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6 Traits of Successful Sales Leadership

Graphic of a woman standing in front of a bar chart giving a sales leadership presentation
A great sales culture starts with leaders who have these six traits. [Studio Science]

Want to know what it takes to be a great sales leader? Here are the key skills you need to cultivate.

In many organizations, the highest performers are often promoted to sales leadership positions. But being able to close deals doesn’t automatically make you a good leader. That’s because leading a sales team to success takes a different skill set.

Think of it like being a football coach. While a player might be able to execute seamlessly — passing, running, tackling — they don’t necessarily know the best play to run.

In this article, we’ll run through the top traits needed for successful sales leadership — and how you cultivate them in your company.

What you’ll learn:

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What is sales leadership?

Sales leadership is the ability to guide, motivate, and support a sales team so they achieve individual and team goals. That requires understanding each member of the team and coaching them so they achieve success, fostering collaboration, communicating strategy, and setting vision, values, and goals.

But there’s a practical organizational element to it, too; being a sales leader requires you to clearly define a sales process that’s aligned with the company’s revenue goals and promotes high sales performance.

What is sales leadership vs. sales management?

Sales leadership creates a company’s sales culture, vision, and strategy. As a sales leader, you encourage and coach the sales organization toward its collective and individual contributor goals. You’re also tasked with high-level decision-making, grounded in data and carefully chosen sales metrics and KPIs.

Sales management involves the day-to-day engagement of the sales team, holding team members accountable to the sales process and goals set by leaders. Sales managers guide sales activities, train sales reps, and oversee daily sales operations.

Why is sales leadership important?

Sales leadership paints a big-picture vision for a company’s success, and then rallies sales teams behind that vision. As a sales leader, your job is to coach your team to success and generate revenue for your company. To accomplish this, you need to provide consistent support to your reps by setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback. Engaged sales leaders can coach sales teams through new challenges and empower them to meet goals.

6 traits of successful sales leadership

Let’s take a deeper look at the traits you should cultivate in sales leadership:

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to understand and manage your emotions, as well as see and influence the emotions of others. Emotionally intelligent leaders are great at recognizing the emotional dynamics at play on their teams, they strive to understand the perspectives and feelings of individuals through active listening, and they know how to regulate their own emotions under pressure.

Let’s look at one of the more stressful times in a sales organization: the end of the quarter when you’re lagging behind your sales targets. You need to know when to hold your team accountable, when to step in for teaching moments, and when to get the job done. If you’re in an emotionally charged state, it’s easy to respond negatively. Deep breathing, routine walks, and talking things out with a trusted friend or colleague can help you refocus on what’s productive.

2. A sharp eye for talent

As a sales leader, you should be able to spot top talent in the hiring phase. You recognize the qualities of a strong candidate and recruit talent based on those. You passionately communicate your vision to attract the right people, and you ask the right questions during interviews and read people to ensure the best fit. Easier said than done, right?

If you’re new to recruiting, start by looking at the top talent on your existing team and build a candidate profile to inform hiring. What do your top reps have in common? What are their backgrounds? What skills set them apart? Once you know who you’re looking for, it’s easier to find them.

Also, use social media — including your team’s professional networks — to build your company’s reputation, communicate your values, vision, and culture, and network with prospective candidates. This helps you attract the talent you want. If you want to expand your reach, consider joining other professional communities to gain recruiting insights from fellow sales professionals and build your network.

3. Resourcefulness

A big part of a sales leader’s job is moving company initiatives forward — even when there are major roadblocks. When obstacles get in the way, savvy leaders can leverage close, trusted relationships and a variety of resources to clear hurdles and make it easier for the whole team to focus on selling.

For example, you might fast-track internal requests, get an event or training on the schedule, and resolve interdepartmental communication issues by stepping in to clarify.

Think carefully about what resources, channels, authority, and relationships you have you can use — and think outside the box. When you can remove as many roadblocks as possible, you set your team up for success.

4. Strategic and tactical

You should strike a good balance between your strategic and tactical qualities. Maybe you’re great at communicating your vision, but not rolling up your sleeves and doing the work, or vice versa. You should aim to develop a clear vision, and then create a detailed action plan to achieve it. This may also mean getting into the mix with your team from time to time to make it happen.

To guide your teams, you need to be able to interpret data from your CRM alongside industry trends, and make strategic decisions based on what you find. Then, you need to communicate a plan of action to your team and let them do the work. Resist the urge to micromanage. There will be plenty of teachable moments along the way.

5. Operationally minded

Whether forecasting with accuracy, coordinating recruiting efforts, or managing headcount, you should always be looking for ways to improve efficiencies and increase productivity. From a big-picture standpoint, knowing the strategic direction of the company can help you identify larger areas for operational improvement.

On a smaller scale, analyzing sales data and changes in sales performance can give you valuable insight you can act on right away. Regularly reviewing trends in your reps’ performance, for example, to identify any areas of weakness in the sales cycle is a good habit to get into. You can then coach the individual on specific ways to improve and operationalize any best practices you uncover during regular performance reviews.

6. Decisive

As a sales leader, you make major decisions for your company and have to take responsibility for the outcome. Tough decisions are easier to make when you have a clear vision guiding your sales process, hiring practices, performance evaluation, sales enablement, and other key functions, so be sure you’re aligned with your company’s core values and goals.

Because your decisions will affect others, stay in tune with your team and listen to their opinions, ideas, and feedback. When in doubt, make decisions backed by data — they’re hard to argue with.

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How to improve sales leadership

To strengthen or develop your sales leadership traits, consider exercises like consistently meeting one-on-one with team members, establishing goals, and supporting your team.

Invest time in your team

While it takes effort, one-on-one coaching is one way organizations keep sales professionals engaged and productive. But what kind of coaching is most effective? That’s different from person to person. Our State of Sales Report found that Baby Boomers prefer training resources, for instance, while Gen Xers and Millennials prefer strategy reviews.

No matter what, the data is clear: Sales professionals largely value coaching from their managers, but only 26% say it occurs weekly. What’s more, high performers are the most likely to receive regular coaching, and under-performers are the least likely. Since individual sales performance is so closely tied to coaching, it is well worth your time.

Set clear goals

In the State of Sales Report, we found unrealistic sales quotas to be the number one reason sales reps want to leave their jobs. Always try to set your reps up to succeed with attainable numbers, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Use data from your CRM to look at your team’s sales capacity. Based on past performance, how much do you think they can realistically sell? Talk about goals and expectations during your one-on-one meetings and leave time for reps to ask questions and voice concerns. You want them to feel motivated and confident about achieving goals, so being clear and realistic is key.

Develop the next sales leaders

If you’re a sales leader, a big part of your job is looking for employees who show leadership potential. Even if they don’t have all the qualities of a sales leader now, some skills can be honed over time. Take note of team members who genuinely want to bring out the best in others. This is one key leadership skill that isn’t as easy to teach. True leaders let their team take the spotlight while they work in the background to support and guide sales efforts. When you’ve identified people who have the makings of sales leaders, weave that into your coaching conversations.

Sales leadership is about helping your team succeed

The most important thing you can do as a sales leader is to keep your team motivated. That takes emotional intelligence, a focus on coaching, and the ability to follow through on decisions. Read sales books and follow other industry leaders for insights you can bring back to your organization. If you invest time growing as a sales leader, you’ll learn how to inspire your reps to do their best.

Mike Wolff, EVP and CRO of Salesforce, contributed to this article.

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