What Makes A Good Sales Leader?

Kevin Hosier

Is great sales performance an indicator of great sales leadership ability? How do you know if your stellar sales performer is ready to make the move into sales leadership? GCN Talent put these questions and more to Sam North, Founder of Inflection Point Coaching and Consulting.


What do you believe separates a sales leader from a sales manager?

The move from manager to leader requires a mindset shift. It’s not merely about taking on new responsibilities – sales leaders also have to manage activity, but they do it in a way that drives peak sales performance while connecting to overall company goals, values and culture. The work I do with aspiring or new sales leaders centres on how they can enable their staff to develop the behaviours, skills, processes and accountability for long-term success.

The most successful sales leaders instil a sense of empowerment in their teams while avoiding the temptation to take on individual staff problems – such as diving into deals when target deadlines loom.

Developing confidence is also crucial; the confidence to, for example, maintain focus on the bigger picture and deliver on strategic goals, rather than just on shorter-term numerical targets, even when the pressure is on.


What are some of the key skills/qualities that you should look out for at interview stage – and which of these can (and can’t) be taught?

There are conflicting schools of thought around this. I believe that many people are capable of shifting their mindset and developing the key leadership skills required, but only if they are motivated to do so and are sufficiently well supported.

Character traits such as curiosity and integrity can be hard to instil – but in my work, I have seen that self-awareness and emotional intelligence (vital qualities in a leader) can be developed. And of course, any technical skills that may be missing, such as pipeline generation, can be taught.

Candidates will usually present themselves through the prism of their current role, so asking questions around this at interview stage – for example, around relationships with direct reports, peers and management – may provide insight into leadership qualities.


How can you assess the level of someone’s emotional intelligence when interviewing for a sales leader position?

This is an important area to focus on. You could argue that without emotional intelligence, it is impossible to lead effectively – regardless of how stellar your performance has been in delivering sales results. I would encourage asking questions along the following lines:

  Tell me about a time you feel you mismanaged an emotionally charged situation

  Give me an example of when your ability to notice another person’s feelings or concerns enabled you to proactively address an issue

  Describe a time when you have had to manage conflict with your boss

  Tell me about a time when your ability to use empathy turned a situation around

Questions along these lines can offer a good insight into a candidate’s humility, honesty, and ability to empathise – all traits that will help a sales leader, and their team, to thrive.


A sales team in a meeting in their boardroom


How can a new sales leader most effectively balance their management and sales responsibilities?

This is a challenge faced by many in sales leadership – especially in the events industry, as almost everyone has a target against their name. It is important to keep this under review as the correct approach will change over time.

The principle most of my clients adhere to is to delegate as many sales relationships as possible while retaining enough key client relationships to maintain a good handle on what is happening in the market. This keeps the sales leader out of the ‘trenches’ while ensuring they have high-quality, first-hand information on which to base their strategies. It is also a great staff motivation and development tool to be seen to be handing clients over your team over time.


What advice would you give a non-sales manager who is responsible for interviewing a potential sales leader?

Assessing how a new sales leader will perform in your business is a challenge, and for someone without a background in sales, that feeling of ‘being sold to’ or ‘closed’ during an interview can be a little uncomfortable.

The first step is to acknowledge that those things are likely to happen. Preparing some notes on how you’ll assess the quality of their relationship-building, fact-finding, urgency creation and so on will help you move from possibly feeling pressured in the situation to actively evaluating how effective a sales leader they are likely to be.

The other thing I’d say is that if none of these things come across in the interview, I would seriously wonder if they’ll do a good job for you!


What do you think those looking to step up into a sales leadership position need to know before committing?

A new sales leader will need to be ready to change their thinking on many fronts, with the key one for me being about control. In the early parts of their careers, most successful salespeople have been able to maintain high levels of control over the results they achieve – how many calls they make, how skillful they are at managing their processes, and so on. A movement into leadership totally changes that level of direct control, and this can be very stressful.

I have been called into situations where new sales leaders have been in post for 3-6 months, and are doubting whether leadership is really for them after all. What we regularly discover is that they feel this lack of direct control will result in missed targets, and consequently, they have a significant fear of failure. My best advice is to get ready for that – be prepared to change your mindset about what constitutes success.

You will need to give thought to how you can help the whole team succeed in the short and medium-term; be ready to invest time in developing both your star and weak performers; create accurate and motivating budgets/forecasts; and recognise that being successful requires attention to all of these elements – and more.


About Sam North

In a career that has already tipped past 20 years, Sam has gained an in-depth knowledge of the challenges and opportunities in the exhibition and conference markets, and a breadth of experience in leading and developing teams to commercial success across multiple event formats.

He has held roles from sales executive to senior executive – launching, leading, and acquiring high profile events and driving international growth for one of the industry’s fastest-growing businesses.

He founded Inflection Point Coaching & Consulting as the events industry enters a period of significant change: markets are fragmenting, new and non-traditional rivals are gaining ground every day, customer expectations are growing at a pace never seen before, and staff values and expectations are shifting as the modern workforce evolves.

Inflection Point Coaching & Consulting helps organisers and the wider industry adapt and thrive in this changing world.


Interview conducted by Kevin Hosier, Co-Director of GCN Talent

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