Want to Become a Sales Manager? Don’t Skip Team Lead

One of the most common topics salespeople discuss is if, when, and how they should move into sales management. This holds true for first year SDRs planning their careers as well as Senior Account Directors trying to decide how to spend their prime earning years. Similarly, one of the most common challenges executives face is finding and developing good sales managers, which requires them to balance taking top performing reps off of a quota.

I’m currently the founder of SuccessKit, but I started my career in sales. In my experience, the team lead role is one of the best opportunities for a rep to transition into management.

Team Lead is what you make of it

Team lead is probably the most under-appreciated career path in sales. I have heard reps and VPs alike say you can’t carry a quota and also “manage” others – that you can’t really do both well. I’ve heard reps complain that team lead is an empty title with no authority, and they’re not entirely wrong. You won’t have any authority, and it takes a lot of work to do well in the role. The good news is you don’t need authority, and a role that’s designed well by management can make it work.

More than any position I am aware of, the team lead position is all about what you make it. It can be an empty title, or it can be a position of influence and a springboard to management.

The role is a testing ground

You want to become a manager? Act like a manager when it’s appropriate. If you feel your lack of authority prevents you from doing this, you need to rethink how you are communicating and if you are suited to and want to lead a team.

This will serve as a real life test of some of your future duties as a sales manager. You will practice, learn, and figure out if this is how you want to spend your future. Similarly, upper management can see how well the team responds to you.

The team lead role works because it allows for you to test management, while management tests you. It is not perfect, but it is a great start.

It can set up a seamless transition

The benefits go beyond testing the role. For me personally, the team lead role set up a good transition to management. I got to build relationships with the up-and-coming class of sales reps, and position myself as a leader and mentor. It also gave me the freedom to do that without the pressure of “management”. It wasn’t complicated – I devoted a couple of hours each day to helping members of my pod get better through sales training, or by running a sales cycle with them.

While many aspects still fell on the shoulders of their formal manager, I took on the role of their coach/mentor. I spent 25% of my time on it, and the other 75% selling. Later on, around one month into my role as Sales Manager one of my reps remarked “it doesn’t really feel like anything has changed, you just have more time for me now”.

Team Lead allows you to start coaching

One of the most important activities of the sales manager is to coach sales reps to get better. When you become a manager, coaching is one of many aspects of your new relationship with your Account Executives. Team lead is the perfect time to begin building your process and establishing relationships through coaching.

Set up a weekly call training session by having one person e-mail a call out to your group, and then meet to discuss the call. Organize and lead these sessions, but get others involved. The sessions should establish your selling and coaching philosophy, but also be interesting and even fun most of the time. Reps will want to work with you, want your help, as you are establishing yourself as someone that can help them make more money, before you also have to “manage” them.

Learn about your group

You need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and who you work best with. This will help inform who should be in your group, give you a head-start on working with them. It will also give you the opportunity to directly show upper management how and where you can help.

When I was being considered for the move to sales manager, our CEO and Head of Sales asked me to write up a report on how I thought I should work with each member of the team. Because I had taken my coaching sessions seriously, I was able to give them a thoughtful and detailed report about the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities in working with each rep. This was key in making everyone feel comfortable with the transition.

As you are coaching people, take some notes and start building a little profile on each rep. This will serve as a head start, as well as some of the most direct proof to your superiors that you can take on the Sales Manager role.

Get your time back with better leads

As for the inevitable question of lost selling time, it is up to the VP of sales to make sure you are “compensated” for this role. This can be accomplished through better accounts, more SDR supports, more inbound leads, or all of the above.

For the time you could spend prospecting, the company compensates you with hot leads so that you can effectively trade that 25% to coach and mentor. This is an excellent trade for both sides.

Final thoughts

My time as Team Lead was some of the most productive of my career. I hit some of my best sales numbers, while also preparing for and proving I could do the manager role. You can make the transition easier on both yourself and your executive team not by not taking on the title, but turning the role into something special. I wouldn’t recommend overlooking STAYING in the role, but that is a subject for another time.

Julian Lumpkin

Julian is the Founder of SuccessKit the platform that helps companies collect, document, and organize their customer success stories specifically for their sales team. Prior to SuccessKit, Julian was the Sales Manager at Axial.