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Why some salespeople are the worst sales managers

5 min read


The psychology of sales managers is an interesting topic. Using conventional wisdom, one might assume the best salespeople will transition beautifully into management. However, nothing can be further from the truth.

To promote the star salesperson to a managerial position often induces a classic application of “The Peter Principle.” In reflection, this practice almost seems purposefully self-defeating, as it removes that rare breed — the top sales producer — from the opportunity to produce sales and throws him and her into a role where his or her competence may be questionable. Despite this fallacy, the practice is often the rule rather than the exception. In fact, it is almost institutionalized by some company recruiters, who promise young people that a beginning in sales is a sure and straight road to a managerial career.

The philosophy underlying this approach is that if a person can sell successfully, he or she can surely manage salespeople with equal success. Certainly, some salespeople can manage, and some managers can sell. But the psychological realities strongly favor less than desirable results when the roles are indiscriminately interchanged.

Most frequently, executives live to regret the promotion of their top salesperson into a management position. The first and most obvious result is the loss of an outstanding salesperson and the gain of a mediocre or worse manager. The misfortune is compounded by a secondary consequence: The former salesperson who fails as a manager often will not — indeed, cannot — go back to the sales force of the same company because this is a tacit admission of failure to his or her associates.

This person will be more inclined to leave the company, sometimes taking a sales job with one of the competitors. Then, he or she will have a renewed reason to tap into his or her inner sales abilities, which will cause you even more harm as he or she takes away your clients.

There is a rational approach that can lead to a permanent solution: By all means, reward your best salespeople in the most imaginative and suitable ways. But promote only individuals who have the ability and personality to handle a management role.

Salesperson versus manager: More different than you think

There is considerable evidence showing that sales and managerial abilities are actually quite different. In essence, the personality dynamics that make a top salesperson successful and those that make a manager excellent are frequently in unremitting conflict.

Recently, we completed a cross-industry study that contrasted the personality profiles of 629 top-producing sales “hunters” with the profiles of 1,470 top-performing sales managers, who were working for 267 companies located throughout the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Japan. In general, our findings clearly confirm that successful salespeople exhibit fundamentally different personality profiles and characteristics than successful managers.

In general, hard-driving salespeople (typically in “hunter” positions) personality dynamics were significantly higher in the measures of:

  • Ego drive: The motivation to persuade
  • Assertiveness: The inclination to be proactive and forceful in expressing ideas
  • Urgency: The need to get things done
  • Risk-taking: The willingness to consider and take chances
  • Sociability: The desire to be around and work with other people
  • Gregariousness: The inclination and confidence to network and proactively establish new relationships

By and large, salespeople are likely to derive considerably more gratification from the act of persuading others than managers. They are also more inclined to be proactive and forceful in expressing their ideas, have a strong need to get things done and are more willing to take chances. In addition, the salespeople will tend to be naturals at meeting and developing relationships with new people.

Top-performing sales managers, on the other hand, while having more moderate profiles on the characteristics just noted, exhibited significantly higher scores on:

  • Cautiousness: An inclination toward due diligence and “looking before you leap”
  • Thoroughness: An orientation toward working with and managing details
  • Self-structure: A tendency to define priorities and exercise self-discipline
  • External structure: An orientation toward working within and maintaining established rules

Quite simply, the managers are built differently from the top-performing salespeople. They are more likely to have a natural orientation toward structure and details and do not have as strong a need to score every point themselves. As a result, the best sales managers are more able to work through others and are more comfortable with delegating, coordinating, organizing, coaching and monitoring aspects of the role.

Basically, the thriving salesperson is vastly different from the effective sales manager. And it all comes down to the competencies and personality dynamics needed for success.

What salespeople have to ask themselves is: Do I want to be a sales manager? Or do I just want to be called a sales manager? Am I really interested in leading others? What motivates me?

The answer, either way, is fine. The role has to be right for people in terms of how it plays to their strengths and whether it is something they would be naturally motivated to do. High levels of sales responsibility are just as prestigious as a management role. Where the salesperson is driven to close, managers are driven to watch their teams close. And it is in that where the successful salesperson and sales manager differ.

Herb Greenberg, Ph.D., is the founder and chief executive officer and Patrick Sweeney is president of Caliper, an organization that has helped more than 28,000 companies around the world get clear about selecting the right people, developing the best talent and creating the organizational culture they need to succeed. They co-authored “How to Hire and Develop Your Next Top Performer.”To learn more, visit and listen to the company’s latest webinar, “The Inside Story on How to Build a World-Class Sales Organization.”