An Appeal To CEOs: Stop Firing Your Sales Teams


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Revenue growth and sales team development don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But, too often, CEOs tend to see it that way.

Maybe that’s why, at companies that struggle with unpredictable sales results and low employee satisfaction rates, the solution always seems to be the same: fire the chief sales officer and the sales staff.

Most of the time companies would do better to develop their existing talent. Unfortunately, CEOs sometimes do dysfunctional things, especially when they’re under pressure to produce quick results. They have to think short-term and fall into the conventional wisdom that time spent developing staff means missing out on potential revenue today.

But that logic is flawed. Corporate trainers have been bamboozling CEOs for decades, convincing them that you can't get quick results and develop staff at the same time.

I’m calling foul on that.

The best kind of coaching for sales teams is often in systematically building up skill sets needed while in pursuit of hitting current targets. It’s different than other kinds of staff development, where employees are cloistered in a classroom to absorb generalized knowledge that will elevate their path, but not necessarily the current quarter’s performance.

It really is possible—and arguably more effective—to build sales capability while working on meeting current business goals. That’s because the best way to develop a sales team is to put them to work on specific, real-world challenges.

With close coaching, this approach can elevate a team’s performance immediately. CEOs don’t have to compromise on the next revenue targets, as long as sales staff get the mentoring, support, engagement and overall morale boost they often sorely need.

Let’s say your company is entering a new market, and that’s the basis for a projection of a 20% increase in sales this year.  You might coach your sales staff that each person needs to create 10 face-to-face contacts with new prospects in that new market. And then, watch. Those that are great at building those relationships will shine, and those who do not will reveal themselves. This is where the coaching needs to happen.

Through weekly check-ins, managers can address gaps or shortcomings in a specific skill that would be required to make a strong face-to-face impression, while also ensuring that current business challenges are being met.

A sales operation that works

Breaking it down this way into manageable, teachable moments will allow for systematic improvement that builds on itself.

Executive leaders tend to believe that selling is simple, when really it is one of the most complex operations. The worst executives think sales problems can be fixed by firing an “ineffective” team and bringing in star outside hires.

But in practice, this rarely works. Those available outside hires are not the “A” players they appear to be; otherwise they would already be working for someone else.

How should a CEO go about building a healthier, more productive sales team? Here are four levers to pull:

Change the mindset: Leaders need to develop a different mindset toward the sales group as a whole, making clear that it is a treasured asset whose people they want to nurture, retain and develop. Rather than hitting the panic button and reaching for outside hires, CEOs need to invest more in training and mentoring to develop their own sales talent. A team that is treated in a way that’s overly transactional will fail.

Focus on development: Not so long ago, it wasn’t uncommon for new sales staff at large, successful companies, such as IBM or General Electric, to go through a year-long development program before they could so much as speak to a customer. These days, they are lucky to get a week or two of orientation before being thrown onto the front lines. It’s hardly surprising that many struggle. It is important for CEOs to provide training and resources to set their sales team up for success. That means systems, accountability, transparency and coaching on the job.

At the beginning of any year, a large proportion of sales is effectively already locked in. It’s the remaining 20% or so that is the challenge. CEOs should direct their sales team to execute on filling that gap, helping them develop the specific skills they need while taking that next hill.

Provide mentorship: CEOs should also recognize that sales is not an easy job and invest more in staff mentoring and support. Sales staff need to stay on top of a changing competitive environment, develop strong relationships with customers, and create solutions that are win-wins for their company and their clients. Make sure they understand the strategy. Make sure they understand the market as well as you do. Feed them with research and conversation. They need to internalize the concepts.

Deploy talent smartly: Often, the most underutilized resources for providing strong mentorship are front-line sales managers. CEOs tend to view them predominantly as sales forecasters, tying them up in endless meetings, crunching numbers on spreadsheets and producing sales reports. Instead, CEOs should view sales managers as their ultimate talent developers. These experienced sales hands can be developed into player/coaches, systematically improving everyone around them.

We’ve all seen it happen 100 times: Those CEOs who invest to develop their sales teams in the field, in real-world situations, will create an outstanding sales culture, and revenues will rise in tandem with sales staff engagement and satisfaction.

It's the job of the gatekeeper to protect their leader's time and attention, but with a few techniques and honest communication, we've found that gatekeepers will admit nearly anyone. To learn these techniques, download and share this set of performance cards. 

About the Author

Randy Illig

Randy Illig is the Global Practice Leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice and the co-author of Let’s Get Real Or Let’s Not Play. With more than 25 years of experience ranging from direct sales and general manager to successful entrepreneur, CEO and board member, Randy leads the global sales performance practice team as we help our clients build high performance sales and sales leadership teams. Randy is a former recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, the Ernst & Young “CEO Under 40” award, and the Arthur Andersen Strategic Leadership Award.

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