Does this accurately describe the sales leaders at your organization? Do you have established sales leaders at your organization?
If your answer to either of those questions was no — or if you feel unsure — you’re not alone. The real purpose of sales leadership, where it belongs in an organization, and ideal traits for the people in those positions are often misunderstood. Companies often focus so heavily on the day-to-day execution of their sales strategies that they fail to reach the high-level perspective a strong sales leadership team provides.
In the sections that follow, we’ll outline what sales leadership really is (and what it’s not) so you can shape your own sales leadership team for success.
- Sales leaders focus on strategy, while sales managers focus on execution.
- Common sales leader roles include Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Financial Officer, VP of Sales, and Director of Sales.
- Good sales leaders are collaborative and ensure sales strategy aligns with larger company objectives.
- Other traits of a strong sales leader include: experienced, empathetic, data-driven, willing to mentor, and accountable.
How is sales leadership different from sales management?
Before we deep dive into sales leadership specifically, it’s important to delineate it from another important level of the organizational chart: sales management.
The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a key difference in where each is focused: Sales leaders focus on strategy, while sales managers focus on execution.
Sales leaders oversee an organization’s entire sales effort from a high-level perspective. They set overarching sales goals, decide on the sales culture they want to build, make decisions about tooling and resource allocation, and connect sales strategy to larger revenue growth strategies. They work with leaders across the company to ensure that sales is aligned with other key departments like marketing, finance, and customer success.
Sales managers, on the other hand, oversee the execution of these strategies — including the teams and employees who are responsible for carrying it out. They manage sales employees on a day-to-day basis, train new sales reps, conduct performance reviews, manage budgets and forecasts, and work to maintain the intended sales culture of the organization.
Ideally, sales leaders and sales managers work closely together to monitor progress, pivot when needed, and ensure that strategy and execution steps are aligned.
What is sales leadership?
The exact makeup of a company’s sales leadership team depends on a few factors, including company size, sales maturity, and organizational structure. Positions typically considered to be part of a sales leadership team include:
- Chief Executive Officer (CEO) - In small companies or startups, the CEO sometimes takes on the role of sales leader when the executive team is small. This is not as typical in larger companies, where a CRO and/or CFO exists to oversee sales and report to the CEO.
- Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) - The CRO is a role growing in prevalence right now. This position oversees the revenue strategy for the entire organization, which of course encompasses sales.
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO) - In many organizations, the CFO serves as a sales leader as part of their oversight of the company’s financial operations. Even in cases when the sales team doesn’t report to the CFO, many companies consider them a key partner and leader for sales.
- Vice President of Sales - The VP of Sales position is typically positioned between the C-suite and the administrative levels of an organizational chart at large companies. Unlike CEOs, CROs, or CFOs, a VP of Sales focuses exclusively on sales strategy.
- Director of Sales - Directors are the first level up from sales management, so they typically have a closer eye on the executional aspects of sales while still focusing on larger strategic priorities.
Your company may have any combination of these positions in place, and large enterprises may even have all of them. In practice, anyone in a sales leadership position works collaboratively to develop a strong sales strategy and manage down so that it’s executed effectively by management.
It’s important to note again that your sales leadership team sets the culture for your entire sales department. While they may not interact directly with every sales employee, they’re considered an important guiding force that leads the way for successful sales performance.
6 Signs of Strong Sales Leadership
Sales leaders have strong firsthand experience in a variety of sales roles themselves. Typically, they’ve worked their way up over a span of several years (typically 10+ or more for executive roles). This experience contributes to wise perspectives and in-depth knowledge that informs strategic decision making.
Smart organizations no longer operate in silos. Companies know that in order to succeed, their primary go-to-market functions — marketing, sales, finance, and customer success — must be aligned. This requires cross-functional collaboration and communication between the leaders of these departments. Sales leaders must be able and willing to work with employees in high-level roles to set goals, develop strategy, and monitor performance.
Sales leaders are tasked with building culture and keeping their sales teams inspired. To do that, they must be able to empathize with their employees, understanding what motivates them to succeed, the challenges they face, and any potential concerns they have related to their work. A good sales leader is willing to listen to employees in order to gain a true sense of these things, and encourages a culture of transparency, trust, and open communication.
Today’s business world is driven by data. In sales, this has always been the case — data is a key element of sales forecasting, budgeting, revenue tracking, goal setting, and other sales activities core to the function.
That said, modern technology tools have made it possible to leverage data at new levels of scale and sophistication. Smart sales leaders embrace these data capabilities, using them to operate an objective and informed strategy driven by intelligent insights.
Willing to mentor
No matter what the exact position, sales leaders work closely with employees who fall under them on the org chart. As part of their commitment to building an inspired and capable team, good sales leaders are willing to mentor sales managers and other mid-level employees.
This could happen as part of a formal company mentorship program, or simply through effective communication and time spent working together day-to-day. At the very least, sales leaders should take the time to ensure their sales managers understand their vision and can effectively carry it out from an operational perspective with their team of sales reps.
True sales leaders never play the blame game. They take responsibility for setting a strong sales strategy and vision, and they hold themselves accountable for its success in the same way they do any other employee. This means understanding how their strategy is executed — even if they don’t directly manage it — and working together with leaders and managers at all levels to continually address challenges, pivot when needed, and innovate to handle the fast-paced, always-changing business environments in which companies operate.
Empower Your Sales Leaders with Xactly
Developing great sales leaders at your organization starts with giving them the tools they need to succeed. Xactly’s Strategic Sales Planning software adheres to four key pillars that make your strategy more accurate, more informed and more agile:
- Automated - Integrate seamlessly with your existing tech stack and automate processes to eliminate time-consuming and error-prone manual tasks.
- Collaborative - Create iterative snapshots of your plan, model “what-if” scenarios, monthly plan updates, and analyze side-by-side comparisons.
- Data-informed - Enhance decision making by leveraging AI to predict key metrics, including optimized territories, ideal ramp times, productivity targets, and seasonality in sales.
- Continuous - Proactively monitor and continuously improve sales plans with changes in business conditions to course-correct in real-time.