the new process is being rolled out, what other avenues do you believe we should consider?

🏀Assist: It’s important to discern what is and what is not feedback. If someone is sharing “feedback” and it’s not specific or actionable, either 1) this person is still learning how to deliver feedback, or 2) what they’re sharing isn’t feedback at all. With the former, ask for clarification. With the latter, let their words go in one ear and out the other. 

How often do I seek out help or find ways to delegate?

I believe the biggest, and most common, lack of self awareness trap managers can fall into is trying to do everything by themselves.

It makes sense though – the majority of sales managers were once high performing individual contributors where being “the best” was encouraged and incentivized. But, in a manager position, that kind of thinking can easily lead to poor decision making and burnout. 

Instead, sales managers should *delight* in asking for help and finding appropriate ways to delegate. 

An easy exercise to check out if you don’t already have a system in place for delegating amongst your reps:

  1. Create a log of all the activities you do in a day/week
  2. Categorize these activities into urgent and important tasks to see which tasks can be delegated
  3. Identify the strengths, interests and development areas for each rep on your team 
  4. Assign delegated tasks to reps based on what you’ve ID’d and incorporate into rep development plans

If you’ve already got delegating tasks to your team down and want to find ways to get help from cross functional partners and/or your boss, here are some ways to get started:

  1. Create a log of all of your key initiatives which support the overall company objectives
  2. Create a log of all tasks and work streams associated with these initiatives 
  3. Identify which tasks and work streams have dependencies – or should have dependencies – on other people AND which tasks and work streams influence other people’s workflows 

Once you’ve created and categorized your list of tasks, review with your manager. During your review, consider asking the following questions:

  1. Are my assumptions right on dependencies and influence?
  2. Who are the people who need to be consulted, informed and/or involved in these tasks/workstreams?
  3. What’s the best way to keep them consulted, informed and/or involved?
  4. If there are challenges or problems that arise, who are the best people to connect with to ask for help?

And then lather, rinse and repeat with appropriate cross functional partners. 

🏀Assist: Delegating and asking for help can at times seem unnecessary, especially if you feel like you can do things on your own better. But, taking the time to demonstrate an interest in including others and being open to different ways of thinking can raise your perception of self awareness.

How often do I avoid independent decision making?

Another trap sales managers can fall into is having a dependence on building a consensus before taking action and/or avoiding critical and strategic decision making. 

A few ways this shows up:

  • Avoiding responsibility for consequences by avoiding responsibility for decision making
  • Relying on studies and external data sources to make decisions without incorporating internal data and insights
  • Attempting to cater to everyone’s preferences without considering implications for time, risk, and feasibility
  • Not advocating for one’s team or challenging decisions that will negatively impact rep performance and productivity

As sales managers, it’s our responsibility to set our teams and the business up to be as successful as possible. Yet, I’ve seen it time and time again, where a manager will neglect using their voice when it matters most. 

More often than not, the reason why a manager would *not* speak up is because:

  • They lack confidence in their ideas and/or point of view
  • They’re not sure what the best way or channel is to share a challenging point of view
  • The environment their boss has created isn’t one that encourages critical thinking and decision making aka it’s a disempowering environment

If it’s a lack of confidence that’s getting in the way or managers aren’t sure what the best way to communicate would be, that’s where a coach and/or a mentor can help tons (*cough* BetterUp and Korn Ferry Advance can be great resources *cough*)!

If the environment you work in isn’t one that’s encouraging and empowering…well, that’s what I’d call an invitation to look elsewhere 🤷🏽‍♀️.

🏀Assist: Another piece to independent thinking and decision making is being creative in how you get your point across. For example, I worked at a company which wanted to increase already unattainable quotas. I feared the risk to morale, attrition rates, and productivity. The leadership I reported into wasn’t amenable to listening to my concerns directly, but I knew they would listen to our HR Business Partner. I met with our HRBP, shared concerns and asked what projections we could run to see if the concerns were valid.The HRBP agreed to run and share the projection data with the leadership team and as a result, quotas remained unchanged. While I didn’t have the direct backing of my leadership team, I knew someone who could (yay delegation) and found a way to express my concerns in the most productive way possible.

Speed round advice on self awareness

  • Ask reps “what’s one way I can support you better?” at the end of every one-on-one
  • Ask your manager “What’s one area you’d like to see me improve in the next 30-60 days? Why? What kind of impact do you believe that would have?” at the end of every one-on-one
  • Ask your peers and/or cross functional partners “Where would you like to see me step up more? What’s one thing I could do to be a better peer/partner?” at the end of your recurring syncs