5 Essential Skills You Need to Lead A Sales Team

5 Essential Skills You Need to Lead A Sales Team

So you’ve been doing this selling thing for a while now and you think you’re ready to step up and be a team leader? First, understand that you’re adding stress, time away from your family and giving up weekend time for what’s likely to be not much more money in your pocket.

Still want it? Okay, then. Here are some of the skills you’ll need to demonstrate to show you’re ready for the responsibility. In the past you might have been responsible for carrying out strategic instructions; now you’re responsible for creating the strategy.

Willingness to have tough conversations

There’s a difference between being willing and able to have fierce conversations and a desire to seek out conflict. As a team manager you should understand that difference, and as a sales team member you can demonstrate your readiness to step up into a leadership role. If you see a colleague retro-filling paperwork, or skipping a call to a prospect because they just aren’t feeling it today, that’s a conversation you should have. If someone is cutting corners, not following procedures or acting against the instructions of your boss, you have to call them on it—even if you agree with them.

What this comes down to is personal ethics and integrity. While we might think about cutting a corner here and there when we’re in the trenches, when you’re directing the battle, you need to be able to predict how your troops are going to behave [TWEET THIS!]. And you can only do that effectively if you know they’re going to follow procedures.

The first step to moving into a leadership position is to deliver that predictable behavior, and to hold others accountable, too—essentially helping your boss by doing what they expect you to do in a way they expect you to do it. Those conversations can be difficult to start, and more difficult if you’re in a more junior role or less experienced, but they don’t have to be confrontational.

Begin with a question instead of an accusation.

  • Hey, I noticed you did/didn’t ___________. What was your thinking behind that?
  • When you’re on the phone with _________ you sound like you don’t enjoy the conversation. What’s going on with that client?
  • You seem to always be late to our 2pm client call, which we can’t move. What’s preventing you from getting to the meeting on time, and what can we do to fix it?

If your approach is to understand and help rather than argue and judge, you’ll find that those potentially uncomfortable conversations go a lot more smoothly, and you’ll build a reputation as someone who helps others solve problems and helps them hit their goals.


As an experienced salesperson, you have knowledge and war stories to pass along. As you become more seasoned, sales reps with fewer miles on the odometer will look to you for advice, pointers and even feedback on how they’re doing.

Sometimes this will happen after the fact, but sometimes you may need to intervene in something that’s in-progress. For example, you might overhear a colleague offering prices that are old, or that haven’t been approved yet, to a client. To help your teammate avoid the embarrassment of having to walk that offer back at a later time, you’ll need to interrupt them and coach them on how to handle that situation.

Taking your own experiences, especially stories about failure and overcoming adversity, and using them to help others avoid pitfalls or get back on the horse is a vital tool in the sales manager’s chest. As a leader, you’re going to have to know how to coach your team to improve sales and prospecting success.

Talent identification

As a team manager you might have hiring (and firing) responsibilities. The cost of a bad hire can be catastrophic, not just for the employee, but for you and even your company. Leaders grow new leaders, so with every hire you should be asking: could this person eventually step up into my role so I can step up, too?

If you can define the outcomes your candidate will be responsible for, you’ll have an easier time identifying the skills, experience and personality traits that will make your talent acquisition more successful.

They say you should hire for character and train skills, though most organizations don’t actually do that. As a Starbucks manager in need of a morning shift barista, I knew I needed to hire character (can you be cheerful and present at 6am?) and train skills (how to make coffee). The same is true in sales. If your candidate doesn’t love, not just like, reaching out to prospects, they’re going to have a hard time being successful, no matter how many classes, seminars and conferences you send them to.

It’s not just about hiring round pegs for round holes—people change, and so your challenge as a leader is to identify where your team members can be the most successful, whether they should be more or less collaborative, and even whether working in your organization is the right place for them.

Clear communication skills

Imagine you’re on a road trip with a friend and you stop at a gas station. You ask them to fill the car while you get snacks. When you return, you find your friend pushing pieces of trash into the car through the back window. Not what you intended, right?

Never give instructions that can be understood by everyone, give instructions that cannot be misunderstood by anyone. A version of that is often credited to General Douglas MacArthur, and it’s a good rule for communicating with your team.

If you’re ever in doubt, simpler is almost always better, but if you have an expectation of the details—like refuel the car with high-octane unleaded—you should communicate those if you want specific results.

And communication is not simply about broadcasting—you have to be a great listener, too, and understand that 2/3 of all communication is non-verbal. Seeing when members of your team need a high five or a kick in the pants, a kind ear or just to blow off some steam, will show that you understand how to connect and build trust with your team.

As a leader, you might also have high-level information that you can’t share with your team, or your executive team might have set goals you disagree with, but still have to achieve. Your boss will expect you to support those goals in front of your team, even if you disagree with them in private. Typically, as you climb the corporate ladder the communications on the higher rungs are likely to include confidential information more often. How you handle confidential information or directives you disagree with will have a direct impact on how far up that ladder you can climb.

Ability to analyze data and understand how it fits the big picture

Data is your best ally in performance management. As we talk about in another blog, data can be the difference between making or losing your bonus. Understanding what metrics are being used to monitor your progress toward goals, how to affect changes in those measures and which processes those metrics are derived from is becoming a leadership expectation—not just in sales, but in every part of business.

Data science is a big deal, and while you don’t have to be a data scientist, you need to be comfortable in the numbers, otherwise you can’t forecast accurately. You can’t know how much revenue is in your pipeline at any given moment and you can’t know how much more outreach you need to do to make the sales you need to hit your goals.

If you’re not comfortable building reports in your CRM tool, or exporting data and working with it in Excel, that’s a good place to start. As we said at the beginning, most of business is about predictability. Whether it’s human behavior or sales forecasting, being able to accurately predict how changing one thing changes outcomes across multiple functions is how companies can grow and thrive.

Being a team member that helps the company grow and thrive is a sure path to becoming a manager that helps the company grow and thrive.

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