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Effective sales leadership

Sales leadership is not the same as sales management, says Dr Javier Marcos, Senior Faculty in Management Practice and Director of Executive Education Custom Programmes at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Happy business colleagues walking outside office and talking to each other.

Sales management and sales leadership are essential to business success. But they’re not the same thing.

Sales management ensures the accomplishment of operational and short-term goals, while sales leadership relates to the crafting of long-term vision and the development of organisational capabilities. A proper recognition of this distinction could spell the difference between success and failure for many businesses.

Sales management entails planning, implementation and oversight of agreed tasks and responsibilities – a vital role requiring plenty of attention to detail. Sales management often emphasises seamless strategy execution and the achievement of short term goals, and is associated with high levels of sales efficiency.

Javier Marcos

Dr Javier Marcos

Sales leadership, while closely tied with sales management, involves a very different set of tasks – emphasising the long-term creation of capabilities to create and sustain competitive advantage. Sales leaders are often coaches, helping to develop a committed and competent sales force, foster collaboration and instil a sense of ownership – hopefully resulting in higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

One of the most important aspects of sales leadership is to anticipate possible future tasks brought on by rapid change, increasing customer demands and technological breakthroughs. So the effective sales leader focuses on creating resilient organisations and crafting contingency plans.

Many sales leaders often ask, ‘is there a unified theory of sales leadership?’ Sadly there isn’t an integrated perspective on leadership – let alone an adapted theory for sales. However, there are well-established paradigms of leadership and associated styles – each of them with their own advantages and potential drawbacks.

Transformational leadership is usually associated with vision, inspiration, stimulation and teambuilding, and is focused on delivering results while still providing a people-focused form of governance that motivates individuals. Transformational leadership has been shown to work well during times of change as it emphasises clarification of direction and vision.

Transactional leadership, which is more often associated with rewarding results and correcting missteps, is usually focused on exchanges between the leader and the “followers” – or sales representatives in the sales context. Leaders outline what is expected and required of the sales team, and how much they will be rewarded if they meet certain targets or goals.

Authentic leadership describes a style in which leaders demonstrate self-awareness and an interest in developing a positive ethical climate in order to foster transparency. Often, the back story or life experiences of the leader factor into this leadership style, which recognises that the role of the follower is integral to the role of the leader – allowing an occasional role reversal.

Servant leadership aims to put the needs of the sales force first, on the theory that this is an effective way of achieving certain organisational objectives such as revenue growth and profit. Servant leaderships arguably develop a sense of loyalty and engagement of the sales force and thus, enable transparent communication between the leader and the follower.

The description of leadership styles makes it tempting to ask, what is the preferred or best style? The answer is all and none. All leadership styles are needed to lead in increasingly complex sales organisations with increasingly sophisticated professionals.

A sales leader needs to be able to formulate a compelling vision (transformational) but also allocate resources to accelerate strategy execution. A sales leader needs to motivate as must as he needs to control (transactional). People tend to develop fond relationships with those they think they know as individuals. Thus, sales leaders need to engage with their people to generate bonding and loyalty (authentic leadership) which often derives in effort and commitment. Often, in the face of dilemmas sales leaders need to put their teams first (servant) and relinquish power to those in customer-facing roles.

None of these styles by itself will be directly associated to sustained sales performance. It is the harmonious and balanced adoption of these styles in ways that fit the customer context that creates value in the long run.