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6 Qualities of a Great Sales Leader: What Your Sales Reps Want to See in You

Leadership. There are millions of what I call “Business Self Help Books,” that can help foster your skills as a great leader, some good, some great, some best left on the shelf. There are countless quotes throughout history that offer inspiration and wisdom in leadership. One of my favorites is by Theadore Roosevelt, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Empathy is a key attribute of a great leader and the first one in a series of them we’ll dive into. 

When we think back on great leaders throughout history and even our own lives, there are common characteristics that they all share. We’ll break down the six qualities of a great sales leader to help people more effectively manage and inspire their teams to maximize performance on both sides.

As a sales leader, you set the stage for your sales team. You chart the course, develop strategies, motivate your sales reps, and lead by example as you work to ensure their success.

Your team counts on your leadership to help them do their work well, bring home healthy paychecks, and maintain job security. And you want to live up to their expectations.

Becoming a better sales leader isn’t simply a matter of learning the technical skills of the trade—you no-doubt already possess those. Improving your leadership skills means engaging in self reflection, and considering how you can work on the qualities that make for a good sales leader—most of which have nothing to do with sales itself.

In this article, we’ll walk you through six of the qualities that sales reps need to see in their leaders, and we’ll discuss how you can embody each of them.

1. Empathy

No one wants to work under a leader who stands aloof from their subordinates and can’t relate to their day-to-day struggles. Being a great leader requires you to empathize with your team members, understand what they’re facing, and connect with them on a personal level.

This can start with recalling your own time as a lower-level sales rep. Chances are good that you worked your way up through the ranks to get where you are today, so you already know through personal experience what it means to be in their shoes. Tap into that experience, and don’t lose sight of what it was like to be on the front line of sales.

At the same time, don’t assume that your own experiences were universal or that your sales reps aren’t faced with new issues that require new approaches. Mastering empathy requires you to listen to your team and truly take to heart the reality of their situation—however similar or different it may be from your own.

Be intentional about scheduling time to connect with your sales reps, both individually and as a group. Show interest in their personal lives outside of work. Check in with them about their needs and concerns at work. Validate what they have to say. And take initiative to help them resolve whatever issues they may be facing. Empathy should always lead to action.

Finally, you should seek to model empathy in all of your interactions, not just those with your sales team. That includes when working with customers, other sales leaders, and the upper management you report to. In each case, do your best to listen to the other party, understand their needs and desires, and relate to the position they find themselves in.

2. Goal-oriented drive and communication

The best leaders work toward a clear vision and purpose, along with supporting milestones and goals to reach and achieve along the way. And they clearly communicate those objectives with their team to keep everyone on the same page, progressing toward a common aim.

For a sales leader, this starts with the organization’s mission and values—the overarching themes that guide everything the company does. It goes to the current organizational goals and strategies—the specific business objectives the company needs to accomplish in the moment. And it ultimately funnels down to specific goals for the sales team as a whole, as well as quotas for each sales rep.

You need to keep these things at the forefront of your mind when developing a sales compensation plan in order to align your reps’ incentives with organizational goals. Structure their commissions and benefits so that they’re motivated to pursue the sales activities that advance the goals of the company.

Your job is to empower your team to achieve both their individual quotas and the broader business objectives. This includes training your team, effectively communicating goals to them, equipping them with the necessary tools, and working with them on their personal development.

For your team to buy into a goal, they need you to have bought into it—and they need you to be able to clearly articulate how you’ll achieve that goal together.

3. Experience

Great sales leaders bring with them the knowledge and sales intuition gained from years of work in sales. While experience is something you gain over time, there are ways you can use the experience you have now to lead more effectively.

Be ready to freely share your experience with your team to help them accomplish their goals. And when you do, be sure to approach it from a “power under” rather than a “power over” perspective. You could look to your experience as something that makes you superior, sharing your experience in order to flaunt your sales acumen and establish yourself in a dominant position. But true leaders step down to the level of their team members, using their experience to empower and lift them up. They view it as a privilege to be able to advance their team’s experience with their own, and aren’t worried about creating competition for themselves.

Additionally, the best leaders understand that no matter how much experience they may have already gained, they will always have more to learn. Don’t view your experience as something that lies strictly in the past, but as something that is ever expanding and available for you to draw on in new ways to help your team succeed.

4. Strategic thinking

Leading your team to achieve their long- and short-term goals requires careful planning and strategy. It isn’t enough to know the objectives you’re working toward. You also need the right approach to get there.

This means relying heavily on data and leveraging insights from that data in a calculated manner.

Look to market data to learn how products and services are performing, which markets they’re performing well in, where gaps exist in the market, and what your company can do to optimize their position in the market.

Look to your own sales data to see which of your products or services are under- or overperforming, which regions and demographics present the best opportunities, which sales strategies bring in the most revenue, and which sales reps are the best performers.

Collaborate with other sales leaders, sales ops, and other departments to learn from them and gain any relevant insights they may have access to.

Then bring it all together in a well-informed strategy aligns employee incentives with organizational goals in the most effective way possible.

5. Adaptability

No matter how much strategizing you do, sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. A competitor releases a new product that changes the industry landscape. A top-performing sales rep leaves your company. A high-value customer backs out of a major sale.

When these things happen, you have a choice. You could continue on as if nothing has changed and just hope for the best. You could make excuses and blame the circumstances for poor sales performance. Or you could pivot and adjust to make the best of a bad situation.

To some extent, you can think ahead about potential negative scenarios and have backup plans ready to go if they happen. But you can’t plan for everything. Sometimes you just have to think on your feet and change course in a moment’s notice.

Doing this effectively means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. You should know who on your team has the capacity to pick up extra slack, who requires more support in a high-stress situation, and what resources everyone needs to adjust to the new reality.

You also need to have a mindset of willingness to change as needed. It can be difficult to let go of strategies you put a lot of work into, but it won’t serve your team to hold on to what isn’t working. Be ready and able to quickly adjust your plan to changing circumstances, and then communicate those changes to your team in a manner that they can accept.

6. Encouragement

As rewarding as sales may be, it can also be exhausting work. Your sales reps deserve recognition for a job well done and encouragement to keep it up. The more they feel seen and appreciated, the better their morale and performance will be.

Good sales leaders are able to see and foster the best qualities in every team member. They celebrate wins, both big and small. They are generous in handing out praise wherever it is merited. And they continually let their team know how much you value them.

There are many different ways you can encourage your team. Start by simply being observant. Pay attention to all the little things your reps do well, and don’t fail to pay a compliment when you have the chance. Even when you have to confront a rep about poor performance in one area, try to frame the complaint with things they are doing well in other areas.

Then provide more tangible ways to show your appreciation. On the smaller just-for-fun end of the spectrum, this can include things like taking your team out for lunch or providing tickets to a show or sporting event. And on the bigger end, it can include some more serious benefits for top sales performance, like additional financial bonuses or extra time off.

Improve sales rep retention by improving company culture

It can be hard to keep your best sales reps around. Working to improve your own leadership qualities is one important aspect, but there’s much more you can be doing, and it all comes down to the kind of culture you foster.

In our ebook, Retention through Culture: Why Sales Reps Leave, and What to Do about It, we walk you through the biggest issues that cause high turnover among sales reps, and then we explain four key aspects of company culture you can focus on in order to improve retention.To

learn more, download the free ebook.

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