The sales industry is in the midst of a serious shift. While sales departments have long been cutthroat, high-pressure environments, more sales leaders are realizing that they don’t need to sacrifice  their team's wellbeing for quota attainment. In fact, countless studies show that when you put people first, the profits will follow

So what does this evolution look like in real life? To learn more about how sales leadership is changing, we spoke to five leaders from organizations with top-ranked sales teams:

Here are their takes on how the sales industry has evolved over their careers and how their leadership approach has changed along with it. 

(P.S. This is part two of our two-part series on sales leadership, culture, and motivation. Check out part one to learn about how these leaders have nurtured a healthy sales culture and sustained seller motivation at their companies.)

Q: How has your approach to sales leadership changed over time? 

More attention to individual needs.

In the past, supporting your sales team meant ensuring they had the right equipment or training to do the job. Now, more leaders are taking their team's mental, physical, and psychological needs into account and making sure they feel excited, engaged, and happy in their roles.

For example, to better understand her team's level of engagement (and how she can support their success), Steph will sit down with each one of them and ask questions like: 

  • How do you feel about the vision of the company? 
  • Are you invested and motivated in our purpose? 
  • How do I support you on the days that you're drained? 
  • How do I help refuel you?

Adds Thomas: "As managers, it's our responsibility to get to know the people on our team and try to understand what they're working towards. And if you understand what someone's definition of success is in five years, you can often work backward to the work they do today and how it will get them there."

More focus on team connection.

Post-COVID, many professionals crave more connection at work—and sales teams are no exception. Pandemic aside, sales roles are often highly individualistic, with sellers working toward owned quotas in owned territories; this can lead to feelings of disconnection from the team and company. 

In a remote work environment, where salespeople don't get to see their clients or coworkers in person, they can feel even more isolated— which can seriously impact their performance. Research shows that this disconnection results in lower job-related knowledge, informal communication, and loyalty to the company.

Supporting employee connection post-COVID isn’t just a challenge for sales leaders—it’s a potentially new concept. It’s something that many weren’t even thinking about a few years ago. 

"Two, three years ago, my entire team was on location. Everybody was in person, and we came to the office every day. I took for granted the ability to see my team or jump into huddle rooms to have conversations without scheduling a meeting," says Odi.

These days, Odi says that keeping his team members engaged and making the workday more interactive is more top-of-mind than it’s ever been in his career.

More vulnerability. 

The days of 'manager knows best' are coming to an end. Instead, we see more leaders owning up to their mistakes and being more vulnerable with their teams. 

For example, Jason says he no longer tries to "put up a facade" and pretend that he has all the answers. Now he's more likely to admit when he's messed up to his team and share what he'll do to resolve the situation.

In addition to being more vulnerable with their teams, Jason suggests that sales leaders build relationships with other sales leaders and be vulnerable with them about what they're going through. 

"[Sales leadership is] a hard job. And you have a lot of people's lives and livelihoods that you can influence in a very positive or negative way. Don't feel like you have to go at it alone," says Jason. 

Fortunately, there are many online communities like RevGenius, Sales Hacker, Thursday Night Sales, and #GirlsClub where sales professionals can connect and talk shop with other industry pros. 

Prioritizing culture creation over performance. 

As many of our leaders learned the hard way, hiring a skilled salesperson who doesn't add to your team's culture can often do more harm than good. 

"I've been guilty of really prioritizing ability over behavior and maybe not pushing back hard enough on red flags that you see during the interview process because a person has exceptional ability to do the job," says Odi. 

Now, Odi says he always places more weight on a candidate's attitude over their aptitude. 

"​​You can always find people to do the work well. I'm passionate about coaching and training people to be even better, but I don't think you can necessarily coach culture. You can't make somebody add to a culture if you see traits that don't align with what you value in the organization," he says.

Q: What are some overall sales leadership trends that you’re noticing?

The increasing importance of soft skills.

You've likely heard the refrain that 'sales is a numbers game.' The more calls you make, the better the results. While this is still true, the modern customer journey is a lot less transactional and a lot more consultative than it used to be. As a result, skills like empathy, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence are now essential to sales success. 

"It's not about, 'You need to make 100 cold calls,' it's 'How do you build relationships?'" says Adam.

He continues: "The recipe for success now is how do I provide value? How do I position myself as an expert in this field? And how can I help my customers find success? It's not about just selling a deal. It's about finding and helping a customer achieve something."

