How to Make the Leap From Sales Rep to Manager
Job performance isn’t everything. Here’s what you can do to prepare yourself for a manager role.
Tom Slocum thought he’d be a shoo-in for the sales development rep manager role at his company the first time he applied. As one of the top-performing sales reps on the team, he assumed it was the logical next step in his career. He thought his passion and success as a rep made him a perfect fit to lead the team even though he was just 25 years old at the time. He even had visions of creating a team of fiery sales reps just like himself.
“I was glad I didn’t get it when I did because I wasn’t ready and I had to learn that.”
His managers saw it differently. They saw an inexperienced rep who let his emotions get the best of him. If he had a bad day, his moping would rub off on the rest of the team. He was not ready to lead and they told him as much.
It took four rejections over a year and a half before Slocum realized he needed to change if he wanted to become a manager.
5 TIPS TO MAKE THE LEAP FROM REP TO MANAGER
Speak up for the position you want.
Start acting like a leader on your team.
Find a mentor for feedback and support.
Take work off your manager’s plate.
Don’t be afraid of rejection.
Looking back on the experience now, six years later, and through the prism of his current role as director of sales enablement at Milestone, Slocum is grateful for those rejections. The fact that he wanted to create a team of “Toms” was proof enough that he wasn’t ready to manage, Slocum said laughing.
“I was glad I didn’t get it when I did because I wasn’t ready and I had to learn that,” Slocum said. “Sometimes we get too eager that this is the next step in a progression. With the right people around you, it’s OK to hear ‘no.’”
He also needed time to learn that personal success doesn’t equate to being a great leader. But there are steps you can take as an individual contributor to develop those leadership skills.
Speak Up for What You Want
When Gabrielle Blackwell saw the job posting for a business development rep (BDR) manager role at her company, Cloudability, her initial thought was: “I can do that.” Her next thought was wondering why no one had reached out to her about the opening.
Three months earlier, Blackwell had told the new VP of sales that she would be interested in the role should one open up. She thought someone would ask her about interviewing. When no one did, she realized she’d need to take matters into her own hands.
So, she typed up an email summarizing her experience and the vision she had for the BDR team. A week later, she got the job.
Blackwell’s experience underscored two important lessons she learned earlier in her career when it comes to job growth. The first was to speak up for the job you want. You can’t just assume working hard will get you noticed, said Blackwell, who is now a sales development manager at Gong. If a manager doesn’t know you’re interested in an opportunity, they’re not going to think of you.
“If you’re coming from a demographic that is typically overlooked, you have to recognize the fact that you could be overlooked and start to create strategies to grab people’s attention.”
This is especially true if you don’t look like the people managing you, Blackwell said. People tend to hire and promote others who look like themselves, consciously or unconsciously. In sales leadership, that’s traditionally cisgender white males. As a woman of color, Blackwell knows that she won’t always be the first person who comes to mind for promotions.
“If you’re coming from a demographic that is typically overlooked, you have to recognize the fact that you could be overlooked and start to create strategies to grab people’s attention,” Blackwell said.
But it’s also important to share your intentions to become a manager with key decision-makers before the position opens up.
At Cloudability, Blackwell reached out to the VP of sales as soon as he joined the company. She sent him an email highlighting her interest in a manager role, along with insights into some of the growth opportunities within the company and how she could help him.
“People think if you work really hard, things will work out, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You have to network, build the right connections and build credibility,” Blackwell said. “It’s like prospecting. I want to stay top of mind, deliver value and demonstrate my credibility and relevance.”
That email wouldn’t work for every manager, Blackwell said. You have to understand how your manager likes to be communicated with and tailor your message to them. Some managers may prefer an in-person meeting, others might want the rep to focus only on their role. The key is to establish a connection and stay top of mind.
Once you do that, you’re able to follow up on that conversation when an opportunity becomes available.
“That’s what gave me a shot in the interview process, but that’s not what got me the job,” Blackwell said
Start Acting Like a Leader on Your Team
One of the most important lessons Slocum had to learn before he could become a manager was that his approach wasn’t the only way to succeed in sales.
Slocum held himself to a high standard as a sales rep. He didn’t want to just reach his quota, he wanted to crush it. That worked for him, but he also expected everyone else to have the same mentality and would get mad if they came up short.
“I wanted them to be just like me and my way is the highway,” he said. “That just rubs people wrong.”
Slocum isn’t the only rep to have this shortcoming.
It’s common for top performers to assume their approach is the only way to succeed, but that only sets them up for failure as managers. The best managers understand each person’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to put them in the best position to succeed.
Slocum suggests joining sales communities like RevGenius and being curious about your colleagues’ approach. Observe the top performers and take notes on what they do well. Have one-on-ones with your peers to learn about why they sell and how they approach the job.
“You’ll see there is no secret formula and once you can wrap your head around that, you learn that you can’t replicate yourself,” Slocum said.
Pay extra attention to the low performers, he added. Take the time to learn from them and provide mentorship. Your success as a manager will be measured by how well you can boost the performance of those employees.
“It starts off with having a genuine desire to see other people be successful. You don’t need to have a manager title to lead that way.”
It also helps to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, Blackwell said. If you thrive at cold calling prospects, but your colleagues rely on email, find ways to improve your email outreach to stay relevant to your team. Take a workshop on the topic, for example. Or look at internal data to identify who does email outreach best and learn from them.
