I was recently sitting in a very nice car dealership while my car was being serviced. While I was there I could not help but eavesdrop on a number of conversations among a sales manager, salesman, and a few customers. While I thought the sales people and sales manager sounded professional to me, apparently the husband of a female customer did not think so. When they were alone he said to his wife, “I like Barry (the salesman), but that sales manager is a clown. I don’t want to do business with him.”

As I was listening I was reminded of an interesting article I read in Sales and Marketing Management a few years ago about sales leaders. The article, The 7 Traits of Great Leaders, was based on extensive research into sales leadership by Caliper, a human resources research company in Princeton, NJ. I remember thinking as I read the article how applicable the traits are for anyone in a leadership role today because we are all “sales” leaders in one capacity or another.

Here are seven traits Caliper found as “must haves” when you hire or promote people into sales leadership roles.

  1. Must be Assertive. Effective sales leaders know when to be assertive and when to have difficult conversations with their salespeople. And, most importantly, they are not afraid to have the conversations and are very comfortable doing so. And, I’ll bet, they may not lose too much sleep the night before such a conversation.
  2. Must Possess Ego Drive. Ego drive is the strong desire to persuade. Of course, good sales people love to persuade people to purchase. But effective sales leaders love to persuade sales people to take action and be successful. They get a special kick out of helping sales people be successful.
  3. Must Possess Ego Strength. Successful sales people with ego strength are not easily discouraged. Not only do they understand they will not make every sale (great sales people are like great baseball players, “they succeed only one out of three times they come to the plate”), they have an optimism that motivates them to push forward and make the next sale. In addition to this, effective sales leaders also have the ego strength to encourage others on their sales team to overcome their failures.
  4. Must be a Risk-Taker. The world, including our competitors, is full of people who are risk-averse and follow the same process all the time. And, furthermore, many company control systems are designed to reduce risk. Effective leaders are those who are not afraid to take smart risks. As Herbert Greenberg of Caliper says, “In sales, leaders are always taking risks. Should you hire this person, make this deal? With so much sameness in products, the leaders who do the tried and true, who are risk-averse, will let the world pass them by.”
  5. Must be Innovative. The world and the needs of customers are changing rapidly. Effective leaders are those who can be creative, see opportunities emerging, and help their teams change to meet the new opportunities. A good example is when a customer asks for something different that does not “fit” into your normal process, can the leader lead the team to change or modify their processes and behaviors.
  6. Must be Urgent. People function to reduce uncertainty and as a result most of us move along at a steady, predictable pace. So when a customer or other external problem arises we often approach it in the same steady and predictable fashion. Effective leaders do not. They stay late or arrive early to focus on solving the problem or seizing the opportunity. They inspire members of their team to work at their same pace and then feel good about their efforts. And, equally important, they know not to impose urgent behavior all the time; they know when and how to prioritize critical moments.
  7. Must be Empathetic. Effective sales leaders naturally have the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. They can understand the situation the other person is in and how the circumstances in that moment might feel to that person. They also have the unique ability to know when to push people into uncomfortable positions that help them grow, knowing the person will be stronger afterwards.

If you are in a leadership role or aspire to be in one, think about how you would rate yourself on these seven “traits.” And, remember, if you are in a leadership role now there are people out there just waiting to call you a “clown” and those are big shoes to fill.

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