Mental health.

A few short years ago, talking about mental health at work was taboo or frowned upon—especially in a competitive environment like sales. Now more sales leaders understand the link between employee wellness and performance and are doing more to promote healthy behaviors in their team. 

For example, while working from home has plenty of mental health benefits (e.g., more time and location flexibility, no commute), it certainly has its drawbacks. 

"[Remote work] can play a role in adverse mental health because, sometimes, there isn't that disconnect from work," says Odi. "How do you create that work-life balance when you're always at work?"

This is why Odi always lets his team take time off whenever they need it—even if they're working remotely.  

"My people [don’t] need to ask me for permission to take time off. They just need to let me know when they want to do it so we can plan accordingly. I think it's critical that people take care of their mental health, so they're in the best place to deliver their best work," he says.

Q: What are some opinions you have about motivating salespeople that others might not agree with?

Accelerators can enforce harmful behaviors.

Accelerators are financial incentives for sales reps who surpass their targets, such as offering reps an extra 5% on top of their regular commission for every additional 10% in sales they close per quarter. 

These compensation plans can be a helpful way to motivate above-average sellers. Still, they can also lead to the pressure-driven sales tactics that many sales leaders want their teams to unlearn, such as pushing customers to sign by a specific date to lock in their accelerator bonuses. 

"If you're doing your job right, it should be about the customer's timeline and not yours," says Adam. "And it should be about working with that customer to achieve an objective. And if you're aligned, then that's how you get that level of commitment."

Monetary rewards aren't always the best incentives.

Speaking of accelerators, since sales compensation is already commission-based, motivating your sellers with even more monetary rewards doesn't always work as well as you might think. 

"The commission takes care of itself. The more you do, the better you do, and the more money you make. So what can you do differently to incentivize people?" says Odi.

For example, Odi believes that experiences and recognition can be just as important to your salespeople as their comp packages and help them feel more valued and appreciated.

Learn how to incentivize salespeople with experiences.

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'Hire slow, fire fast' doesn't always work. 

Should hiring managers take their time to vet candidates thoroughly and act quickly when somebody is struggling? Absolutely. Unfortunately, this advice becomes problematic when managers don't get to the root of the problem before letting someone go.

Sales is a competitive environment and it isn't for everyone. Still, Adam believes that leaders should spend more time assessing what’s not working and why an employee is underperforming before cutting them loose. 

"It's very easy just to drop people," says Adam. "But if I can see at least the right behavior patterns with a rep, I always lean towards trying to coach them and get them leveled up."

Q: Any final pieces of advice that you would share with other sales leaders about building a strong sales culture and boosting performance?

  • Steph: "Show up how you want them to show up."
  • Thomas: "If you want sustained performance, motivation, and a strong culture, you have to understand each individual on your team and what they want for themselves."
  • Odi: "Invest in your people. The more people feel rewarded and valued, I truly believe it helps make them want to work harder for you and the organization and be better versions of themselves."
  • Jason: "In today's climate, you have to be more self-aware. It's far less about the tactical and more about making sure people like and feel great about what they're doing."
  • Adam: "Take the time to understand—not to sell—but just understand the person. And it goes for sales leaders as well. Listen to your reps to hear what they're saying and use that to improve the team."

A more human approach to sales and sales management

If we had to sum up the changes our sales leaders see in themselves and the industry, in two words, it would be these: more human. Sales—particularly B2B sales—is not a simple transaction but a complex relationship-building process that must factor in a customer's needs, wants, and feelings. And the same should be said for sales management.

Salespeople aren't coin-operated automatons but full human beings with complex motivations and goals. So while some of your people may be happy working from home by themselves, others may be craving the human connection of traditional office life. Some of your reps may love an accelerator bonus, while others would be much happier with a ticket to a local sales conference.

If you want to build a healthier sales culture at your organization, you need to get to know your team members on a deeper level than you may be used to. You can start by simply talking to them more. 

Instead of focusing on day-to-day tasks and quotas during 1:1s and team meetings, make time to learn more about each other. Ask your people about the big things, like their hopes and dreams, and the more minor things, like their hobbies and weekend plans. Simply showing that you care about them beyond the numbers can go a long way in making them feel valued, engaged, and motivated.

(ICYMI: This is part two of our two-part series on sales leadership, culture, and motivation. Check out part one to learn how these leaders have nurtured a healthy sales culture and sustained seller motivation at their companies.)

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