Are You an “Operational” Sales Leader?

By Masami Middleton on Jan 6, 2021

As sales consultants, we often say that great sales leaders demonstrate three things consistently: 1) They are great sellers, 2) They are great coaches, and 3) They are great operators.

Sadly, top sellers promoted to sales managers do not magically demonstrate all three. This is why we see and talk regularly about the “Peter Principle” in sales, where sales leaders "rise to their level of incompetence".

Of these three traits, which do you think is most lacking?  Most would probably debate between traits #2 and #3.  Let’s look at it from the manager’s point of view:

  • Great Seller: “I am a great seller, that’s why I got promoted - duh.”
  • Great Coach: “I have good relationships with my team; I can teach them how to be successful.” (Red flag – what made you successful does not necessarily make everyone successful.)
  • Great Operator: “What do you mean by ‘operator’?” (Red flag - Not many are thinking about how to run a winning sales team.)

We have written a lot about issue #2, on sales coaching.

In this blog, we focus on trait #3, on successfully operating a sales team. (Which by default improves your sales coaching impact).

Quick Self-Assessment: Your Operating Aptitude

While structure may not be fun for the charismatic sales manager, it pays off. If you’re unsure whether you (or your front-line managers) demonstrate strong operating behaviors, ask yourself these questions:

  • How would you rate your organizational skills for managing your team?
  • How often do you find yourself fighting fires on your team?
  • How many of those fires are unpredictable?
  • Do you have a method for measuring consistent sales execution?
  • Does your weekly/monthly/annual calendar illustrate regular checkpoints for account, territory, opportunity, forecast, pipeline, and sales call review?
  • Does your team have a consistent planning process and supporting tools to facilitate the above checkpoints?

If you’re unable to provide definitive answers for the above questions, keep reading.

Sales Management Cadence

At the end of the day, great sales leaders show operating discipline by carrying out a sales management cadence.  Call it what you’d like – “cadence”, “rhythm”, “motions”, etc...  What matters is that you execute a structured series of team interactions (over the course of a year, quarter, month, and week) that together help your sellers make their number and drive repeatable success.

When implemented well, your cadence targets improvement in trouble spots or fundamental selling skills and is relatively straightforward to maintain. Your sellers will know what to expect, what you expect, and how they are accountable. And your executive team gets better visibility on sales performance.

Here is a 7-point checklist, with supporting examples, for an effective sales management cadence:

1. Your calendar shows a methodical series of events that you’ve scheduled in advance and is timed to reveal how the team is tracking on key performance metrics.  This consistency allows you to be proactive instead of reactive in remediating.

Examples: Annual, quarterly, and recurring monthly/weekly meetings and reviews are booked on your team's calendars. Territory Plan reviews are booked at the beginning or prior to start of the year; Pipeline and forecast calls alternate in sequence to assess and address pipeline issues that impact the forecast.

2. All team members are aware of the cadence and know what’s expected of them. They (ideally) take preparatory or corrective action in advance. Because of your discipline and consistency, they work on meeting expectations.

Examples: Reps come to Account Review meetings with completed Account Plans. Reps come to Deal Review meetings with win plans that address previously discussed risk areas.

3. Your cadence includes reviews and follow-ups, in addition to planning meetings. You don't expect Account Plans to be “works of art” to hang on the wall – you expect them to be iterative plans that your team updates and adjusts with the pace of your business.

Example: You follow up on goals and actions in your team's Territory or Account Plans with a regular cadence.

4. For each cadence event, you’ve established probing questions and expected outcomes to understand pipeline development, challenging deals/accounts, or reps that require corrective action to get back on track. 

Example: In prospecting, pipeline, or sales activity reviews, you ask specific questions to assess how effectively sellers are generating leads and qualifying prospects. You discuss strategies for consistent deal qualification, or methods to collaborate effectively with marketing or sales development on lead generation.

5. You approach each meeting or review with desired behaviors in mind. You capitalize on coaching moments, instill accountability, and follow up to ensure progress.

Example: Your cadence includes regular ride-alongs with reps, where a coaching discussion (e.g., possibly with an evaluation form) follows each customer meeting to reinforce strengths and identify areas for improvement.

6. You standardize the use of relevant planning templates across your team. Because everyone uses the same template, you're able to make apples-to-apples comparisons and don’t have to adjust your coaching to different approaches.

Example:  You provide reps with Territory and Account Plan templates that aid in annual planning discussions and quarterly follow-up.

7. Cadence events are supported by data and are tracked (where useful) in your CRM.

Examples: Account plans or sales call plans are stored in CRM for easy reference during or after account review meetings; Pipeline reports are used for pipeline calls. 

Sales Management Cadence Elements

Typical elements sales leaders incorporate in their management cadence include:

  • Territory Plan Reviews
  • Account Plan Reviews
  • Quarterly Business Reviews
  • Pipeline Reviews
  • Forecast Calls
  • Team Meetings
  • Opportunity/Deal Reviews
  • Sales Call Planning Meetings
  • Field Visits/Ride-Alongs

While sales leaders implement most or all of these activities, too often it is in an ad-hoc or reactive fashion and isn’t structured to drive successful outcomes. The devil is in the details with a management cadence. In our work, we create custom sales leader playbooks that document an entire sales management cadence and allow managers to jump to the right tab to check their team’s progress on key performance areas.

We recommend codifying your sales team's operations in a similar fashion and for each cadence “event”, document key elements such as purpose, objectives, desired outcomes, meeting agendas, probing questions, supporting skills/behaviors, potential corrective actions, follow-up activities, and responsibilities.

In addition to this type of structure, as a seller or a manager, don't forget some of the more basic but effective tools like MIT ("Most Important Tasks"). Each morning, define two or three critical things you aim to get done by the end of the day that have impact or drive progress in your work. In addition to the cadence we describe in this blog, techniques like MIT are effective since they are flexible and tailored to your personal situation at a given point in time.

The Teachable Trait

The good news is, of our three leader traits, "operating" is the easiest to learn and most straight forward (albeit detailed) to implement.  It’s like learning the fundamentals of cooking, in that if you understand the essentials and have a method, you’ve set yourself up for success.

And there’s a bonus too – Operating discipline in front-line sales managers supports trait #2 on coaching by instilling habits that allow them to regularly inspect for the skills you want to see across the sales team. 

Cascading Impact

If you are a senior sales leader with a large sales force, designing a management cadence and cascading it down to your front-line managers will not only have an impact on sales performance, but it will help your managers grow and provide better visibility of sales performance for the business as a whole.

Operating proficiency like this is what separates the great sales leader from the average one.  So, would you characterize yourself as an "operational" sales leader?

Sales Management Cadence CTA

NOTE: I originally published the 7-point checklist in this blog in March 2018.  We have since updated and added detail to the checklist and its context.

Masami Middleton

Written by Masami Middleton

As a Principal Consultant with Symmetrics Group, Masami Middleton combines the market focus and execution of a Marketing VP with the critical, data-driven orientation of a seasoned strategist. Masami is passionate about sales and marketing integration and helping organizations take a disciplined approach to defining sales and marketing process and enabling technologies. Over the last 25 years, Masami has served as a strategy consultant and marketing leader from Fortune 500 to start-up environments.

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