First Line Sales Managers are the Fulcrum for Improved Performance, No Matter What “Lever” You Choose


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“If I Had a Lever Long Enough…”
— Archimedes

A question that often comes up from sales leaders during workshops or advisory services is: “What’s the most effective lever for me to improve my organization’s performance?” Too often, individuals want to skip ahead to that favored of all consultant answers, “It depends.”

Not me. Most people, if they remember it at all, remember Archimedes saying, “If I had a lever long enough, I could move the world.” But the actual quote was, “If I had a lever long enough and a fulcrum against which to place it…

A Lever Without a Fulcrum is Just a Stick

In our view, first-line sales managers (FLSMs) are the fulcrum against which all levers must be applied. Whether the lever you’re reaching for is CRM, training, comp, or something else, the success of it being taken up, implemented, and adopted rests squarely with your FLSMs.

And, yet this group is consistently overwhelmed and underdeveloped. In the Good Ol’ Days, IBM, Xerox, ADP, and Pitney-Bowes, trained the American salesforce. Sales management training was also a staple of these companies’ learning and development programs. As the saying goes, “Forget about the Good Ol’ Days, you’re lucky they lasted as long as they did.”

Said another way, long, intensive rep onboarding and FLSM development programs are from a bygone era. This doesn’t mean the need has gone away, only the programs. Today’s training is more about getting up to speed quickly, often with self-pacing online tutorials, microlearning segments, and more recently, with AI-enabled coaching.

Not unlike earlier times, however, most of these programs are focused on sellers, not FLSMs. This is both a perplexing and continuing strategy. Ken Powell, when he headed Worldwide Sales Enablement & Learning at ADP, thought the training budget allocation (80% on sellers/20% on managers) should be flipped. There are legitimate reasons for doing so. When you train a seller, 1 person benefits; when you train a manager, that person plus their direct reports (typical span of control being ~6[1]) can benefit from the training. In addition, managers tend to be less transient, giving the company a longer period over which to recoup return on their training investment.

Victims of Victims

The typical path to FLSM is the promotion of a successful seller. This can be a double whammy since the skills for being a top producer are vastly different from being a top manager. The saddest scenario is a top producer being promoted to FLSM, struggling, perhaps for the first time, then becoming disillusioned and leaving the company. Everyone loses!

Absent this massive reallocation/reorientation of training funds, newly minted managers with little or no management training follow one of three paths: 1) copy what peers are doing; 2) repeat what their managers did to/for them; or 3) do what they swore they’d do differently if ever made manager!

The first two of these options simply perpetuates, rather than elevates, the manager’s activities. If the predecessor was a good manager, hopefully, the new manager will have inherited good traits. If not, well, not so good. Emulating peers may, or may not, be a winning formula. Just like mirroring the way some people are exercising at the gym, they may or may not know what they’re doing but, since they appear to be in good shape, you copy their form.

Thirdly, charting your own different course is simply trial and error. Some new/different ideas may work, others may not; if only someone had some insights to offer! Of course, management models abound, but if you’re too busy trying to figure out the saw, who has time to sharpen it?

Which Saw Do I Need to Sharpen?

I’ve written about this previously and will ask you to consider the question now: Who’s coaching the coach? The Sales Management Association has just released a study, “Defining Sales Management’s Value,” on FLSMs and their effectiveness. They surveyed companies on 26 FLSM responsibilities. Companies rated their managers effective in 9 of 26. The top seven rated responsibilities are listed below.

Note, these are the highest rated factors; the remaining 19 on this list fell beneath the 50% line. This may come as no surprise but, does that mean it’s acceptable? Or does it simply mean it’s unavoidable? Just like sellers, the strong will make it, the weak will be weeded out. Sink or swim, Baby.

But Wait, There’s More…

As if this were not enough, the situation in many cases has actually gotten worse. Yes, there are many FLSMs today that have been promoted with little/no management training. Yes, they are overseeing teams that have not had the benefit of traditional training programs with long runways described earlier.

Sales has always suffered not having a pure career path. Being a surgeon with 20 years’ experience means you’ve demonstrated competence and staying power. Being a sales rep for 20 years, not a sales manager, not a sales director or VP, means… Well, what does it mean? Mainly, that you haven’t gotten very far!

Because of this, I believe many reps sign up/step up to the management path buying the “this will be good for your career” speech. But will it?

It’s a different skill set. Sure, both roles are people-oriented but the biggest difference is pursuing results through the actions of others, rather than your own. They’re both important but they are also, truly different. Recognizing this difference, and the difficulties it may create, some companies have a more rigorous approach to identifying FLSM candidates. ADP, for one, requires a candidate to be nominated by his/her director, not simply their immediate manager. If accepted, they receive basic management training, while still operating as a seller. Once this initial training is completed, they are then assigned TWO reps to manage, again, while still operating as a seller. This trial period typically lasts six months. At the end, candidates are clear, they are well suited to–or want no part of–becoming a sales manager.

