Does your sales leader have what it takes? Yesterday's "A-Player" may crash and burn when your corporate strategy changes.

It’s a bet-your-business decision. The right sales leader blazes the trail to skyrocketing success. The wrong one crashes and burns. Both may have a brilliant pedigree. Question is, what type of executive is best equipped to deliver on the objectives of your evolving corporate strategy?


Most CEOs struggle with that question. They know the sales leader who got them where they are today is not necessarily the right one to take the business where it’s going. In many cases CEOs go through a succession of sales leaders until they finally settle on one. But in the back of their minds, they still don’t know whether that hire simply timed the business right. No wonder the average tenure for a sales leader is about 19 months. 


Top-growth CEOs evolve their corporate strategies to meet changing market conditions. And they constantly evaluate their sales leaders to be sure they are the best match for those conditions. Corporate strategies can vary in their focus between market share gain, market expansion, or new market exposure. Each approach requires a different set of sales skills. As you adjust your corporate strategy, review your executive team to determine whether they are the best team to deliver on the changes. If your company requires a balance of all three strategies in various forms, the leadership in each segment should be different. 


Matching Talent to Strategic Objectives 


Consider three corporate strategies and the different type of sales leader required to meet the objectives of each: market share gain, market expansion, and new market exposure. 


Market Share Gain 


Your strategy is to win more share in your existing space. It’s a highly competitive marketplace and your product or service is viewed as a commodity. You need to win every deal, given lack of growth and limited opportunities. 


Your sales leader must run a great account management process, including a world-class deal desk. The deal desk should be strategic, not tactical. Members of the deal desk include the best strategists from the different functional areas within the company. Executives capable of growing market share anchor their teams with sales professionals who are skilled in the art of rip and replace.


The biggest competitor and obstacle in gaining market share is inertia. To overcome it, sales leaders need strong positioning statements that enable the sales team to demonstrate why ripping out and replacing the customer’s current solution is better than maintaining the status quo. This leader is an expert at defeating “do nothing” and “why us,” convincing customers to take action. 


In this scenario, market share is as much about winning every deal as it is about maintaining the current client base. A leader who excels in growing market share focuses on both making new deals and cultivating strong relationships with existing clients. Your competition is likewise focused on persuading your customers to rip and replace your services with theirs. 


Establishing strong, personal customer relationships gives your sales leader the edge over the competition. The best sales leader for a market share gain strategy is one who effectively balances the offensive and defensive strategies that result in acquiring new customers while retaining the existing base. 


Deal desk priority: The market share gain strategy requires a high-performing deal desk to strategize on the best path forward to win each and every deal. 


Market Expansion 


Your market is growing rapidly and there are plenty of deals out there—but the kiss of death is “I didn’t know you did that.” In this scenario, the sales leader needs to be activity- based. The key is getting involved in every opportunity so clients understand who you are and what you do. The market is expanding and you want someone who will win a disproportionate amount of the growing business. 


Your sales leader needs to be meticulous, heavy on process, and skilled in designing the ideal coverage model. Expertise in crafting an optimal go-to-market model is critical. Balancing direct sales, channel, distribution, inside (high and low touch), and digital (no touch) is essential. This leader must have a thorough understanding of customer acquisition costs (CAC) and customer lifetime value (CLTV) ratios. He or she must be able to recognize market needs and hire sales reps with similar skills. To outpace your competitors, this leader and team should be high-energy, aggressive, and disciplined, in complete alignment with your corporate strategy. 


Deal desk priority: The market expansion strategy needs an efficient, process-oriented deal desk that makes it easy to do business. 


New Market Exposure 


You’re well known in your existing market segments but you recognize adjacent or new segments provide significant growth opportunities for adopting your products and services. Your current sales leader has done a fine job in the familiar segments. Now you need to ascertain whether he or she is the right person to penetrate the new market. 


A market exposure leader must be adept at breaking down barriers to enter new segments. You need someone who has been there, done that when it comes to successfully launching new products. The best candidates have strong experience in new business development and a track record of bringing teams together to navigate uncharted waters. 


When penetrating a new market segment, you’re going in with little to no brand awareness. So this sales leader must appreciate what it takes to build a brand or to sell products and services without the strength of a known brand. Even with a great brand, you’ll find yourself responding to “I don’t think of you guys when it comes to that solution” or “You guys are great at XYZ but I think of ABC company when it comes to this type of solution.” An evangelical or pioneering type of leader and team is required to successfully align with this corporate strategy. 


