Onboarding is for sales managers too


“What’s your onboarding program for new sales managers?”

More often than not, this question gets met with blank stares. That’s a pity.

While most companies would agree that sales onboarding is a strategic priority, the focus of their processes is often only —  and myopically — on the field force. It’s time for that to change.

Why you need to onboard sales managers

Back in my consulting days, I worked with a multinational information services company that was seeking to improve sales productivity. I asked the VPs of sales across five different business units: “Can you give me the job description for your first-line sales managers?” Not a single one could.

And it showed. Faced with a lack of training, and ill-defined and inconsistent expectations, managers struggled to maximize their — and their reps’ — effectiveness.

This challenge isn’t unique. Left to their own devices, managers tend to default to two roles: the keeper of the forecast and the “super rep,” who joins calls to take the reins and be the hero. The super-rep role often comes naturally, with many managers having been promoted from being successful reps. But while these managers who simply sell may have some impact, it often comes at the detriment of the field force, which isn’t gaining practical experience when their managers always jump in. Instead, managers’ knowledge and successes are felt exponentially when they’re trained to enable and improve the reps they manage.

Then, the benefits reverberate — improving morale, retention and the bottom line, and often inspiring a future generation of good managers.

Manager onboarding: 3 essential elements

Manager onboarding programs should address three areas:

1.  Manager candidate cultivation. You can — and should — start onboarding high-potential reps before they’re actually promoted to managers. Enroll them in courses a year ahead of time to familiarize them with key managerial aptitudes and responsibilities. You can also tap promising reps to serve as mentors for new hires – giving them advance training on what a mentor should do. Programs such as these provide reps with motivation and a career path, and expose them to what management entails.

2.  Offer a “sales manager academy” onboarding program for new managers. The aim should be to develop awareness and mastery of the five key roles a manager typically needs to play, relative to your corporate strategy, so managers can serve as a:

  • Leader — executing strategy
  • Coach — onboarding new hires; improving existing reps (arguably the most important role for managers)
  • Trainer — supporting learning delivery
  • Recruiter — alongside HR and sales enablement
  • Typical manager — delivering performance reviews, doing reporting, forecasting, etc.

3.  Learning opportunities. Even after the 90-day mark, provide opportunities for ongoing manager learning. Consider a peer-to-peer learning network just for managers to connect them with others with shared experiences. In addition, set aside time during sales leadership meetings for ongoing manager development, and include sessions in annual kick-offs that are specific to the first-line manager role.

It’s also important to use training to get managers well-versed in new areas reps are expected to master. Prior to any new sales initiative or methodology that’s implemented, managers should be exposed to it first, so they can help in the roll-out, coach to it and provide other needed support.

At the aforementioned information services company, for example, managers came to the annual kick-off a day ahead of their reports and went through a day-long leadership development workshop focused on one skill (for example, delegation).

Manager onboarding is a must

One benefit of developing a high-end onboarding program for reps is that it will reduce voluntary turnover. The same holds true for high-end sales manager onboarding programs. For example, my information services client reduced turnover among first- and second-year sales managers by more than 20 percent. Beyond improving retention, this company realized a valuable lesson: in order to enable reps, you need to turn their managers into agents of enablement.

Jim Ninivaggi is the chief readiness officer for Brainshark, Inc. (brainshark.com), a leading sales enablement and readiness solutions provider. Jim has more than 30 years of experience driving B2B sales productivity, and previously led the sales enablement research practice at SiriusDecisions.