22. 11. 2018

Sales Careers: What’s the Path to VP?

Many ambitious sales reps have a career goal of one day moving into a top leadership role – what does it take to get there?

For many software sales professionals, achieving the coveted title of VP of Sales marks the pinnacle of career development.

Arriving as VP means reaching the top of the ladder - no longer a mere member of the sales team but positioned firmly in the driving seat, taking make-or-break decisions and helming the entire organization’s top-line fortunes. 

Adaptive Tech’s global team has recruited VP roles with startups, scale-ups and established software vendors across a range of SaaS market sectors.

Through conversations with CEOs, first-time sales managers and career sales leaders, our recruiters have a privileged angle from which to observe how successful VPs developed the right mix of abilities and experience to move into top-tier roles.

For all aspiring future sales leaders - how do you build the skill set needed to land, retain and excel in the role of VP of Sales?

It’s not about being number one

One of the most surprising things for up-and-coming reps to process is that the path to one day becoming a VP doesn’t necessarily involve being a superstar individual producer.

Of course, you need credibility.

A respectable track record of making and exceeding quota is a key requirement, but focusing on personal production at the expense of developing other important skills can hold back your rise through the ranks.

Just as the fastest or strongest girl or guy doesn’t always captain a sports team, solo performance isn’t enough to build a sales leadership career on. 

A rockstar account executive who can’t teach, can’t analyze their own performance and hasn’t built rapport with the rest of the team isn’t an attractive prospect for senior management looking to appoint a leader.

Your current manager can teach you more than you think

One of the simplest ways to start building a feel for sales leadership and the skills required is to actively observe your current manager’s goals and struggles.

While it’s natural to think of a sales manager’s only real concern as hitting their revenue number, detailed assessment will show a more complex picture.

See what else your manager is grappling with – maybe it’s raising team morale, integrating new hires members into the group, re-engineering reporting structures or getting the best out of technology…

Once you understand how your manager works, you can actively start to support them in their role.

This places you naturally as a leader within your team - someone in tune with the key issues and aligned with leadership goals.

A natural player-coach role can often evolve from this, leaving you well positioned for promotion opportunities as a key team member who understands the nuances beyond revenue production.

Learn the levers

While mid-tier sales managers may be able to run short-term sales promotions or experiment with new meeting structures, VPs have the full range of switches and levers at their disposal to drive activity and behaviors within the organization.

To excel in the role, VPs need to:

  • Know what their options are

Commissions structures, bonuses, SPIFFs, contests, sales enablement resources, recruitment, training and onboarding, CRMs, territory divisions, team structures and hierarchies… VPs have the ability to adjust and configure multiple aspects of the sales organization and processes to increase results. Learning the full breadth of possibilities is key to the development of future sales leaders.

  • Understand how they work

It’s not enough to know what can be tweaked, it’s crucial to have fully appreciate the possible consequences of each change. Sales organizations are delicate things, made up of a complex blend of people, emotions, ambition, technology and processes.

Promoting team members may cause satisfaction for some, but resentment for others. Weighting incentive towards new account acquisition could leave renewals and upsells lagging. Lower quotas may make OTEs more attainable, but limit ambition…

VPs need to be prudent strategists, aware of the impact any decisions may have both positively and negatively on their teams.

  • Know when to use them

To run a sales organization effectively, VPs also need great awareness of how long each lever takes to ‘pull’, and how long it takes to impact.

Faced with a looming quarter-end deadline, for instance, there’s little sense in cranking up outbound call KPIs which won’t be able to affect the short-term need. The goal is to focus on closing pipeline and bringing viable deals over the line – levers need to be pulled which switch focus to the right activity at the right time.

Similarly, better content might be a vital solution to converting prospects, but it takes time to develop.

Reps and mid-level managers with an eye on one day rising to VP should analyze their own environment on an ongoing basis – study the ‘levers’ being pulled, and watch what the consequences are.

It’s surprising how much you can pick up even if you’re a few hierarchy rungs removed from your current sales leadership – the changes and impacts are there for anyone who’s paying attention to observe and learn from. 

Embrace the importance of data

While early sales management roles are often all about coaching a team to success, when it comes to moving the needle for an entire organization, data is the key.

Mentoring, directing. training and incentivizing are the ways a VP will seek to drive behavior in a certain direction, but it all starts with understanding the stories in the data - this means how a sales group is currently operating, where the issues are and what types of activities need to be increased or reduced in order to raise the volume and conversion rates of prospects through the sales funnel.

Even with powerful analytics tools, data isn’t always a neat picture or even drawn from the same source, so VPs need to build their own visualizations by understanding what they need to know, not just poring over out-of-the-box reports and hoping a solution will appear in front of their eyes.

Reps without much exposure to working with data can pro-actively ask to get more of an understanding from their managers, and start to build an understanding of the key data points, ratios and relationships that allow for big-picture thinking and strategic decision-making.

Take one step at a time

A true VP role is a unique position involving a wealth of decisions and responsibilities at a strategic level which are seldom within the purview of mid-tier sales managers.

Although it’s important to develop an understanding of the challenges ahead, it takes time to build the bank of experience necessary to step up and lead the organization – so don’t worry about reading up on complex incentive structures of the theories of territory management if you haven’t got a solid track record of helping junior colleagues close deals or build pipelines.

Those who rise quickly to VP focus on shining at every phase of their sales career, but play the game with their heads up - aware of what their managers and corporate leadership are doing, observing the impacts, and readying their skills for their next step forwards.