Covid-19 has compounded the challenges of managing sellers. The most immediate change for many was doing so remotely. But even for firms that had a virtual model, or some subset that operated virtually, new strains made the job more difficult. I wrote of one FLSM in New Jersey, whose wife was an ER Nurse in New York City and whose in-laws watched their two kids, 3 and 5 years old, each day. When NYC was the epicenter of the Covid crisis, his wife mostly stayed in the City, his in-laws were vulnerable and, therefore, could not be around their grandkids, and he had to watch the kids while trying to manage his team from their apartment!

Sellers have always been in a stressful environment but, they too, have experienced an uptick in difficulties. With the income variation of a fully or partially commissioned-based model, one key attribute for being in sales is a high tolerance for ambiguity. But what was ambiguous in 2019 was nothing compared to Covid times!

One group did better during the lockdown period: introverts. Contrary to popular impressions, there are many introverts in sales. But they especially adapted well and quickly to Covid-driven isolation. Those road warriors so familiar and mobile adjusted much less well to the new ground rules.

All of this layers yet another level of complexity on the FLSM: the mental health of their team members. Another massive change from the Good Ol’ Days is the demise of the Company Man. Work/Life Balance is a relatively new idea, even though it has always been important. Management by Threat: “If you can’t do it, we’ll get someone in here that can,” has been slowly filtering out of sales over the past 25 years. Again, Covid accelerated the change to caring about the mental well-being of your team members.

The Sales Athlete

Another study just released is the 2021 State of Mental Health in Sales Report[2]. This 31-page report is available for download free and offers insights into the current state of mind of sellers—and how this correlates with sales performance. For starters, the authors make the point that mental health is different from, but related to, mental illness. Quoting from their Executive Summary: Just like physical health and physical illness, they are related, but not the same thing. (emphasis added)

People are stressed and, given the rebound Covid is currently making thanks to the Delta Variant, are likely to remain so for some time to come. A couple of key insights from the report, which I urge everyone to download and read: 1) 3 in 5 Salespeople struggle with mental health, with FLSMs and Individual Contributors Struggling the MOST; 2) research shows that improved mental health correlates sales target achievement.

If that’s not enough to get you thinking about your FLSMs, I don’t know what is. The report outlines the seven top needs to better sales performance. As a teaser, here are the top 4:

  1. Felt metrics were achievable.
  2. Felt strongly connected to their peers and teammates.
  3. Felt like they were making a positive difference in the world.
  4. Felt clarity and direction in their career path.

I strongly urge you to grab both of these reports and read what they have to say.


Is sales going to hell in a handbasket? Are FLSMs doomed to struggle in today’s challenged and challenging marketplace?

Unquestionably, the well-documented power shift from sellers to buyers has enabled buyers to get better at buying faster than sellers have gotten better at selling. The pandemic has further accelerated and compressed these changes.

When sellers had all the product and application information, new hires could get started with product and basic sales training. In their first couple of years, they’d pick up customer stories and clever usage applications. Only after this initial ramp would buyers ask questions like, “What do you know about me?” and “What do you know about my business?”

Today these are table stakes whether you’ve been onboard selling 10 years or 10 minutes. You need to bring your “A Game” and demonstrate relevance and competence immediately. With buyers conducting their initial research online and avoiding sellers as much, and as long, as possible, a lot of requirements are fixed before a seller is even brought in.

All of this is making both sellers’ and managers’ jobs harder, more stressed, and more pressured. Zoom meeting fatigue is just the latest log thrown on the fire atop, CRM (e.g., Salesforce, Dynamics), sales engagement (e.g., Outreach, Salesloft), sales enablement (e.g., Highspot, Seismic), lead management (e.g., Pardot, Marketo), social (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook), and more! Application fatigue, keeping current, and running hard to develop and deliver authentic, value-added insights is a grind.

At this most difficult time, it’s important to remember we’re talking about people, not units of quota. If you have not already been checking on the mental wellness of your sellers and managers, it’s time to do begin. If you have been inquiring about their level of stress, providing flexibility and connection, and linking their efforts with making a difference–not simply making a number–keep going.

And as you think of your sales/manager athletes, think of this not as an unending, or even yearlong marathon. Instead, picture a series of sprints (clear, near-term, focused initiatives) with rest and recovery periods figured in.


[1] “Defining Sales Management’s Value,” Sales Management Association, July 2021.

[2] Created by UNcrushed and The Sales Health Alliance, in partnership with The Harris Consulting Group, AA-ISP and Sales for the Culture.


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