Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's a Sales Manager's Job, Anyway?

For some reason, I think spurred by my recent research on self-monitoring or maybe because I've been chatting a lot with one of my old friends from those days, I find myself thinking a lot about my time with a certain company I used to work for lately.

At the high point of my career with this company, I was in charge of a $30 million business unit and loving every minute of it.  Sales were booming, profits were increasing, our workforce was growing, good people were getting promoted, and we were getting rid of the people who didn't want to contribute.  During a time when the company at a whole was shrinking at a frightening pace, my territory led the nation in customer growth.  I won a whole bunch of interesting awards, from that huge bronze swan on my coffee table, to the leather bag I used yesterday for the trip to visit the mother-in-law, to the beautiful Swarovski crystal swan that somebody stole at that last banquet. Believe it or not, I think I remember being offered tickets to a Kenny Chesney concert at one point.

The reason we were doing so well was not so much because I was great at what I did, but because I developed a talent for surrounding myself with amazing people... and then finding ways of keeping them.  During my first month with the company, for instance, I was introduced to a guy named Joe.  I was confidentially told by my superiors that despite his long-held position as the area's top salesperson, he didn't really care about the company, I shouldn't count on him, and he'd probably be leaving soon.  So I spent a day riding around with him and found out that he was indeed planning on leaving... not because he didn't care about the company, but because he didn't feel like he fit in.  Here was the best salesperson we had, who had all the skills and talents of a great sales manager, but who had no interest in the politics and brown-nosing that was so prevalent at the top of our local organization.  He didn't suck up, so they thought he didn't care.  In fact, I learned that he cared about improving our business more than just about anybody.

In terms of that self-monitoring stuff I'm writing my first-year paper on, Joe was what we call a classic Low Self-Monitor... someone who was going to be true to himself, not caring what anybody else thought.  He was going to do his job, do it well, and do it his way.  After that, he wasn't going to hang around and suck up to his boss: he was going to go home and spend time with his family. As a Low Self-Monitor myself, I could respect that. Joe and I were friends, and I got him promoted to management as soon as I could.  The location grew while I was the sales manager, sure, but it grew even more after Joe took over.

Besides myself and Joe the Smart-Ass, we had Matt the Intellectual, Neil the Seasoned Expert, Melvin the Kind-Hearted but Paranoid Preacher, Wes the Spastic Growth Commando, Lee the Quiet and Dependable, James the Frighteningly Intelligent, Boots the Ridiculously Persuasive, Sonny the Ludicrously Vulgar, Marvin of the Infinitesimal Privy Parts, Harold the Operational Mastermind, and Darrell Who We All Made Fun Of, among others. It was a great team, the kind with a lot of different strengths and weaknesses that came together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It would have been a fantastic case study for the effectiveness of a team whose members were all very, very different from each other.  We had some college guys, and we had some guys who couldn't even spell "college."  We had some big guys, some little guys, some black guys, some white guys, some High Self-Monitors who were great salespeople because they could alter their personality completely to match their customers, and some Low Self-Monitors who were persistent and stubborn.  I like building teams like that; I can't prove it, but I think they work better.

The reason I left this company is revealed by a look at my own personality and management style, my naivete at the time regarding same, and how that style reacted with the prevalent corporate style.  As I said, I'm a Low Self-Monitor, and one aspect of that is a belief that I should do what I feel is right, rather than what others want me to do... even if those others happen to be my superiors.  A big difference between the High Self-Monitor (HSM) and the Low Self-Monitor (LSM) is in how they view their job duties.  In a sales manager's role, like the one I was in, the LSM sees his job as having one primary goal: increase sales and profitability.  An HSM, on the other hand, sees his job as having one slightly different primary goal: make your manager happy.

Usually, those two goals work hand-in-hand, so there's no effective difference in how an HSM and a LSM run their sales companies: after all, the boss always wants you to grow the business, right?  But what happens when upper management falls in love with an idea that sales management believes would actually lower sales and profitability, weakening the business?  It's an interesting question that HSM's and LSM's would and do answer differently.  An HSM would go along with what the boss wants immediately and hope for the best.  An LSM, especially a strong LSM, would try to dissuade his or her superiors from a course of action he or she feels would be detrimental to the business.  So the HSM is doing exactly what he's told to do, and believing in the wisdom of his superiors, while the LSM stubbornly sticks by what he himself feels is best for the business.  Who's right?  Which approach is better?

What is a Sales Manager's job?  To grow the business? Or to follow the directives of his or her superior?  The superiors know best, don't they... that's why they're superiors, right?

