The Difference Between A Sales Enablement Leader and A Program Manager

I get these questions a lot: What makes a successful sales enablement leader? Is it really a business leader? And what if we hired just for a sales enablement manager or a sales enablement program manager? First of all, you need both roles, a business leader and maybe a couple of sales enablement program managers. However, to lead sales enablement as a business discipline, you need a business leader at the top.

A few weeks ago, I shared some practices on how to hire a great sales enablement leader. Apparently, I touched a burning issue for many organizations. Now a related question comes up, as more and more people are thinking about a career in sales enablement but are not sure if it’s really a good fit for them: What exactly is the difference between a sales enablement leader and a sales enablement (program) manager, and how do I fit in?

Before we can discuss this question, it’s important to establish a foundation. Most of you likely are familiar with the CSO Insights definition of sales enablement:

It’s a strategic, collaborative discipline,
designed to increase predictable sales results
by providing consistent, scalable enablement services
that allow customer-facing professionals and their managers
to add value in every customer interaction.

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” as Socrates pointed out a long time ago. If there is no clarity on what we are actually talking about, then we cannot discuss the differences between both aspects of the role.

Effective sales enablement that can move the performance needle requires a business leader. (Click to tweet)

In our Fifth Annual Sales Enablement Study, as in data from years before, we learned that, overall, sales enablement matters. On average, organizations with sales enablement have significantly better results than those without, including 15.3% better win rates. However, as we looked one layer deeper, we learned that only a bit more than one-quarter (27.5%) met or exceeded their stakeholders’ expectations.

It’s mission critical to understand the essential need to deliver on the goals and metrics that matter most to your senior executives. (Click to tweet)

And you already sense it: Meeting stakeholders’ expectations is the key criterion that separates the wheat from the chaff, because only this group achieved significantly better results than all others, such as a two-digit increase in quota attainment. In contrast, those that only met some expectations (56.2%) did not move the needle at all; their results were exactly the study’s average results. And meeting only a few expectations is worse than doing nothing.

Sales enablement leaders focus on sales effectiveness first, then on efficiency. (Click to tweet)

Let me share a typical example. I recently had a call with a client who is new to the sales enablement role. We worked through my checklist to prepare his sales enablement strategy and charter workshop (hat tip to my client for already sensing the need to approach this new adventure strategically!).

The conversation started with programs, changes and new technologies he wanted to initiate to improve things, based on his observations in the organization so far. Then I asked what his senior executives care about, which metrics are important to them and what their desired results would be. And then I asked how his current plans would help him deliver on those goals.

What do your senior executives need to see to say, “Cool… sales enablement was key to our business success”? (Click to tweet)

It turned out that the single most important metric was revenue growth – organic growth, to be precise – with the constraint to not grow the sales force significantly and with almost the same portfolio of products and services (only one product launch coming up). Clear and tough parameters to work with.

The conversation changed immediately when these numbers hit the table. We did the work and detailed the numbers to really understand the actual challenge he was facing. A few minutes later, we had the current average revenue/seller and the required average revenue/seller and a lot more related KPIs to meet the senior executives’ goals. Would the programs, changes and technologies he had in mind be enough to achieve these goals? No, no doubt on that.

A different, more comprehensive, holistic and transformational approach was required – one that’s closely connected to the senior executives’ goals and strategic initiatives and one that needs buy-in from the sales managers too. It wouldn’t be enough to improve and properly implement what was already out there.

The next step is a thorough assessment and structured interviews with defined roles to identify the weaknesses, challenges and strengths across the entire sales system. This will serve as the prerequisite for a comprehensive charter (business plan) that shows all necessary investments, resources, initiatives, programs, etc. to achieve this goal, including what the organization should stop doing right away.

It’s obvious that, in this situation, managing a few programs – even if it’s the exact right thing to do – won’t solve the problem alone. Instead, a bigger transformational approach that includes sales enablement, sales operations and the sales managers as well as marketing and product is required to achieve these ambitious desired results.

What are a sales enablement leader’s focus areas?

#1: Focus on effectiveness first.
In other words, doing the right things takes priority over doing things right. Leaders focus on the business impact of their enablement efforts, and that means the impact their efforts have on all KPIs that exist along and at the end of the sales pipeline. In other words, they care about leading indicators such as conversion rates and well-known lagging indicators such as win rates, loss rates, no decisions and average deal size. If their focus is primarily on efficiency, such as search time or available selling time, then they know the exact reason why and how this KPI is connected to the organization’s broader strategic goals. This is a fine – but very important – line.

#2: Focus on the metrics that matter to senior executives.
As the example above shows, it’s not enough to look at how well your programs or implementations turned out on KPIs such as content consumption and training evaluation. That’s part of a program manager’s job which is ideally embedded in the bigger picture of more strategic KPIs. I’m not saying these stats are not important to look at, but they simply are not enough… and you can’t make your business case based solely on these KPIs. If the best person in your curriculum cannot translate this into actual sales results, then something is clearly missing. Yes, ongoing sales coaching on skills and behaviors, leads and opportunities, and accounts and territories could be one of the missing elements.

#3: Align the sales enablement strategy to other strategic initiatives.
This is a core element of the sales enablement charter process. As the example above shows, it’s about fixing the growth problem – measured by a certain revenue growth rate – not about doing certain programs. All of your analysis, your entire sales enablement strategy and your collaboration partners (sales ops, sales managers, marketing, etc.) have to be aligned and focused.

#4: Drive scalability by both driving sales enablement services and building the function.
This is one of the key criteria that separates sales enablement leaders from sales enablement program managers. I cannot stress this enough: Your enablement team must be set up in a way that it can grow with the business, that it’s scalable itself. In detail, it means that you need an enablement production process and a collaboration model. Investing in both – from the beginning, as soon as you are out of the pilot phase – is mission critical. You have to build a business within a business.

#5: Set up a charter as a business plan, not as a list of approved activities.
One of the things I experience more and more is: “Look, this is our charter!” What I often see is a bold mission statement and a list of activities or programs that have been approved. This is not a charter, it’s a list of approved activities. If your charter does not state the business problem to be solved and the metrics to measure success, the related strategic initiatives, the vision of where you want to be and the mission for how to get there and achieve that, then it is not a charter. If your charter does not contain a detailed strategy (this is where your activities and programs reside), how to achieve those goals and information about resources and investments, then it’s not a charter. It’s not a business plan. Check out the blog posts here and here and here to get this right.

#6: Effectiveness takes time… sales enablement leaders need staying power and patience to experience results.
These are two of the key attributes I’d look for in an enablement leader. Most of your efforts in sales enablement won’t fix the current quarter and, depending on your average deal cycle length, won’t fix the next quarter either. You might have the leading indicators that ensure you’re doing the right things, but the actual results take time. If that’s not comfortable for you, then becoming a sales enablement leader or even a sales enablement program manager might not be the perfect fit.

If you haven’t already, take a look at our book Sales Enablement – A Master Framework to Engage, Equip and Empower a World-Class Sales Force. It contains lots of valuable information, frameworks and approaches to make you a better sales enablement leader.

Questions for you:
• How do you approach the sales enablement leader role in your organization?
• What did you hire for… a leader or a program manager?
• Where does your sales enablement team appear in the org chart?

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