How you manage makes a difference

Tim Houlihan

Dispensing with sales manager myths

What’s your sales manager mythology?

In a recent conversation with a sales vice president, he noted that leadership is not about being engaged, it’s about the willingness to take risks. He was talking about his sales managers.

Most of us are not natural risk-takers, but we’re cool with calculated risks. Bad risks can land you in trouble with your firm, your customers and even the law. The fuel for real growth in your team and your numbers is taking risks to step outside the sales manager’s comfort zone.

What sales managers can do, part I:
Be the person you want your reps to be

A 20-year study was conducted with residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to understand how happiness and heart attacks connect in the real world. The research, completed in 2003, details how happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends).1 The same model applies in the workplace. The disposition of the sales manager extends to the reps and to the customers.

If you want sticky customer relationships and to differentiate your brand by great service, you need to cascade a culture of recognition, support and risk-taking from the top. What you do and say will end up impacting your customers by way of your reps. You can build a great brand in your territory that differentiates you from the competition just by treating your reps with respect and recognizing their efforts. Dispense with the myth of fear motivation — it backfires on you.

What sales managers can do, part II:
Be careful with peer comparisons

Another sales manager mythology is that reps born by fire will rise like the Phoenix. But that’s not what really happens. Depending on the experience and confidence of the rep making the presentation, the effect could help them sprout wings or simply be a hot, fiery mess.

Near the end of the 19th century, a researcher noticed that cyclists on a cycling team rode faster when other cyclists were present. Not competing, just present on the track. In his paper, he noted the presence of someone else “serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.”2 That was revolutionary in 1898, but it’s been carefully studied in recent years and the results are more nuanced.

In modern studies3, we see that people who are particularly adept at a certain skill thrive when they are in front of peers. However, when newbies are placed in the same situation, they lose confidence and their progress is slowed.

The same is true with stack ranking. While the tenured, high-performing reps enjoy being at the top of the list, new reps can be easily disillusioned. Dispense with the myth of stack rankings.

What you can do

The point is not to put sales reps in risky situations, but for you — the sales manager — to risk stepping out of the mythological safety box of doing things the same way as you’ve always done them. Empower an ecosystem for personal and professional growth through recognition and good coaching. Avoid pitting newbies against tenured, successful reps and stop rank-ordering reps at every turn. Step out of the sales manager’s mythological comfort zone and give the reps a better chance at success.

Tim Houlihan is an evangelist of applied behavioral economics with more than 25 years of experience in product development, training, sales leadership and marketing strategy. His consultancy is based on authentic, empathetic and insightful business partnership to help clients ask the next question. Tim can be reached at

1   Fowler, J. and Christakis, N., “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study,” British Medical Journal, 2004.
2   Tripplett, N., “Social Psychology,” 1898.
3   Zajonc, R., Heingart, A., Herman, E., “Social Enhancement and Impairment of Performance in the Cockroach,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, No. 13, Vol. 83, 1969.

Online Bonus Content: How you treat your employees impacts how they treat your customers