sales leadership we need at each stage of growth

Becoming a CRO in 4 not-so-easy Steps

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of salespeople and sales managers, some of whom aspire to be a SVP of Sales and Marketing or Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) at some point in their career.  I’ve also had the privilege to work with and coach high-performing heads of sales and CROs.

I have observed that the career journey from salesperson to CRO requires numerous experiences, tough choices, acquired skills, hard work, and tangible results.  All are important, but none capture the sine qua non – the essential thing for success at each of four major career transitions. 

The crux of each transition is a change in mindset regarding how one creates value for the company.  Let’s look at the four transitions and the essential mindset shift for each.


Transition #1: From Sales Job to Sales Professional

This first transition may be the least obvious.  Many people find themselves in a sales role for a variety of reasons: they wanted to make more money, they thought the company or product was cool and wanted in on it, or maybe they just needed a job.  Few of us as children thought, “I want to be a salesperson someday!”  For many it was, and will remain, just a job.  But others, regardless of how they stumbled into sales, make the first mindset shift: they discover that selling is a profession, and they make the decision to hone their craft, to become truly excellent, and to make a career in sales.


Transition #2: From Sales Professional to Sales Manager

The second transition is the most famous, because it is so predictably mismanaged.  We all know the old adage: “The best salespeople rarely make the best sales managers.”  That observation is generally true, and we have all seen high-performing salespeople promoted to sales manager…and fail.  It’s not because great salespeople can’t become great sales managers; who wouldn’t want a sales manager who knows good selling?  No, it’s because those high-performing salespeople didn’t make the second mindset shift from getting results through personal effort to delivering results through others.

When I work with senior leaders to help them decide who to promote to a sales management position, my first question is, “Do they really desire to manage people?  Are they passionate about helping people improve and seeing others succeed?  Or are they mostly excited about the title and the promotion?”


Transition #3: From Sales Manager to Leading Leaders

When a sales leader is promoted from sales manager to a director or VP level, several things change.  They are now typically managing multiple types of teams, some of which they haven’t worked in previously.  This requires the leader to quickly get up to speed on new areas that may include lead gen, marketing, inside sales, quota-carrying sales, or account management, depending on which part of the organization they came from.  But as big as that learning curve is, I find that the most critical mindset shift is realizing that they are no longer simply a leader of others; now they are a leader of leaders, and the new component of their job is developing leaders.

This is not the kind of leadership development they can outsource to a training course or ask HR to handle.  No, this is hands-on, day-in and day-out modeling, teaching, and coaching the managers who report to them.  No matter the issue — whether it is managing performance problems, setting quotas, pipeline management, dealing with conflict, hiring, onboarding, deal strategy or territory planning – every situation is an opportunity to develop the managers on their team.  The sales leaders who successfully navigate this transition, and maybe get a shot at the CRO role, are those who have built a high-performing team of leaders.


Transition #4: From Leading Leaders to Leading Revenue Generation

The final transition is to the CRO role or equivalent.  In some companies, this will be the SVP of Sales and Marketing.  When the role is an officer of the company and encompasses leadership over all sources of revenue (usually including channels and partnerships), it will often carry the CRO or CCO (Chief Commercial Officer) title.

The increase in breadth of responsibility is substantial.  And yet, for many making the move to CRO or CCO, the greatest mindset shift is the “O”.  As an officer of the company, the CRO is a full member of the senior leadership team, bringing two shifts.  First, in addition to bringing in the revenue every quarter, the senior team will look to the CRO for their strategic perspective and input.  This is a huge change for many sales leaders who have previously needed to execute a plan, but weren’t required to know where the puck will be in the future.  The strategic implications – both to the company (long term) and to the revenue (near term) – must be weighed.  The scope of decisions will now include the product, markets, customers, geographies and acquisitions, and with that scope comes the second shift: the fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of shareholders, and not themselves or their function.


Which transition have you seen to be most difficult for yourself or others?  Please share a comment below!


If you would like to learn from other successful leaders who have navigated the transitions from salesperson to CRO (and beyond), click the button below to watch the recording from this live webinar from December 3, 2020, featuring panelists from HubSpot, Ceros, WITHIN, and Morningstar.


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