Blackwell also recommends finding ways to facilitate learning within the team. Unlike an individual contributor, a manager’s job is to shine the spotlight on other people. While it can be tempting to lead every training, it’s more effective to support others to present on a topic they specialize in.
The more you can help your colleagues succeed and develop, the better you’ll become as a manager.
“It starts off with having a genuine desire to see other people be successful,” Blackwell said. “You don’t need to have a manager title to lead that way.”
Find a Mentor for Feedback and Support
The first three times Slocum applied for a manager position at his company, he assumed he was doing everything possible to earn the role. It wasn’t until his fourth rejection that he realized he might be missing something.
So, he stopped trying to get the role as fast as possible, and instead, sought help.
“I asked them, ‘What can I do? What’s the big holdup?’’ Slocum said. “They told me, ‘It’s not your numbers, it’s not what you do for the team. It’s your emotional response. You have to own that before you can get into this.’”
Slocum credits his decision to seek mentorship as the turning point in his journey to become a manager. His mentors helped him understand how to keep his emotions in check and would even take him out of the office to vent.
“They told me, ‘It’s not your numbers, it’s not what you do for the team. It’s your emotional response. You have to own that before you can get into this.’”
Mentorship can play a critical role in helping you make the leap from an individual contributor to a manager. While you might be a star sales rep, being a great manager requires learning a completely new skill set. It can be useful to speak with someone who has already made the transition for advice and feedback.
Blackwell has also relied on mentors throughout her career. She credits Kevin Dorsey, PatientPop VP of inside sales, and John Gilman, Confluent VP of sales (west), as two critical resources who have helped her make the transition from individual contributor to manager.
When it comes to finding a mentor, networking groups like Pavilion (previously known as Revenue Collective) connect members with mentors, she said. That’s how she met Gilman.
But don’t be afraid to reach out to someone in your social network who you think can help you. Blackwell spent months following Dorsey’s content and posting on his feed how his insights helped her. Eventually, she messaged him directly asking for advice over a specific challenge.
“I started getting to know him and what he’s really good at and cares most about. [I wanted to know] what can he offer solid advice on?” Blackwell said. “When I ran into a situation where I knew Kevin would be great for this, that’s when I reached out to him.”
Ultimately, making the transition from rep to manager can be jarring. Mentors can help you anticipate the challenges you might face and provide the support system you need to succeed, Blackwell said.
Take Work Off Your Manager’s Plate
One of the best ways to become a manager is to start doing some of the work as a rep.
Slocum recalled a former colleague who was so convincing as a leader that it took him six months to realize he wasn’t a manager. By the time his colleague became a manager, it seemed like a given, Slocum said.
“If you want to be a manager, don’t wait for the title to come to you. Act like one today,” Slocum said. “Don’t be brash in meetings, don’t run your mouth, but behave like [a manager].”
If you’re able to reach your quota consistently every quarter, Slocum recommends taking on additional responsibilities to prepare for the manager role. Slocum would reach his quota by the first half of the month so he could schedule a ride-along with his manager for a day and learn about his role.
“If you want to be a manager, don’t wait for the title to come to you. Act like one today.”
It can also help to anticipate what you can do to take work off the manager’s plate. If Slocum saw his colleagues were struggling with objection handling, he’d research information on the subject, interview people on the team who were good at it and put together a training. He’d also take new hires out for lunch and assist them with their onboarding.
Those tasks don’t just help the team, but they can also help you learn more about the day to day of being a manager. Just don’t let it impact your performance, Slocum said. Make sure you finish your responsibilities before you take on extra work, otherwise, you’ll lose the trust of the manager.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do, however, is to treat your colleagues with respect, Slocum said. If you support their success, people will naturally gravitate toward you as a leader.
“You want it to get to a point where you earned it so well and acted that part that by the time you do go through the process and land the position, the team is like, ‘I thought you were already the manager,’” Slocum said.
Don’t Be Afraid of Rejection
For a long time, Slocum took the rejections personally.
Looking back, he realizes that his managers were protecting him because they knew the role. If they’d have given him the position the first time he applied, he would’ve failed. He had to become a different sales rep to take on the role.
“Who I am today, past people would be like, ‘Holy crap,’” Slocum said.
But he knows that rejection can be difficult to accept for an up-and-coming sales development rep (SDR).
“It’s a crazy journey, but the day [a promotion to manager] finally does come and you really earn it, it’s going to be an amazing feeling.”
In sales, an SDR is often presented with two career paths: account executive or manager. It makes the manager role feel like a direct step once you start reaching your quota, but it’s not, Slocum said. There’s a lot of growth that has to take place.
If you learn from the rejections and focus on being a leader, the role will come. It did for Slocum. A little more than a year later, he joined Reputation.com, where his manager recognized the work he was putting in. Within a month, they tapped him to manage the team.
Slocum knows he wouldn’t be the manager he is today without those initial rejections.
“All I can say is ‘no’ is a good thing,” Slocum said. “It’s a crazy journey, but the day [a promotion to manager] finally does come and you really earn it, it’s going to be an amazing feeling. I can’t tell you how excited I was to finally earn it and get put into that position, and I don’t regret any of it.”
CC: Brian Nordli
August 10, 2021
Updated: August 11, 2021