Statistics show that HSM's are more likely then LSM's to be promoted... in part because of the way they answer questions like this.

I found myself in an awkward position eventually - despite my reservations, I had done what my superiors had asked (although under some protest), and my business shrank as a result.  I presented consistent and documented evidence that the new approach wasn't working, but I was told to continue with it anyway.  Meanwhile, my salespeople were working more hours and losing commissions, and my team's management bonuses were decreasing deeper and deeper into jeopardy.  If I took the HSM approach and did what I was asked, my business would suffer, I'd lose employees, and my own pay would go down.  If I took the LSM approach and refused, I'd get fired for insubordination... and honestly, I'd deserve it, wouldn't I? I'd be refusing to do what my boss ordered me to do.

Being an LSM who cared about his career, I didn't flat out refuse to play ball, but I found my own ways to minimize the new approach and its impact on my staff.  That decision, in time, led to a mutual agreement of separation between myself and the company.  A real shame, because I loved my team, and before it got political, I loved what I did.

Now, looking back, I see that from a management standpoint, I was a low self-monitor surrounded by high self-monitors.  We couldn't understand each other at all: their primary goal was to increase their status (regardless of the impact on the business), and my primary goal was to live by my own principles (again, regardless of the impact on the business).  I'm not convinced that one approach is superior to the other: after all, suppose I, in my stubborn LSM way, was advocating the wrong business philosophy?  In that case, then my stubborn insistence of doing things my way would just drive the business into the ground.  I think I'm right, sure, but that certainly doesn't mean I am.  Part of maturity is realizing the possibility of your own wrongness, and to be honest, I had a bit of trouble with that at the time.

I know High Self-Monitors who are fantastic managers (a guy named John Ettel pops to mind), and I know Low Self-Monitors who are fantastic managers (like Joe was).  The whole point of my first-year paper at Georgia Tech is to learn if one of them intrinsically makes a better leader than the other.  In the meantime, though, my experience taught me one thing about this:  no matter who's right and who's wrong, HSMs and LSMs in leadership positions can really struggle to work together.  In this case, it's not my fault and it's not their fault: the blame is shared, because neither of us were sufficiently open-minded to really listen to the other's point of view and compare it meaningfully to our own.  This open-mindedness is absolutely essential for organizational success.


  1. I really thought long and hard about how I wanted to respond to this, however, I never could think of the right words to be diplomatic about it or see both sides, so I have just decided to shoot from the hip.

    Jim Lemoine, though he will never admit it, is a genius. It does not surprise me in the least bit that of the 11 people mentioned above at Schwan's 9 are no longer employed there, 1 is on thin ice and the last one turned into a back stabber. I agree that we were the best team of guys I have ever been a part of, a team that began falling apart right after the departure of Jim.

    Schwans is a company that is built on the leadership of candy coated, double talking morons that are so closed minded they would not take advice from their own mothers. Jim's two way blame is bullshit. Jim had great ideas, as did I and many others. Problem is they are not seen as ideas, they are seen as threats to higher ups, my god!! Some one may be smarter than me and and more qualified for my job!!!

    Jim was a victim of his own ideas, plain and simple. I for one got to eat dinner with Donald Trump and the president of the company, followed that up with riding with the regional manager of our company. During those times it was found that I was selling product well beyond the companies expectations, doing things my way instead of the companies way. I was given the award for 2009 Most Influencial CSM on a Monday and released from the company that following Wednesday.

    I hate to defend my buddy against himself but if more people would have listened to him, Schwans would still be doing great, instead top sellers are falling like flies. I would choose jim to lead my team any day.

    I could go on and on but I think those involved know where I am coming from.

    Signed with integrity.

    The Ridiculously Persuasive One

  2. Dang, Boots... don't hold back, tell us how you really feel! But I appreciate the kind words. We made amazing things happen, didn't we?

    By the way, it's 12 on the list now... I realized that I inexcusably left out Sonny.

  3. Everyone forgets about Sonny, So there you go, just to go along with your above theme......Sonny the Easily Forgotten.

  4. I'm on the edge of my seat. I can't wait to find out which is a better intrinsic leader -- HSMs or LSMs.

    Is it poor research etiquette to guess the outcome in advance? I suppose it probably is . . . but I do wonder what impact the situation has on the answer. Does the culture of the organization impact the answer to your question? Or, do organizations inherently create an environment more conducive to HSMs or LSMs in order for the organization to survive?

    Did I give away my personal hypothesis?

  5. I do miss that team. Are there really that few left? Not really surprised but kinda sad still. You in contact with any still?

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