What Makes A Great Sales Leader?


In my career, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with a number of truly great sales leaders—people who, through the characteristics they possess, drive sales and profits to levels that others can only dream about. These qualities come through whether they are frontline salespeople, managers or business owners.

Recently, I’ve worked with three different leaders whose companies could not be more diverse. One is a $100 million regional powerhouse that is now expanding outside its region for the first time; one is a $10 million company that has just taken on new territory and is poised to double its volume in the next three years; and one is a solo entrepreneur whose growth has been steady and consistent for more than a decade.

That said, despite the differences in their companies, all three have much in common with each other and with all of the great sales leaders I’ve known. Each possesses the following five characteristics:

1. Focus. Great sales leaders, at any level, have a degree of focus that borders on the intense. They have a well-defined sense of who they are and what their business is, as well as what value they contribute to customers. 

Once they find a process that succeeds, they execute it faithfully and expect the same from their employees. This doesn’t mean that they never deviate or change—see more on that below—but when they do, it’s a well-thought-out plan. In other words, they don’t chase shiny objects. Colonel Sanders might have cooked one heck of a cheeseburger, but we’ll never know because his focus was on frying chicken.

2. Willingness to do the hard work. Building and growing a business—or a sales territory—isn't easy. It’s hard work—mentally, physically or both, and it simply isn’t for everyone. Great sales leaders recognize this and don’t shy from hard work, either as a producer or a manager. Great sales leaders recognize that the “easy button” is a myth, so they don’t look for it. They do continue to try to improve their skills, ratio or results, but they don’t get distracted looking for get-rich-quick methods. When all else fails, you’ll see these leaders working the fundamentals and getting results.

3. They don't take shortcuts. Best-selling author and radio host Dave Ramsey says, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” As a motorcycle rider, I might disagree, (I’ve found some pretty nifty routes), but as a businessman, I completely agree. Too often, salespeople and managers try to find ways to shortcut a month or two and end up setting themselves back a year or more. My favorite example of this is the “industry experience hire.” They tell me, “We don’t have time to teach someone our business, so we have to hire someone who already knows it.” This results in a bad hire somewhere around 90 percent of the time, because the experienced industry people are taken care of and happy at their current jobs. In trying to shortcut a couple of months of the learning curve, these companies set themselves back a year or more by making a hire that results in turnover.

4. They put people in positions to succeed. Again, this quality is true for both producers and for managers. The best sales producers always create opportunities for success for their customers, their coworkers, their referral partners and all others they touch. The successful business owner puts employees in the right place for success. For instance, great sales leaders rarely have the “selling sales manager” role in their company, and if they do, it’s a temporary bridge to growing the sales force enough to have a dedicated sales manager. The selling sales manager cannot succeed in both roles because every day, he must decide whether or not to sell or to develop the people under his wing. Usually the decision is to sell, and his people get shortchanged.

5. They constantly learn, develop and evolve. I've said it before and I’ll say it again—successful salespeople over the next 20 years won’t look, feel or sound much like the successful ones of the past 20 years. Those who want to succeed must learn and evolve. The best sales leaders are always trying to improve their skills and update their techniques to match or lead the market. While successful sales leaders require focus, that doesn’t mean they don’t change. It means that the change is well thought out and well planned, not just based on a whim.


Now that you know what characteristics you want to cultivate, take a look at a few qualities of not-so-great sales leaders.

1. They make it all about themselves. Egomaniacs are lousy leaders. If your speeches to your troops are all about you, instead of all about them, it’s time to let someone else make that speech. Worst example: I once watched a CEO, who was speaking to a hundred or so sales reps, interrupt his talk to take a cell phone call from a golf buddy.

2. They chase shiny objects. Salespeople want to feel there is a steady hand on the rudder.  If there’s not, there’s a problem. If you’re constantly changing your approach, the problem might not be with the old approach—it might be that you don’t stay with a plan long enough to let it work.

3. They look for the "easy button." So many salespeople and business owners believe that there’s an easy way and if they can just find it and use it, then that whole “hard work” thing goes down the drain. Helpful hint—an easy button doesn’t exist.


The good news is that anyone can nurture and develop the five great-leader qualities, and anyone can change and learn. If you don’t think the top five characteristics fit you, think about how you can make them fit you, and how you can use them to improve your career and results.


Troy Harrison, author of Sell Like You Mean It! and The Pocket Sales Manager, is a speaker, consultant and sales navigator helping companies build more profitable and productive sales forces. To schedule a free 45-minute Sales Strategy Review,
call 913-645-3603 or e-mail Troy@TroyHarrison.com.

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