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How to Promote a Sales Rep to Team Lead

Great performers often turn into great managers–but that doesn’t mean your top rep should automatically get the new team lead role. The reps who reach 95% of their quota also have the potential to be great people leaders. That’s why team lead roles are perfect for deciding whether a sales rep has the right qualities to be a manager. 

The team lead role is also a great way for individual contributors to decide if they like being a manager, before diving in. Since this person hasn't actually been promoted to manager yet, being a team lead is a trial run for you to observe their performance–and for them to figure out if being a leader is right for them.

Establish an even playing field

All candidates should meet certain criteria before they’re allowed to throw their hat in the ring. Of course, they need to have consistently high performance, but at the same time, they also need to demonstrate that they can lead a team. 

Here are my top 3 criteria for reps to meet before I’ll interview them for a team lead role:

  1. They’ve been at the company, and in a sales role, for a minimum amount of time
  2. They demonstrate high performance averaged out over a 6 or 12 month period 
  3. They’re in good standing with the company and have no HR or behavioral challenges

Typically I expect a candidate to be at the company for a minimum of 2 years with at least 12 months in a selling role. When I average out their quota attainment over that 12 month period, I want them to achieve 100% of their target.  

Once you have your set of candidates who meet these requirements, you level the playing field. Moving forward, everyone’s ticket is equal. It doesn’t matter if one rep hits 175% of their goal and another only reaches 105% of their goal. They’ve both earned the right to try for the role. 

Because being good at your sales job doesn’t mean that you’ll pass the overall assessment. Communicate this early and often, otherwise you run the risk of losing your best sellers if they feel slighted after losing the promotion.

Streamline your interview process

Have each candidate go through the exact same interview process, including meeting with the same interviewers and working on the same case study. The case study should ask candidates to coach a rep through a specific scenario. Look for a detailed answer that helps you identify what their base level is for non-sales tasks. 

Do they write well and double check their work? Did they include detailed evidence? How much time and effort did they put into delivering their answer? Observe how well they communicate problems and solutions to their employees. Some conversations will be hard, like when firing someone. Find out if they’re ready for this kind of relationship with their peers.  

Recommendations from teammates 

Ask each person for 1 or 2 personal recommendations from their peers, excluding other candidates for the role. As a VP or director, you can’t see the nuanced interactions of your reps in the day to day. These recommendations will help you understand what’s happening on a deeper level. 

A recommendation can come from a new hire, for example. Perhaps they give feedback that the candidate went out of their way to help with onboarding and answering questions. On the other hand, a more tenured teammate might talk about how the candidate offered to talk through a sticky client situation and helped come up with a solution. 

Hire for the right reasons

At the end of the day, only one person will make the decision on who gets the job. Interviewers and peers can give their opinions but, ultimately, this isn’t a consensus driven decision. Someone has to hold the baton and make the call. 

I’ve made the wrong call twice because I went with the consensus opinion. People tend to revert back to the easy metrics, like performance and reaching quota, when analyzing their options. As the decision maker, you’re responsible for ensuring you have a diverse team of leaders. You also may be the only one with privileged information about the future of other reps and managers in the sales organization. 

Having one decision maker also addresses the problem of friends advocating for each other over other candidates. If a cohort of 5 people start out as reps together, and two move into management, they’ll advocate for the other three people to join them. The decision maker has to take a step back and make the best decision for the company. 

Once you’ve picked a candidate, spend a lot of time with the people who didn’t get the promotion. I recommend giving them detailed feedback so they understand what held them back and where they can improve. If you’ve built a company with a culture of feedback, nothing should be a huge surprise since you’ve coached them frequently over time. 

Get some skin in the game

Don’t rip team leads out of their sales role immediately. Becoming a team lead is a test pilot, completed over 3 to 6 months, for both the rep and your company. If the team lead finds they don’t like the role or you decide they’re not ready yet, they should have some pipeline to go back to without starting over from scratch. 

These are 3 stages to transitioning a sales rep into a team lead: 

  • Stage 1 - Reduce quota to 75% and turn off new leads and account assignments. 
  • Stage 2 - Reduce quota to 50% and add in a new 50% quota based on team performance. 
  • Stage 3 - Reduce quota to 25% with 75% of their compensation based on team performance.  

When a rep is promoted from IC to manager right away, they usually spend their first 2 months on the job giving away their opportunities and helping reps close deals. They’re so focused on finishing out their remaining sales tasks, that they don’t use their management muscles, leaving them unprepared for when their pipeline runs out. 

Use the ramp period to observe 

The team lead role is so important because it gives you time to observe the person in action–before making them responsible for the careers of 10 account executives. Meet with them every month and assess how they’ve performed so far. Make sure that their managers and reps have a chance to give feedback too. There are 3 themes to observe during a ramp period.

Theme 1 - Can they coach their team and improve performance?  

  • Can the team lead look at sets of data and derive insights from the information? 
  • Are they able to make decisions about next steps using this data?
  •  Do they regularly review the team’s pipeline and prompt reps to fill out the right fields?
  • Can they communicate why CRM hygiene is directly connected to hitting quota? 
  • Are they listening in, critiquing, and coaching their reps on sales calls? 
  • Can they guide reps on how to improve their sales tactics and win more?

Theme 2 - Can they support an individual? 

  • Have they scheduled regular 1:1s with each rep? 
  • Do they make time for general check-ins on how their reps' lives are going, like a coffee walk?
  • Are they building the emotional muscle to get people to open up to them and talk through problems?

Theme 2 will tell you if someone is going to work out or not. Ideally, you’ll get regularly scheduled updates from their manager about the new team lead’s day-to-day performance. If anyone is having a bad experience with the team lead, you’ll find out quickly.

Theme 3 - Can they lead a team?

  • Do they show executive presence with their team? 
  • Have they built mutual respect with their reps? 
  • Do they communicate well and regularly check-in with everyone? 
  • Do they plan fun team events and bring everyone together to celebrate good months?  

Be there to offer support

Finally, provide your new team lead with a strong support system, including coaching or even management classes. Make yourself available for real time advice and guidance on how to become a successful people leader. 

Are you a sales rep vying for a team lead role? Read up on how one rep prepared for the role (hint: if you want to be a leader, start acting like one now), plus her top 5 tips for aspiring team leads. 

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