When a sales manager says, "This guy isn't cutting it, but I can't let him go," it's an "uh-oh" moment, the "a-ha" moment's evil cousin. When she says, "I have him on an improvement program but it's not working," adding, "Every time I give him something to do, he has an excuse for why it can't be done, shouldn't be done, doesn't work in this market, etc." And then she says, "I think he thinks I don't have the authority to do anything about it. I have no leverage." That's when I say, "uh oh, what's behind this?" Having no leverage is like a rugby scrum. No one has any leverage and the line of scrimmage at the center of it barely moves at all. But there's always a way to get the ball out.
What's going on here? Why did she say, "I can't let him go." The answer, it turns out, is that he's been with the company for 22 years and the CEO says he stays, period. "We're a family," I heard one CEO say recently. The same CEO complained that the numbers weren't improving as expected. I have seen enough close involvement of CEOs with their sales managers lately that it's worth taking a closer look at what can happen with that approach and offering a way through it that's so simple it will surprise you.
I'm not talking about CEOs who directly manage sales managers and who are therefore coaching them. I'm referring to the examples where higher-level executives and/or CEOs specifically limit the authority needed by managers to perform their required responsibilities. Before I get into what I see is at the core of this issue, let's dispense with some of the other possibilities that could be happening independently of any meddling:
- The manager might have a need to be liked by her reps. This is an issue for some managers. It could be the reason why she is still getting resistance from this rep. If she's worried about what he thinks of her, she might be holding back a bit. There might be much she could do to make improvements if she weren't worried about the consequences to their relationship.
- It could be an issue of Shaping the Environment of the team. What is her relationship like with this person? Is there mutual trust and respect? Does he ask her for help? Does she offer it? Does she coach him effectively? Does she hold him accountable? Does she know what motivates him? Has she created an environment for him and the other team members that supports constant improvement and learning and does everyone know where they stand with respect to their goals, behaviors, and activities.
- It could be that the CEO believes this rep has a lot of desire for success and that the right management style will bring out the best in him. However, "desire" is often confused with "commitment." In this case, the desire might be there, but perhaps commitment is low. Commitment is defined as the level of discomfort one is willing to endure to reach what they desire. Desire is the height of the bar. Commitment is what you are willing to do, ethically, to get over it. The CEO might not see this and might be stepping in for a personal reason and/or a genuine sense that this person wants to be there and wants to be successful. That's why measuring commitment is so important. People tend not to improve without some degree of change and discomfort.
What is often overlooked as a root cause for lack of results is the way that hierarchies are structured within the organization. With so much time and effort going into ensuring salespeople are properly trained and that managers are coaching and performing other key duties properly, it's frustrating when the organization structure is the block, not the people, nor their ability.
So let's take a page from a master of organizational leadership drawing from a tremendous body of research done in the 50s by Elliott Jaques (pronounced, "Jacks"). Managers will be relieved to see in such starkly obvious terms what they intuitively know. Executives could use this to free their organizations from the shackles of misalignment and organizational blockage. It's a simple way to get ball quickly out the back of the scrum and off to the fly half to make something happen.
Managerial leaders, Jaques writes, must have three critical accountabilities and four critical authorities as follows:
The Three Critical Accountabilities of a Sales Manager
- For the output of their salespeople
- For maintaining a team of salespeople capable of producing the outputs required (e.g., meeting quota)
- For the leadership of that team so that they collaborate with competence and full commitment with them and with each other in pursuing the goals set.
When you hire a manager, this is what you are expecting, particularly if they are not also acting in a sales role. The sales manager role, by definition, demands that these three responsibilities rest on their shoulders. However, these accountabilities are unattainable without the proper authority. So what does that look like?
The Four Critical Authorities of a Sales Manager
- Hiring manager - who's going to be on my team
- What do I want them to do? What tasks should be assigned so that we attain the required outputs?
- Judging their effectiveness and deciding any merit awards as appropriate. This is not a group activity, nor is it something that a CEO or owner should step in and do. It only would undermine the sales manager's authority.
- Initiating removal from the his or her team. Not necessarily firing. The CEO can keep their long-time friend at the company, but the sales manager must decide who is on his or her team.