Great managers aren’t born, they’re developed over time through coaching and experience. First time managers make mistakes — it’s part of learning a new skill set — and we can all benefit from what they’ve learned in hindsight. As part of our ongoing work training new sales leaders, my team at Salesforce has surveyed thousands of account executives (AEs) and hundreds of first line managers, asking what skills our newest sales leaders need to develop.
From the data, here are the top three mistakes we see new first line managers make:
For the past two years, the top management skill highlighted in our surveys has been coaching. AEs want sales leaders to help them prepare for real-world scenarios with customers. What they don’t want is for their managers to take the wheel when it’s time to steer a deal towards the finish line. “Help me close deals” is one thing; actively leading customer meetings and presentations is quite another.
Takeaway: Ask yourself these questions. As a leader, do I really need to be "physically present" (aka holding the wheel) for every deal? Are you trying to be the "super AE", reliving your past sales performances as a brute-force way of helping the team succeed? Closing deals for your AEs isn’t leading — it’s doing their jobs for them. Instead, prepare your team with simulated customer scenarios in a safe setting, allow AEs to shadow other successful team members, and provide support from arm’s length.
Think about it like learning to drive a car. The instructor should only grab the wheel if the passengers are in imminent danger. Scraping the curb or even putting a small dent in the bumper is part of the learning experience. Give your team members room to fail, and they will learn to succeed.
A second key finding from our surveys comes out of the question, “What is the one thing your leader can do to squeeze more productivity out of you?” Overwhelmingly, the responses center around the difference between coaching for high-level breakthroughs and micromanaging operational tasks.
Takeaway: Ask that same question of your AEs during one-to-one meetings with them: What is the one thing I (as your manager) can do this week to help you be more productive? It's a powerful question whose answer often sheds light on some type of interference or roadblock you can remove for them. Be proactive and ask the key questions that focus on the "higher level" skills of coaching for breakthrough — and save the operational banter for either a separate conversation or later in the one-to-one.
We find that AEs usually want to be coached personally. But it's always good to ask.
A recent study of sales leaders looked at the types of coaching comments they provided to their teams, focusing on the balance between positive and negative feedback. A whopping 82% of comments were negative. While providing constructive feedback is good, fostering a negative mindset like this can be bad for team morale.
Takeaway: Think about these three key "Check in / Feedback" questions, and what we call the water pitcher example. This example comes from when we do during leadership trainings. Imagine this: in the skit, the sales leader has a full pitcher of water, and empties it entirely into their AE’s glass while giving a constant stream of feedback. The water overflows out of the glass, signifying how leaders too often overwhelm their AEs with their feedback. We then reverse the process, letting the AE pour the contents of their glass into the leader’s pitcher first. Plenty of room remains in the pitcher for the leader to add more water of their own. This represents the process of allowing the AE to empty their glass (speak) first, before giving feedback.
Always start with these three simple questions before moving on to your constructive feedback:
What's going well with you?
Where are you stuck?
What will you do differently going forward?
Allowing the AE to "empty their glass" by answering the questions first — before you respond to these same questions — provides an opportunity to sandwich positive feedback around the constructive criticisms. Always allow your AE to give their perspective first before you weigh in. This creates a powerful dynamic that positions you as an empathetic listener before you levy any critiques.
Coaching is a top priority for sales leaders, and it's certainly something AEs are always asking for of. Make coaching an integral part of your management style. Create full transparency into the coaching process while focusing on developing the skills to give your AEs what they’re asking for. Go ahead, ask them what they need ... they will tell you!
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