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Leading sales and marketing from the middle

By Gunnar Habitz CMgr FIML, Channel Sales Manager at software vendor Noggin.

Amid a fundamental change for the sales profession we enter the age of the well-informed buyer. So, how can sales and marketing navigate across their buying journeys instead of sticking to old sales cycles? How can you operate effectively in the sandwich between top management and your teams while delivering KPIs and developing people?

The typical dilemma of a sales and marketing leader is leading from the middle. Delivering KPIs for top leadership, coaching and mentoring teams toward achieving those KPIs, and serving customers by escalation support. All of this while fighting the internal, often political battles that could knock the balance of company culture. If the requested KPIs are purely based on revenue, more sustainable elements are coming short. Leading from the middle is often a reality of many losses with few wins.

Although many companies continue to operate their sales and marketing structure as they have at the start of this decade, buying behaviour has changed drastically. Informed buyers reach out to potential providers only in the last mile of the buying journeys. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) defined this moment at 57 per cent of the time between acknowledging a problem and implementing a new solution. That was mentioned in the 2011 book, The Challenger Sale, and today the trend is going towards 80 per cent. Aligning sales processes accordingly starts at the middle level with later validation by top management.

For both small companies and large organisations, middle level management becomes more complex with branch offices and overseas locations. When regional management positions, such as Asia Pacific out of Singapore or even Australian cities like Sydney or Melbourne, operate between country and regional interests they are often perceived to be too far away from reality.

On top of that, those leading both sales and marketing live and breathe another tension field where marketing often falls short. With two separate managers, both areas often compete against each other. As marketing talks to an audience and sales to individuals, only a holistic view and aligned KPIs embrace the rarely known ‘SMARKETING’. This approach combines those two flavours from lead generation to closing.

To be successful in the middle, certain skills and experience are required to motivate the teams wisely toward common goals while playing an integral part in developing the culture.

After spending several years overseeing international sales management in the European region, here are my picks for the top ten qualities middle leaders need:

  1. Communicating: Sitting in between all stakeholders, great communication skills are a must for to active listening and influencing. Be an active filter in between top leadership and your teams to ensure only relevant content is communicated down the line. That way, teams in the field can concentrate on doing their client-focused work. Conversely, a translation from market reality to corporate politics upwards is also needed.
  2. Curious: The best way to survive in the middle with success is to be curious. Like a spider on a web, the middle leader enjoys the right distance towards other internal roles, top management as well as customers and partners. Genuine curiosity into those mentioned roles paired with empathy and a lifelong learning mentality are the winning ingredients to further encourage the team members.
  3. Connecting: The old Nokia slogan “connecting people” is important to middle management. Leading sales and marketing teams requires building long lasting relationships with various internal and external stakeholders. Adopting personality profiling right at the first encounter from Myer-Briggs to DISC helps to truly connect to the other side and to refer further within the enhanced network applying a “givers gain” mentality.
  4. Contributing: The top leadership level and the teams at the bottom often see middle managers purely as messengers for their material towards the other side. On the contrary, I see the role as contributing their own views and content. Especially when the KPIs are set in a different way between those teams, it is critical to answer “what’s in it for me” for each level and then align them together as close as possible.
  5. Challenging: Given the changes on the sales side, it is the duty of the sales leader to challenge old processes and adopt to the new reality. Managing marketing and sales separately leads to an exclusive “us against them” approach. Keeping sales reps solely measured on revenue excludes modern KPIs such as Net Promoter Score which has the end customer satisfaction in mind. The sales leader must challenge that!
  6. Coaching and Mentoring: The sales and marketing manager develops the team using a situational choice of coaching and mentoring activities. When I moved up from an individual sales position to a sales manager, I realised the variety of needs to bring the organisation forward. Given the geographical distance, I needed to develop my own virtual leadership styles without regular face to face meetings or formal mentoring programs in place.
  7. Change agents: Nothing is so consistent in sales and marketing as change – and that doesn’t come in circles to return to an earlier experienced pattern. In his book The Future of the Sales Profession, Graham Hawkins says, “When buyers change how they buy, sellers must change how they sell”. The sales and marketing leader in the middle is the first to adopt as an active change agent with endurance towards all directions.
  8. Creativity: Most international organisations prescribe how their country teams have to execute strategies top down. Creativity paired with clever communication skills are the only way to adopt a central idea into a country reality. As an example, Australian customers immediately recognise strategies developed for the US and are often reluctant to follow them. Middle managers won’t be successful without being creative in their sandwich level.
  9. Cultural interest: A genuine way to drive this middle leadership section is applying an honest interest into the cultural background of team members with the attempt to include all members into a fruitful outcome. While the trend towards globalisation might turn into similar behaviours, in reality an appreciation of the cultural diversity towards common team values provides better outcomes.
  10. Client focus: What I learned from Carly Fiorina at the beginning of my career at HP is still valid, “The customer defines a job well done”, she said. Especially given the mentioned changes on the buying side, it is important to apply all the qualities above in the interaction with prospects and clients. It is the role of the middle leaders in sales and marketing to ensure the offered services suit the needs of prospects and existing customers.

Leading from the middle is a true challenge. But it can be very rewarding when you lead the organisation forward and influence teams towards future success. Leaders should develop all mentioned qualities and be careful not to be “eaten” in this sandwich level.

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