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Sales Leadership Paradoxes – Leading the People

By Cranfield School of Management

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Modern sales organisations are in a state of flux. The convergence of new technologies, increasing stakeholder demands and volatility in the market place, amongst others, are recognised as posing a number of dilemmas to sales leaders. There are two key areas - Leading the business – looking at growing the business and Leading the people – engaging individuals and enabling performance.

This blog will focus on the dilemmas associated to Leading the People.

There are 5 main paradoxes sales leaders face today and they are:

  1. Giving salespeople autonomy Vs. having control

The appropriate balance between these two dimensions is context specific, but certainly one that needs to be managed.

In many companies, sales performance is measured in terms of outcomes, such as sales (volume, value), profitability, number of new customers etc. However, some companies will argue that whilst the outcome performance is crucial, behavioural metrics of performance (customer visits, presentation of new business proposals, the provision of advice to customers, cross functional business meetings etc) need to be part of the overall strategy to build customer-centric cultures and responsive sales organisations.

A different lens to analyse this paradox is whether sales leaders should be spending more time with their sales teams or with other internal cross functional teams. Working with members of different functional areas, to align their interests and procedures with the sales department. This may cause confliction with their own sales team, so alternative invest more time in their team’s performance, getting to know their own team, motivations and drivers much better.

In a number of sales organisations, senior sales executives are asked to support the larger transactions, but also as a mechanism to strengthen the customer relationship. However, this is reducing the autonomy of the salespeople and mixed signals about the role and trust levels. It is a difficult paradox to manage, but something that needs to be managed effectively.

  1. Promoting competition Vs. collaboration among salespeople

It can be argued that favouring the promotion of competition is that this makes salespeople more aggressive in their business approach and it pushed them to work harder to achieve sales success. There is a belief that salespeople are intrinsically, competitive people, so work better in an competitive environment.

It is recognised that collaboration is also very important, especially in a high uncertainty market. It is very important for sales leaders to facilitate and encourage collaboration within their sales team.

Finally, the short-term versus long-term perspective, a minimum of collaboration is required to maintain an effective sales force. One way to support a balance between the two is have a mix of individual and team performance metrics.

  1. Treating people the same way Vs. differently

Treating everybody the same way is the advisable approach based on a pursuit of equity and fairness. But it must be recognised that people have different needs as well as different competences, and therefore require a different treatment, especially in certain contexts.

The sales manager role includes training and developing sales competencies and skills within their team. However, the challenges are whether to train the low performers or the high performers and whether to provide consistent training for the entire sales force or customised training to specific individuals.

Another big dilemma facing sales leaders’ is whether or not should everyone be equally involved in the strategy planning and decision-making. Although this may enhance a culture of community and collegiality, it has potential to delay processes and decisions. It is vital for sales leaders to a good relationship with their sales representatives and invest a significant amount of time communicating clarity over direction and aligned efforts - this can enhance commitment and engagement.

  1. Hiring experienced salespeople with lower development potential Vs. less experience salespeople but with more development potential

It has been highlighted that some organisations often recruit experienced salespeople with low potential to develop because its more likely to hit the short-term results, whilst bringing sales methodologies and potential customer relationships. This decision is often driven by the short-term needs.

Sales leaders often find it difficult to find the right person with the required level of sales experience, at an affordable salary. In this situation, organisations end up opening the door to less experience candidates who have a good potential to be adjustable to the organisation and developed into an effective salesperson. So, almost inevitably, companies get both types of recruits, and the challenge then becomes to find that balance and to make them work effectively together, in a way that they support each other.

  1. Focus more on salespeople’s performance Vs. learning

This paradox occurs between the short-term and long-terms goals of the organisation.

Some factors make the scope of salespeople’s performance an imperative. Firstly, there is the pressure by senior management to achieve the quarterly and annual sales targets. Secondly, in some industries there is a high rate of turnover and, therefore, some senior managers argue that it is not worthwhile to invest too much in people development if the sales executives are then going to leave to a competitor.

One way to approach this dilemma is to vary the need for development over time. It is expected that as soon as salespeople become more experience in the job, the need for training will be less evident. Part of this is given by the fact that, at least in consultative selling, the ‘on-the-job’ learning becomes more prevalent, and each sales encounter provides the salesperson with significant learning. In spite of this, due to the evolution of technology and other trends, even the most experienced salespeople will have to continue their development as some point, both to learn and to unlearn dated practices.

There is a conflict and tension across a number of dilemmas, many of which are strategic in nature. A common theme is the alignment of short-term actions with long-terms goals. This is in itself an overarching paradox with which sales leaders struggle constantly.

Whilst a number of dilemmas can be arguably incompatible, most could be addressed simultaneously. Leaders of modern sales organisations will in most contexts educate sales forces to adopt paradoxical thinking and simultaneously increase certainty by developing processes and tools.

Through our Sales Directors Programme and on-going dialogue with members of the Key Account Management and Strategic Sales Forum, as well as through our research with companies undergoing transformations in their sales and customer management organisations, we’ve developed a range of tools to help organisations and leaders work with these dilemmas.


Blog produced by: Cranfield School of Management, Key Account Management Best Practice Forum, Sales Director Programme and Key Account Management Best Practice.

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