16 Detrimental Traits of a Bad Sales Leader

Dreamforce brought its largest crowd ever and with it a wealth of knowledge, experience and wisdom.  As part of the immersion, we learned numerous lessons and traits about what makes a great sales leader.  I’m sure there will be significant resources and content afterward.  Strong sales leadership, including new revenue, account management, retention, and inside sales teams are critical for scalable and sustainable growth.  I salute those sales leaders who lead their rainmakers!

What I didn’t hear much about were minefield traits that were detrimental to an organization.  The pains for an organization not dealing with these include:

  • Poor communication / confusion
  • Loss in revenue / retention
  • Decreasing or negative margins
  • Decreasing productivity / morale
  • High turnover of top talent

After working with some 400 sales leaders in various capacities and sales force sizes as well as brainstorming with numerous attendees from Dreamforce, we came up with a list.  Here are 16 traits that should be red flags for a CEO or employees about a sales leader.  They are in order of progressively worse and unlikely to change. Let the countdown begin!

16. Lacking in industry knowledge – As a new hire, sales reps and leaders may not necessarily know the industry and in most circumstances, it’s not an issue.  What does become a problem is a refusal or lack of on-going learning.  There are various aspects of the space that the sales leaders should be keeping up on and convey intelligently… competitive & partner landscape, innovation, marketing, product and of course the pain points and value propositions.  If you’re sales leader can’t articulate them, how will your reps internalize them for their genuine conversations?

15. Thrashing – The concept describes when someone tries to jam a concept, tool, or process into an organization without true understanding.  This happens a great deal with technology (CRM) and new processes (Social Selling).  Usually this is solved with a good consultant or good practice, however, repeated thrashing without goals by a sales leader causes enormous drain on resources and focus.

14. Broken Record – This came up a lot.  Some CEOs will dismiss this as consistency. However, when a sales leader applies the same phrases to every situation internally or externally, it is a symptom of a deeper issue.  Either the leader is inexperienced, unable to transition from rep to leader or hasn’t taken the time to learn the ecosystem of the organization and marketplace.  I’ve heard sales reps basically repeating word for word what their sales lead would say to them every quarter.  It had no impact on their behavior nor their numbers. Sales leadership training has solved this in the past, but usually role playing with other execs helps.  Denial or deflection on fixing this is a huge red flag.

13. Whitepaper Syndrome – Whitepapers generally contain great content and thought leadership. The trend has been ‘less is more’ with whitepapers which leaves a reader with highlights, but little details or plans.   These highlights are great for general discussion or communicating to clients, but not enough information to launch new initiatives.  If you’re seeing thrashing occur with what you might also be reading in whitepapers, ask about the finer points of the plan and KPIs for that change management initiative.  Immediate No/BS answer = Red Flag.

12. Deflector – One of the best skills of a good sales person is deflection. Turning an objection or unanswerable question into a new thread of discussion is highly beneficial when steering a prospect to the positive points of your solution.   Also, for a leader, leveraging deflection internally can help smooth over the volatility that may occur in the quarter to quarter review of the pipeline. However, if you’re seeing declines or a decrease in growth year after year, it’s time to consider if those deflection skills are bearing toward you.  I was once working with a CEO on investigating ways to scale their organization’s growth.  Their sales EVP, who was overseeing the waning growth of the company, regularly blamed his team for the companies failing numbers. So I asked him what he’s done to help improve his teams skill set, reorganize or change his team, as he had given me an impression that he ‘ran’ the company.  His next response was, ‘well our marketing effort needs more attention’, after telling me a few days earlier that he didn’t believe in marketing and the company was experiencing double digit growth prior to his joining.  Only deflection after deflection. Needless to say this EVP was fired and replaced whereby growth returned to its normal trajectory.  This one is a grey area, so just make sure those skills aren’t detracting from the long-term issues.

11. Approval seeker – If a sales leader wants to be a friend to their team in lieu of being a boss… its a red flag.  Don’t get me wrong, a good rapport with the team is critical, but not at the expense of good leadership.

10. CRM Denial – More than once, I’ve consulted organizations where CRM was part of thier own offering and either the sales leader didn’t even understand or refused to learn, how to use CRM, even for pipeline management.  CRM is more than just enforcing good record keeping. When deployed properly it helps an organization understand its revenue generation capabilities.  Have a sales leader who feels CRM is unnecessary or unwilling to learn?  The situation speaks for it self.

9. Vacationeer – Top line number down, sales team adrift, no plan, sales leader taking more vacations than the team?  Need I say more?

8. Self-centered –  The most common instance of self-centered sales leader is making themselves look good at the expense of others, downplay their reps efforts or have a low emotional quotient. You might think this is more a detrimental trait on the list. What we had found, was that many reps that were recently promoted to managers.  They needed more training, guidance and mentoring in their new role. The trait you want do want not confuse is being self-aware, a far more beneficial trait for any leader.

7. Unaccountable – You can’t manage or forecast what you don’t measure.  This goes for the sales leader or how they manage the team. Sales leaders who celebrate and reward activity over results was high on our list, but definitely something trainable.

6. Micro-Manager – Sales leaders empower, enable and inspire.

5. Removed – A number of folks at Dreamforce described that it’s becoming more common that failing sales leaders are distant or isolated during crisis situations.  They take more vacations, work from home more often or are in denial about what’s happening around them.   Some believed this was due to a confidence problem.  This is higher on the list because in these situations you want your sales leader to lean in not step back.

The Final Four

Down to the four most detrimental and difficult to change.  When the sales leaders with these attributes were removed, the change resulted in significantly improved margins, increased bookings, lowered turnover and increased productivity.

4. Class clown – Regular use of humor to replace the seriousness of poor performance harms the team’s need to internalize the nature of a situation and prioritize appropriately.  An attempt to gain favor of the team in these situations tends to be a red flag on whether sales leader has anything else to offer.

3. Indecisiveness – The worst decision is indecision.  Sure not every single decision will be the right one, but to be in limbo for too long weighs on a team and the opportunity to find the right direction.

2. Insecurity – This covers a lot of sins.  Insecurity in any leader or manager is a problem. When we found evidence of this trait in any sales leader in an organization,  they had many of the others on this list.   The easiest way to spot this trait is watch for the constant ‘one-upping’ others.  Another is constantly playing it safe.  The best sales leaders strike a great balance of vision and pragmatism.

1. Passive aggressiveness – The culture killer. Requires immediate action/removal.  This behavior is harder to catch but one of the most insidious of all the traits here. Here’s a great piece the passive-aggressive organization I’ve archived by HBR.

Tell us, how would you change this list?  Any cases where you’ve seen a turn around when these traits were mitigated?