Making salespeople into CEOs might not help firms

Stellar salespeople struggle as CEOs. Leadership calls for a “generalist”. A salesperson is a specialist, which is a narrow approach to leadership

In the past couple of weeks, acres of editorial space globally have been assigned the transition at the helm of Microsoft. Finally, a Satya Nadella took over as captain from Steve Ballmer.

According to Reuters,  “Steve Ballmer was regarded more as a salesman and cheerleader than a visionary”. In addition, it went further to quote an analyst who said, “Microsoft’s employee base never really bought into Ballmer and whatever vision he had for the business; like many salespeople, he was seen as a bit too short-sighted”

Why so few salespeople as CEOs?

And this begs the question-why do we have few salespeople rising to Chief Executive Officer (CEO) level? For a long time, CEO position was the preserve of those with a financial background. But times have changed and we have pharmacists (like Evans Kidero) and engineers (like Titus Naikuni) who have been CEOs. Thinking of a CEO with a sales background, however, would require one to wrack their brains.

It gets tricky. That Ballmer was a successful salesperson is not in question; it has been said of him from the Economic Times: “Ballmer’s aggressive salesmanship during the boom days of the personal-computer industry exemplified how Microsoft became the world’s most valuable company. He also built one of the world’s most profitable and efficient sales and channel organizations.” It would appear then that the traits of success in sales do not translate to those in leadership.

Paradox: Stellar sellers bring the much needed cash, and yet…

The very nature of the sales job deems it necessary for the successful salesperson to be aggressive as he moves along the sales cycle towards the close. And that’s his job; to wisely help clients arrive at a purchase decision quickly without badgering them to do so. The more successfully he does this the more profits his company enjoys.

Yet this trait does not serve him well at board level-it gets defined as shortsightedness. What sees him rise the ranks (because he is a fabulous closer) suddenly becomes an impediment.

And rightfully so: Joshua Oigara (CEO, KCB) while being interviewed by the Daily Nation said: “Aspiring CEOs must be willing to put in the work to expand their knowledge base. To run a business you don’t have to be a specialist. It is more of a job for a generalist. The bank can hire the best accountant or marketer (or salesperson) it needs. The CEO is a captain. The key task for the captain is to inspire the team. It is not enough simply to get the degree in marketing or finance. One should be able to broaden their knowledge base considerably.”

Leadership is not just about profits

And there you have it. Leadership is not merely about a perpetual 45 degree angle incline in profits. It”s about long term thinking, sharing a compelling vision and inspiring people to succeed; this calls for a “generalist”. A salesperson is a specialist, which is a narrow approach to leadership. To grow into a leadership position, he must “broaden his knowledge base considerably” so as to have a 360 degree outlook on all arms of the business.

Away from the upper echelons of the organization, it is also true that most successful salespeople usually make ineffective sales managers. Organizations tend to misconstrue stellar selling with management. Because he is such a successful salesperson, they think, we should promote him. And so they do-but to frustration. The promotion cuts him off at the knees; caught between the rising expectations of his new promotion and his inability to manage, they lose him to the competition.

Let stellar salespeople thrive as such; not as CEOs or managers

Organizations that have the structures to allow successful salespeople grow as salespeople have benefited immensely: the salesperson grows his, and the company’s, income tremendously. The insurance industry is an example of such. They are cautious about turning successful salespeople to CEOs or managers

Successful salespeople who make effective managers are few. And they do so more because they already had the skill in them (and could therefore be trained) than the fact that they had a knack for selling.

Read: Promoted from salesperson to sales manager?

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