Why Sales Managers Need a “Driving License”

The process for getting a driving license varies around the world, but usually new drivers must reach a certain level of competence before they can earn their license. Time behind the wheel can improve their confidence, but first, they must be taught how to drive well. After many years of driving, most reach a level of “unconscious competence” where driving just comes naturally. This unconscious competence gives them the skill to react quickly and effectively to stressful situations and emergencies.

Role models matter when building “unconscious sales manager competence”

Learning to lead salespeople is like learning to drive. At first, sales managers must apply their skills consciously. After a while, the methods they use are applied with little thought. The problem begins when sales managers “get behind the wheel” without any training. In essence, they never earn their “license to manage.” Bad habits and mistaken assumptions become engrained and are repeated year after year, with much the same results. They develop an unconscious competence, but one that exhibits all of the wrong behaviors. Worse, these bad habits are magnified in a crisis.

For today’s sales managers there is no freedom of the “slow country road”

Instead, it’s a frantic pace, with unpredictable drivers creating situations that call for snap decisions. To complicate matters, they have a “fleet” of salespeople—with a wide range of driving skills—trying to follow them through busy rush-hour traffic and around hairpin turns. At the same time, the backseat is filled with vocal “passengers,” including sales operations, finance, service, production, product management, marketing, enablement, human resources, and learning & development, not to mention the C-Suite when a critical deal is on the line.

Only the best sales managers can survive and thrive in an environment like that. But how can sales managers become frontline leaders, sales coaches, and business managers at the same time?

The complexity of the sales manager’s role demands a balanced, equilateral triangle

We’ve broken the role of sales manager down into three different areas that must be navigated simultaneously: customers, business, and people. These three areas are visualized with an equilateral sales manager triangle where all sides have the same length and are equally important. This focus on three vital areas at once is one of the things that makes the sales manager’s role particularly complex. But, when all sides are equal, the center triangle, which represents the goal of any sales manager enablement program, sales manager effectiveness, is also the most solid.

Before we get deeper into the topic of focus, let’s look at the three sides of the sales manager triangle:

  • Customers: Whether they lead an inside sales team or a field sales force, every sales manager’s customer role is two-fold. At a strategic level, they ensure that the account and territory strategies of their organization are implemented on the frontline during customer engagement. On a tactical level, they also spend face-to-face time with customers, sometimes with salespeople and sometimes alone, either dealing with complaints or helping their salespeople create business.


  • People: The sales manager’s people role is exceptionally demanding. Many are responsible for the entire lifecycle of the sales job, from recruiting new hires to developing them to full-productivity. To that end, they spend considerable time with their sales teams, in regular team meetings and 1:1 sessions, reviewing activities and results and coaching their salespeople’s behaviors. The sales manager is also the role that ensures the implementation of the organization’s performance management system.


  • Business: Last but not least, sales managers are responsible for being the liaison between management and the front lines. They create the forecasts and other reports that business and sales leaders use to make decisions. When more information is needed, e.g., customer escalation issues, the sales manager is the go-to for details.

The challenge with achieving balance across these three areas is that they compete with each other for the sales manager’s time. Making decisions is much more than balancing these three areas because the organization’s context, priorities and specific challenges add to the complexity.

In summary, the sales manager occupies a highly demanding role and a key position within any sales organization. That means enabling your sales managers adequately is as important as enabling your salespeople. This is why we call the entire discipline sales force enablement.

It’s an important topic, and we’ve made it the focus of our first major research project of the year – the first CSO Insights Sales Manager Enablement Report. Get your copy here.

Questions for you:

  • Do you have a specific sales manager enablement or development program in your organization? If yes, what are the components of the program?
  • Do you have a clear role definition for your sales managers, and defined promotion paths?
  • How do you measure sales manager effectiveness?


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