Let me preface this post by saying that I’ve met, worked for, and associated with several exceptional sales leaders in the past two decades. Unfortunately, I’ve also met several CEOs in the past few years who, despite knowing that their current situation isn’t working are for various reasons, are afraid of firing their head of sales!
As your organization’s top leader, the buck stops with you. And yet, I find too few CEOs have the confidence to confront an underperforming Head of Sales. Why? Your sales exec has probably risen through the ranks, progressing from frontline sales to managing a region, then national responsibilities, upshifting through titles like Assistant Vice President, Vice President, and Chief Sales Officer.
If you’ve never had to meet a sales quota—“carried a bag” as we call it—you can’t understand what a sales rep goes through on the front lines. Every salesperson has to maximize time and resources to keep numerous relationships moving smoothly toward the purchase, where the relationship really starts. If you haven’t risen through the sales ranks, you haven’t learned to manage relationships up, down, and across an organization the way a sales manager must. He knows his job isn’t done when he signs the deals, but when the deal is shipped or services delivered. He’s learned to get what he needs to deliver customer delight by building cross-functional relationships within the organization. Few others in the organization ever develop that web of internal relationships—or need to.
But that may be just what makes him unable to deliver results as the top leader of the sales function—and why you need to fire him. He’s got relationships that anchor him within the organization, but he’s no longer effective at his job.
Once a Head of Sales starts warming a seat on “mahogany row” he stops seeing his job as listening to customers and starts focusing on internal administration. That may be important work, but it’s not worth sacrificing customer insight gleaned at the edge of where business happens. If your Head of Sales stinks, it’s because he or she isn’t spending enough time with today’s customers, adapting and influencing the organization to meet its customers’ needs (not just wants). As an organization, you’re no longer listening, which means trouble. Your customer base is constantly changing. Without a direct line of communication from the customer to the C-suite, you will know nothing about those customers’ emerging needs and desires, much less develop the acumen to anticipate where they will need your value next.
Nothing can replace “feet on the street”—times spent in the marketplace trying to book and deliver the business. Your Head of Sales needs to get out of “mahogany row” and spend time with the people who buy your products. If C-suite Sales, Marketing and Operations leaders aren’t spending time outside the office talking with customers and channel partners, you’re missing half the conversation.
Even Operations need to be listening to customers? Before you declare me insane, consider how Sales, Marketing and Operations work together to deliver your customers’ desired outcomes. Sales provides the “boots on the ground”—one-to-one contact with customers. Marketing provides the “air cover”—the brand messaging that prepares customers to welcome and even seek out that one-to-one contact with sales. Operations implements the production and delivery, so the customer gets what marketing and sales have promised along the buying process.
In an effective organization, Marketing, Sales and Operations are measured and compensated in ways that recognize their impact on each other. Marketing can’t just toss leads over the wall. Sales must convert those leads into customers. Operations must deliver the goods. After delivery, Sales has to communicate insights from buyers/users back to marketing and the innovation hub.
Why are so many CEOs afraid to fire their Head of Sales? Fear. I see three reasons for this:
1. The CEO doesn’t know how to manage the sales function. He or she came up through another functional division. Having never sold for a living, necessary experience with sales is lacking. It’s tough to manage a function you haven’t performed yourself. Most CEOs don’t know how to hold the Head of Sales accountable. Accountability too often rests with sales results–a lagging indicator that is nearly worthless for managing a process at the front end of your profitability. There must be a better way to measure the quality of what goes into the sausage machine than weighing the sausage that comes out the other end. But the CEO doesn’t fire the Head of Sales because he would rather “deal with the devil I know” than take the time to learn to measure and manage the sales function, while starting over with a new hire.
2. The CEO doesn’t have a strong sales leadership bench. The CEO hasn’t done the necessary recruiting and succession planning for key positions. A CEO should have talent three levels deep in every key position. It’s ultimately the CEO’s responsibility to direct organizational attention to developing a bench internally or building a talent pipeline that prepares you to hire top-notch execs quickly. There should always be a replacement ready to hit the ground running for every senior management position. If not, you are one banana peel away from disaster.
3. The CEO is uneasy about the unknowns of the current Head of Sales’ relationships. He or she doubts the non-compete agreement in place with the current Head of Sales is strong enough to keep him from going rogue. The CEO fears the Head of Sales will go straight to a competitor, taking key customer relationships with him. Worse yet, the CEO fears that half the sales team will defect to stay with the leader they know and trust. Those cross-functional relationships built within the organization are an anchor the current Head of Sales can simply pull up and to the next position. The CEO has underestimated the strategic value of internal and external relationships, and knows it. Now he or she fears the impact of that strategic failure.
If your Head of Sales isn’t delivering execution, performance or results, you really have no choice. You have a mission-critical weakness at the very core of your enterprise. You need to reconfigure your management approach to your sales function so the Head of Sales is accountable for a direct line of communications from the customer to the C-suite, and accountable for results that clearly measure outcomes, not activity. You must create the conditions for cross-functional internal relationships to operate with transparency and accountability. Marketing, Sales and Operations must support each other, and be measured and compensated in ways that reward that truly collaborative behavior.
Move with speed to restructure your approach to the Sales function, so you can swiftly lose your current underperformer and start over with better processes so you don’t replicate the same failures with your new Head of Sales.
- Get help hiring a time- and battle-tested Head of Sales.
- Hold him or her accountable and responsible, with appropriate metrics and compensation tied to customer-satisfaction outcomes, not gross sales.
- Build highly interdependent relationships between Sales, Marketing, Operations, and Customers.