For every dozen sales professionals, there are only one or two who advance their career to the next level, growing into a sales leader.
So what is the trend among the few who grow their careers from individual sales contributor to leader?
As someone who’s grown from an Inside Sales Consultant with absolutely no technical experience in sales to my most recent role as VP of Sales for Zillow Group Rentals, I have spent nearly a decade hiring hundreds of sales professionals and developing a handful of those hired into leadership positions and beyond.
Traits of a successful sales leader
While there isn’t one path, personality, or playbook to grow a career beyond individual contributor (IC), there are several consistent traits demonstrated by the most successful sales leaders.
1. Work ethic
If you don’t work hard, no one will want to work for you or with you.
Leaders must set the example for their team, and the most fundamental skill to exemplify is a commitment to working hard. As a sales contributor, this means stringing together five days of full effort each week, all year.
One of my mentors set this example by always being the first person to greet our team in the morning and the last person to say goodbye at night. In their parting words, this leader sold the next day’s opportunity and personally connected with each team member. By showing up at the day’s book-end meetings, this leader inspired the whole team to put in the full day; it was hard to let them down.
When there is an opportunity to cut corners, future leaders separate themselves from ICs by rolling up their sleeves and finding a way to get more out of the time they have been given. In most cases, these successful few can do the work in less time, yet they choose to work the full day and in turn get stronger results because of their work ethic. It’s no wonder that sales professionals with a lousy work ethic won’t get promoted or excel in that expanded role.
Learners are earners, and those that grow their careers always keep their learning caps on.
People who grow their careers keep pushing themselves to evolve, learn, and adapt. Professional curiosity shows up when teammates evaluate how they operate, how they could be better, and look for ways to continue to improve. The most curious teammates make improvement and growth contagious, thus creating a culture of change. They frequently shoot out podcast recommendations, quote recent articles, or ask what people’s thoughts are on current book topics.
This thirst for learning and tenacity to absorb all the knowledge that exists around them makes everyone else more engaged. Curiosity is best demonstrated by teammates who invest in learning throughout their careers in the same fashion one would study for a university degree. So ask yourself, what are you looking to learn today? Where are you challenged in your skillset, and how will you transform that challenge into a strength?
Great sales professionals follow a repeatable, scalable process.
Successful sales leaders follow a repeatable process to ensure consistent, and predictable sales results. Consistency in sales results shows that you have ownership in time management, sales funnel strategy, prioritization, and accountability. This skill is applicable as a leader, and if you fail to demonstrate it in your role today, then there is a slim chance someone will believe you can show it with your direct reports’ careers and overall business performance on the line.
Consistency is also demonstrated by how you choose to show up each day. The best leaders stay consistent and encourage others to do so as well, even on their bad days. This neutral mindset doesn’t mean you can’t be tired or stressed; it just means the best sales professionals and leaders realize there is no value in showing up with highs or lows for themselves, their team, or teammates.
The best of the best want to continue to get better and raise the bar.
To get better, you must be open to coaching, feedback, and criticism. That means finding the value and the gift in feedback. Often, when someone is being coached, they get defensive or begin to explain themselves instead of listening for the real advantage in the feedback which provides a roadmap for how they can improve. Every time someone reacts to coaching with defense or explanation, they scream (metaphorically) that they do not want to grow.
An incredible leader reserves space in each one-on-one meeting with their team to ask for feedback on a specific topic or recent event. This practice provides a roadmap for growth and development that is clear and actionable and translated into a propelled career journey.
If you’re going to grow in your career, take the coaching and respond by saying thank you exclusively moving forward. This response will inevitably help you get better, not worse.
No matter your personality or style, you can only be truly successful when you embrace yourself and the things that make you unique.
Whether you are outgoing, introverted, data-oriented, or intuitive, you can be a leader, but you must maintain your authenticity. Trying to be anyone you are not will result in distrust with your team. There is no other you, so you need to ramp up your unique talents, skills, and approach.
I once had a serious teammate with a dry sense of humor, who tried sending out large-font, cheery, motivational emails before the annual review season. This person did this to echo their manager’s communication style.
The effort and tone were so off-brand for this teammate it became clear to the team that their action was fake and selfishly motivated. This teammate thought they needed to send these cheesy emails to show that they were ready to advance into a new role. Instead, this effort slowed their career path to leadership and injured their professional brand.
Your organization doesn’t need a clone of another leader; they want the exceptional, diverse talent only you can add to the leadership team.
The best teammates set a high bar for themselves and raise it for others, creating contagious enthusiasm.
To be promotable, you must constantly challenge yourself to achieve more. These types of leaders and sales professionals are never satisfied with the achievement; they thirst for what the goal will be. The best teammates I have worked with set goals that are almost unrealistic, they push themselves further.
Surpassing goals is simply a mile marker in the journey of what is to be a monumental career journey. To earn the opportunity to lead, you must be motivated, which will translate into being motivational when you make the career jump. Swing big, own every opportunity, and see just how far you can stretch yourself.
Show up today
Now knowing what the common traits of the successful are, you may be asking yourself: what’s next? No one starts embodying the characteristics detailed above on day one.
To get promoted and experience continuous career growth, these traits must show up daily in your actions long before. It starts with committing to the extra work today to grow your career from sales professional to sales leader.
If you can hit targets consistently now, it is easy to imagine leading a team to achieve targets consistently in the future. If you continue to grow and learn today, it is easy to see you fostering a growth mindset in your team. To get promoted, you need to model how you will show up as a leader in your role today.