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Punished for Success

Imagine that a company has grown to the point where it is time to open a new branch office. The decision has been made to promote a salesperson from within the company to be a sales manager. Whom do you think they’ll turn to? Do you think they will promote a salesperson who has struggled to hit 100 percent of quota, year in and year out? Or do you think they will promote someone who has consistently exceeded quota?

Almost universally, companies promote their top-performing sellers. This may seem like the right thing to do, but in fact, it most often creates a whole new set of problems:

  1. A top-producing salesperson is removed from a territory, and sales and relationships may suffer.

  2. In the absence of a sales structure, as described above, a top- producing salesperson is likely to make a rotten sales manager, and may make life miserable for those reporting to him or her.

  3. This may be the first job in which the top-producing seller fails. Many first-year sales managers go from a hero (top-performing salesperson) to a zero (bottom-third performance as a manager). As a result, he or she may ultimately leave the company.

The skill set needed to teach traditional salespeople to be customer- centric is vastly different from the skill set needed to perform as a top-producing salesperson in a territory. customer-focused salespeople have an Achilles heel, which rarely shows up until they are promoted to sales manager: They don’t know what has made them successful. They were intuitive; it “just happened” for them. They have never broken down what they do into understandable (teachable) components.

For that reason, they tend to tell their direct reports what to do, not how to do it. They’ve never been asked to be articulate about their work; now they’re expected to be. Imagine former NBA star Michael Jordan becoming a coach. He tries to explain to an average basketball player how to do a 360-degree turn while hanging in the air, switch the ball from the right to the left hand, go under the basket, and put reverse spin on the ball so that it will carom off the backboard and drop into the hoop. Unlikely! As an individual performer, Jordan does his thing, and the rest of us admire his artistry and athleticism.

Think about the athletes who become outstanding coaches. Many of them were average players, at best. It didn’t come naturally for them. Because they lacked the talent of a Michael Jordan, they had to plod along and learn all aspects of the game. As a direct result, they set themselves up to be better teachers. Average performers are process-friendly. They are more likely to be patient with other average people, and therefore, they are more likely to help them improve.

The newly promoted top producer, as described above, has always hated the administrative aspects of selling. Now, thanks to this promotion, he or she is expected to spend 20 to 30 percent of his or her time performing these tasks. Promoting a top-performing salesperson to sales manager is analogous to “promoting” a Top Gun pilot to air traffic controller. It’s taking them out of a realm in which they are almost certain to succeed, and putting them into a realm in which they are almost certain to fail. In effect, it’s punishing them for their past successes.


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