Deal desk priority: The new market exposure strategy calls for a deal desk that can identify the right internal and external resources to convince target accounts of the brand and product value. The outcome is a plan for how the buyers at each account will be approached. 


Evaluating Skill Sets 


We often see CEOs stick with their current sales leader year after year, even as the corporate strategy changes. We believe CEOs should take one of two approaches when evaluating sales leadership talent against their new corporate strategy: 


  • Provide the senior sales leader with a sales executive who possesses the requisite skills. 


  • Build a new team with the required experience to drive successful execution. 


In either case, it’s imperative the sales leader understands buyer preferences, and whether customers value product or vertical knowledge. If your current team can’t adapt, you’ll need a new team with experience and contacts in that vertical. Look for a sales leader who is great at collaborating with product management and marketing. Getting into new markets is similar to launching a new product or service, so you need someone with those types of skills. This executive must be able to get into a reference account, gain some early adopters, and make the transition to a solid majority in the new segment. 


So what happens when your sales leader brings in the wrong skill set? One client with declining sales hired a new leader to grow the business. Brand awareness overseas was good but the company was unknown in the North American market. The sales executive they hired had a great pedigree and extremely successful prior experience. 


However, the company continued to wrestle with brand awareness and was virtually unknown in the SMB space. To top it off, the sales leader hired people he had worked with in the past—in essence, mirror images of himself. On paper, this looked like a great hire. The problem was a mismatch with the corporate strategy, which required the sales leader to penetrate new markets and segments with an unknown brand. This resulted in a continued spiral of declining sales. The sales leader and team floundered and they were all let go. 


In this example, great brands supported the team’s previous successes but they lacked the ability to overcome barriers. What they needed was a more evangelical sales leader and team. For an SMB with little brand awareness, the CEO needed a street fighter—a scrappy sales leader who thrived in the trenches battling alongside sales representatives. The corporate strategy called for someone with the skills to hire and manage a team that could break down doors and develop relationships quickly. Instead, they hired someone who was used to representing a big brand that drove prospects and clients to his door. 


Changing It Up 


You rarely have a bad sales leader on your hands. You hire people with a great track record. They made their number year after year because their skills were aligned with the corporate strategy. If you’re not adjusting the corporate strategy and you have a successful sales leader in place, double down on the person who is performing. The flip side: When you adjust your corporate strategy, don’t assume existing leadership can make the change. 


As the CEO, you’re looking at a multiyear strategy to lay the foundation for continued growth. Your job is to put the best athletes on the field for every play. Ask yourself these three questions: 


  • Has your sales leader evolved faster than the market or customers? 


  • Has your sales leader missed the adjustments for buyer changes? 


  • Have you adjusted the corporate strategy in a way that asks the sales leader to do something that is not a match for his or her skills? 


In the NFL, great coaches, like great CEOs, constantly make adjustments. As fans, we say we can’t believe they traded or let a player go. Then two years later, we realize why. At the time, it was an incredibly difficult decision for the coach or general manager to make. In other examples, we see athletes stay in the game too long. We forget their former greatness and remember the shell of a player they became at the end. We see great quarterbacks perform horribly when put into a different team environment. 


Your corporate strategy determines when it’s time to take a fresh look at the sales leader. Asking sales leaders to do something that is not in their wheelhouse typically produces poor results. Whether your corporate strategy is changing to meet objectives for market share gain, market expansion, new market exposure, or a hybrid of the three, you’ll need to reconsider the sales leadership you have in place to support your growth strategy for the future. 


To increase your probability of success, match the capabilities of your executive leadership team to the requirements and objectives of your corporate strategy. If you would like help with your talent strategy, visit The Studio, SBI’s multimillion dollar, one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art executive briefing center. A visit to The Studio increases the probability of making your number because the sessions are built on the proven strength and stability of SBI, the industry leader in B2B sales and marketing.


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John Staples

Leads teams of highly qualified experts, all relentless in their pursuit of helping you make your number.

John is the global leader of SBI’s account management business unit. As such, he and his team help clients across 19 verticals drive top line growth and operational efficiency in sales and marketing.


John’s marketing, sales and product expertise span a multichannel strategic approach. He has an unyielding focus on strategic and key account development, which enables strategic alignment between all functional team members in order to reduce acquisition cost and increase lifetime value.


His broad experience in sales, marketing, product and engineering allows him to bring a unique problem solving approach to his team and clients. As he has discovered through decades of experience, clients are often distracted by the symptoms of a larger problem and overlook the root cause of it.


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