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Building a Strong Sales Culture

December 13, 2021

Hint: It’s Not Just Numbers

One of the critical factors driving growth potential in a company is the presence of great Sales leadership. Nowadays, sales leadership has evolved. With technologies developing at breakneck speed, data and analytics has taken centerstage. However, management is discovering that to outperform in sales, empathy needs to come into the picture. Companies with focus on talent development have top managers spending more than 50% of their time coaching. These companies are 1.4x more likely to outperform than those who do not.1 Tailoring the learning experience suited for the sales rep, the modern sales leader presses forward and empowers sales reps to be effective in their trade.

I talked to Sanjeevan Thangaraju, Head of Global Inside Sales in Insider, and he shared his views on sales leadership and what modern day sales leaders should consider in their roles. Insider is the first integrated Growth Management Platform (GMP) helping digital marketers drive growth for their brands with zero marketing waste. Sanjee started as a sales rep and has carved out years of experience to arrive in his current role as Head of Global Inside Sales. It was an interesting chat on how to develop sales talent into leaders, why we need mentors, and what sales reps should cultivate to level up to leadership.

Top Performer vs. Supporter/Facilitator

We traditionally approach sales by looking at the health of our numbers – achieving targets, surpassing quotas, and experiencing year-on-year growth. In the same vein, once sales leaders vacate their positions, the next logical choice for promotion is the top sales performer of the team. We assume that because they bring in the numbers, they can also teach others how to do the same. We are missing something here. We gloss over the intangibles which can prop up team morale and harness the full potential of a team. It’s time we also look at empathy and how it can impact team performance as well.

Sanjee shares his observation commonly plaguing newly promoted sales leaders. Sales leaders expect their sales reps to be their clones. They want their sales reps to work and behave the same way they do. Unfortunately, modern sales leaders hit a brick wall when they discover that things do not work this way. Aside from unrealistic expectations, sales leaders fall into a trap of being theoretical. They think that once they read a book, they can apply their learnings and successfully accomplish their objectives. Practice, we learn, does not always apply all the rules of theory.

Sanjee recommends taking a more proactive stance towards developing modern-day sales leaders. Early on, prospective candidates should undergo leadership and soft skills training to prepare them for the role. Additionally, once they become sales leaders, they can benefit from having a mentor to lean on for advice or guidance. To single out these candidates, Sanjee says to look out for sales reps who may not be the top performers but are the supporters and facilitators of the group. They are the ones who voluntarily help other members of the team or who willingly accept side projects which enhance team performance. In other words, these candidates understand that they do not always have to take the spotlight as long as others are growing and contributing to the team. We can already tell early on that these candidates have the makings of good and strong leaders.

As for the top performers, we always think of what is next for them. We want to acknowledge, reward and sustain their performance but an initiation into leadership is not always the best option.  Sanjee gives an empathy litmus test by letting them lead training sessions. He observes which ones are more inclined to help other team members. The ideal sales leader is a mix of both – someone who is excellent with raking in the numbers but someone who is supportive and empathetic of everyone around him. The ones displaying empathy during these sessions are considered for leadership while the solo performers are set on a different career path.

In his case, Sanjee experienced it firsthand when he was promoted as a sales leader. At that time, his manager left his post and Sanjee interviewed for the position. He was accepted and became the team leader. He considered himself lucky as he had a mentor standing by his shadow, supporting him in his first thrust into leadership. Looking back, he admits he was caught unprepared for the role, and he now sees the value of developing sales reps who have a mind for both performance and people. Given a choice, he would have gotten himself more involved with his team rather than crunching the numbers the whole time. At the onset, he believes leaders need to establish the importance of teamwork and to identify as part of a bigger team – not soloists in a one-man act. He shares, “That expectation needs to be set from the start from the leader itself. You need to help out the team. You’re part of the bigger team. Help others succeed as well. That will help your group.

Engage with Mentors

Experience can’t be bought. If you don’t have the experience, you need to lean on mentors to bring you that,” says Sanjee. Engaging with mentors is one of the most enriching and meaningful relationships leaders can cultivate. New roles bring new unanticipated challenges. Mentors fast-track the learning process and offer guidance from their top-level vantage point. For Sanjee, the relationship must be built on trust, support, and accountability. His current mentor is his boss and co-founder of Insider. His mentor knows him well enough and acknowledges his strengths and weaknesses. He also offers feedback on how to improve or motivate his team better. Additionally, Sanjee’s mentor gives him the confidence to rely on him when problems arise. Having support means being open and available to discuss pain points. Lastly, Sanjee’s mentor creates a safe environment where Sanjee can be candid and accountable to admit his mistakes. Sanjee reflects, “…the mentor should be somebody who helps you to excel rather than to criticise or put you down when you do something wrong.” Mistakes are inevitable but good mentors push you where you need to go and help rectify issues as they come along.

Sanjee engages two kinds of mentorship: regular intimate sessions with his boss and ad hoc catchups with peers. Biweekly sessions with his boss cover strategic perspectives such as the current state of his team, market penetration methods, quality improvement of products and services. His boss encouraged Sanjee to also tap into his LinkedIn network and engage with peers. These are casual 30-minute chats to broaden his thinking and crowdsource more ideas. We cannot escape feeling stuck sometimes as we carry similar mindsets in our organisation. To break the monotony, he speaks with peers to bounce off ideas and explore tactical perspectives. He discusses and even shares his sales expertise and from there, both help and improve each other – creating a circular economy of generosity and learning. Fresh ideas are born from these interactions. Sanjee does this at least once a month to refresh his knowledge and gain a new take on things. 

Reaching out to potential mentors and peers can be daunting. Sanjee shares he was hesitant at first to approach peers as they might not see the exchange of ideas as reciprocal. To counter this, he suggests setting the right context upfront. Propose an idea sharing where the two of you can connect to bounce off ideas. We all have something to teach, and we all have something to learn. Even a junior associate can teach a senior manager about social media and emerging technology. Instead of framing it as a favor, reframe it as an open session which is beneficial for both parties.

Develop the Right Attitude

Aspiring leaders benefit from developing the right attitude and motivation towards their leadership goals. The path to leadership is not instant. It requires grit and sacrifice. Sales reps must intensify their efforts and take on side projects on top of their regular work. Once their mettle is tested and proven, that is, having shown the right attitude, they will have access to more mentors. Peers will be more inclined to work and collaborate with them.

These same young aspiring leaders bring their edge in having access to so much information and knowledge more than ever. In a tech driven world, data is just about everywhere. Every single touch point carries data. The key, Sanjee says, is knowing how to effectively use the data and not to drown in them. Humanise the data in such a way that it helps motivate the team, improve team output, and develop the team further. The numbers may tell the story but it’s the human relationships and connections that impact these numbers.

Final Thoughts

The modern sales leader values relationships just as much as data and analytics. To drive growth in an organisation, we should seek forming meaningful connections with our directs and our mentors, and positively influence the next generation of sales leaders.

  • Impart the value of teamwork and empathy in coaching sales reps and potential leaders
  • Seek and engage mentors who can guide you on strategic and tactical perspectives
  • Develop the right attitude to empower others and foster collaboration


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