We are in the midst of a fundamental change of the sales profession in the age of the well-informed buyer. How can sales and marketing navigate across their buying journeys instead of sticking to old sales cycles? How to operate in the sandwich between top level and your teams while delivering KPIs and developing people?
The typical dilemma of a sales and marketing leader is the position in the middle to serve the needs of the ecosystem. Delivering KPIs for the top leadership level, coaching and mentoring the team towards achieving those KPIs, serving customers by escalation support and fighting the internal, often political battles to get that all aligned while others care about the culture. If the requested KPIs are purely based on revenue, more sustainable elements are coming short. Leading from the middle is often a reality of many losses with few wins.
As many companies still operate their sales and marketing structure in the same way as earlier in this decade, the buying behaviour of customers changed drastically. The informed buyers reach out to potential providers only in the last mile of the buying journeys. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) defined this moment at 57% of the time between acknowledging a problem and implementation of the new solution. That was in 2011’s publication of the book “The Challenger Sale”, today the trend is going towards 80%. Aligning sales processes accordingly starts at the middle level and is later validated by top management.
This important leadership section exists in smaller companies as well as in large corporations. Companies with branch offices and overseas locations add a further complexity with regional management positions such as Asia Pacific out of Singapore or even Australian cities like Sydney or Melbourne. Those leaders operating between country interests and the regional head office are often perceived too far away from reality.
On top of that, those leading sales and marketing at the same time live and breathe another tension field where marketing often comes too short. With two separate managers, both areas are often competing against each other. As marketing talks to an audience and sales to individuals, only a holistic view and aligned KPIs embraces the rarely known “SMARKETING”. This approach combines those two flavours from lead generation to closing.
In order to be successful in the middle, certain skills and experience are needed to motivate the teams wisely towards common goals while playing an integral part in developing the culture. Spending several years in an international sales management role overseeing within a European region, here are my top ten qualities needed within middle leaders.
1. Communicating: Placed in between all stakeholders, great communication skills are needed to actively listen and influence accordingly. Often those roles require to be an active filter in between to ensure only relevant content is communicated down the line so that the teams in the field can concentrate on doing their client focused work. On the other side, a translation from market reality to corporate politics upwards is needed as well.
2. Curious: The best way to survive in the middle with success is to be curious towards all sides. Like a spider is sitting within the net, the middle leader enjoys the right distance towards other internal roles, top management as well as customers and partners. Genuine curiosity into those mentioned roles paired with empathy and a lifelong learning mentality are the winning ingredients to further encourage the team members.
3. Connecting: The old Nokia slogan “connecting people” is important in this middle management section. Leading sales and marketing teams requires building long lasting relationships with various internal and external stakeholders. Adopting personality profiling right at the first encounter from Myer-Briggs to DISC helps to connect truly to the other side and to refer further within the enhanced network applying a “givers gain” mentality.
4. Contributing: The top leadership level and the teams at the bottom often see the middle managers purely as messengers for their material towards the other side. On the contrary, I see the role are rather contributing with own views and content. Especially when the KPIs are set in a different way between those teams, it is critical to answer “what’s in it for me” for each level and then align them together as close as possible.
5. Challenging: Given the mentioned changes on the sales side, it is the duty of the sales leader to challenge old processes and adopt to the new reality. Managing marketing and sales separately leads to an exclusive “us against them” approach. Keeping sales reps solely measured on revenue excludes modern KPIs such as Net Promoter Score which has the end customer satisfaction in mind. The sales leader must challenge that!
6. Coaching & Mentoring: The sales and marketing manager develops the team using a situational choice of coaching and mentoring activities. When I moved up from an individual sales position to a sales manager, I realised the variety of needs to bring the organisation forward. Given the geographical distance, I needed to develop my own virtual leadership styles without regular face to face meetings or formal mentoring programs in place.
7. Change agents: Nothing is so consistent in sales and marketing as change — and that doesn’t come in circles to return to an earlier experienced pattern. “When buyers change how they buy, sellers must change how they sell”, as mentioned by Graham Hawkins in his book “The Future of the Sales Profession”. The sales and marketing leader in the middle is the first to adopt as an active change agent with endurance towards all directions.
8. Creativity: Most international organisations prescribe how their country teams have to execute strategies top down. Creativity paired with clever communication skills are the only way to adopt a central idea into a country reality. As an example, Australian customers immediately recognise strategies developed for the US and are often reluctant to follow them. The middle managers won’t be successful without being creative in their sandwich level.
9. Cultural interested: A genuine way to drive this middle leadership section is applying an honest interest into the cultural background of the team members with the attempt to combine the benefits and include all members into a fruitful outcome. While the trend towards globalisation might turn into similar behaviours, in reality an appreciation of the cultural diversity towards common team values provides better outcomes.
10. Client oriented: What I learned from Carly Fiorina at the beginning of my career at HP, is still valid:
“The customer defines a job well done.”
Especially given the mentioned changes on the buying side, it is important to apply all the qualities above in the interaction with prospects and clients. It is the role of the middle leaders in sales and marketing to ensure the offered services suit the needs of prospects and existing customers.
Leading from the middle is a true challenge but can be very rewarding by bringing the organisation forward and influence the individual teams towards future success. Leaders should develop all mentioned qualities and be careful not to be “eaten” in this sandwich level.
About the author: Gunnar Habitz helps Small Business professionals to improve their Personal Branding and Social Selling capabilities. In his role as partnership manager at Australian software vendor Noggin, he uses these skills to build successful channels using Noggin Risk Management Software. As a Chartered Manager at the Institute of Managers and Leaders (IML), he mentors the next generation of leaders. Find more content about leadership, networking and sales excellence on www.gunnarhabitz.com.au.
First published on the IML blog. Photo: Shutterstock