The Sales Director: Part 1 Opening Stages

Mon, 8 Jul 2024 Updated By: Brett Lyons

So, you have the job, you are the sales director. A position that some people see as the pinnacle of a sales career, for others another stage of the journey that is a lifelong love affair with business.

In this article I have tried to capture the experience of 25 years in consultancy in which I have enjoyed the challenge of working with sales directors who are new to the role and some very experienced. So, whether you are starting out or well established, this article is designed to provide insights and provoke new thinking about the sales director role.

This is the first of five parts that make up this article and focuses on the ‘Opening Stages’, the critical time when you build the foundations for what is to come.

Opening Stages

Naturally the role of sales director varies dependent on the size of the business and the sales operation. There is usually a direct correlation between the size and the strategic responsibilities of a sales director.

However regardless of size I believe that in the opening stages there are three actions to complete, before you can begin to effectively lead the sales operation:

  1. Look in the Mirror – Reflect.

Clearly you have the job because you are good at what you do. You may have come from a different organisation or been promoted internally; it doesn’t matter you have been appointed because of what you have achieved in your career to date.

However, a little self-reflection helps Take a look in the mirror and think about the qualities that make a great sales director:

    • Leader
    • Strategist
    • Change Implementer
    • Innovator and Entrepreneur
    • Business Ethics
    • Personal Currency

Some of these you will see as strengths, others you may see as areas to develop. The most important thing is io be honest with yourself, if you know there are areas where you need help, then find it because at this level development areas get found out.

One of the key areas is that of a strategist. I have met sales directors who were brilliant as senior sales leaders and as sales directors continued to excel at managing immediate and short term sales performance. However, the long term strategic demands of the role, provided a different challenge that often has to be met by developing new skills. I will cover this in depth in the next article in the series.

  1. Understand Expectations

In my experience of working and operating at senior levels, in most businesses four key groups emerge that have expectations of the sales director:

    • Line Management: this maybe a CEO, MD or business owner, but there is a certainty that this individual will have expectations that need to be understood, managed and delivered.
      Clearly sales revenue is always going to be a priority, but also customer management, growth into new sectors and sales costs are some of the areas that will have all a part to play. To say nothing of the culture, values and beliefs that need to be developed, changed or created in the sales operation.
    • Peer Groups: one of the behaviours of successful businesses is a board of directors or C-Level executives that operate as a team working to achieve mutually agreed objectives.
      It is the norm that the sales function is expected to collaborate constructively with other functions to deliver business strategy. The challenge is to understand what other functions expect from you and equally what you expect from them to deliver business objectives.
      A key area here is to understand the capacity and capability that other functions have to work with and support the sales function.
    • Direct Reports: I have seen new sales directors hailed as the new messiah; others greeted with high levels of suspicion. Understanding the expectations, hopes and views of your direct reports is key to engaging with them as a leadership team.
      Do consider that in your direct reports there will people excited about working with you. However, for others your appointment may have created a sense of insecurity and there may well be someone who tried for the role and is angry, resentful or upset that you got the job. In some cases, all three!
      So, think about how you will address the challenge to get your direct reports aligned and working as a team to achieve the objectives and goals of the business.
    • Customers: In broad terms understanding customer expectations means defining the value proposition your sales teams will deliver as they manage customer relationships. The aim to engage customer stakeholders with a proposition that retains existing customers and attracts prospects. The value disciplines of Customer Intimacy, Operational Excellence and Product Leadership provide an excellent start point.
      More specifically there will be key customers, already known to you, who at executive level may expect a relationship with you as the sales director. Plus, your presence as ‘The Sales Director’ can be an invaluable asset to support your people at any point in the sales cycle.
      The route to understanding expectations is through one-to-one meetings, focus groups, stakeholder contact and observations. It is a time investment that will generate the insights that are critical to building the foundations for future success for you and the business.
  1. Understand Capability

One of the best examples I have ever seen of understanding capability, was a sales director appointed to a global manufacturer in the food sector. Just to set the scene, a successful business with real aspirations for growth.

Having done some work with the sales leaders in each country, it was obvious these were capable people, with good intentions but there was no co-ordination across the sales function. Each country had a different approach, and often there were multiple approaches in the same country, it was very disjointed. The universal argument been that ‘as long as we hit target it is ok’ but nobody was asking the question ‘what could be?

This business appointed a global sales director who had the challenge of building a sales function equipped to support growth. I had the pleasure of working with this person and in twelve months he gave a master class on ‘Understanding Capability.’ Very patiently he took the time to analyse and understand:

    • Leadership Capability
    • Operational Sales Costs
    • Customer Segmentation
    • The Sales Proposition
    • Sales Methodology
    • Training and Coaching Needs
    • Sales Capability: the skills and behaviour of the sales team at all levels
    • Sales Opportunity Management
    • Pipeline Management and Forecasting
    • New Business Development.

This is not a finite list, but the outputs in these areas provided the information he needed to define a sales strategy and begin the implementation of processes that would drive growth with existing customers and create a proposition that attracted new customers.

The six headline successes were:

    1. Growth in sales revenues and a reduction in the cost of sales
    2. A clear sales strategy that engaged and motivated the sales function
    3. A new customer segmentation policy based on customer profitability and potential. This defined the way customers relationships were managed, the sales approach and the development of new delivery channels
    4. A restructure of the sales force that aligned individual sales capability with customer needs. Supported with a sales training programme
    5. A defined sales process that transformed pipeline management, identified coaching needs and provided accurate sales forecasting. Most importantly effective sales management and revenue growth.
    6. A structured approach to distributor management that generated business growth in all operating regions. With the added benefit of motivated and engaged distributor network.

Understanding capability is perhaps the biggest challenge a new sales director faces, it takes time, but it has to be done. If you come into a role externally it makes common sense, if you have been promoted internally it is easy to make assumptions and accept the norm.

This really is a crucial area. Too often I have seen people who are new to an executive role, and not just sales directors, ask well intended questions and be met with subjective answers like:

‘We have experienced people’

‘Our systems are good’

‘Ours sales structures work’

Don’t accept this. If your aim is grow sales revenues you can only break performance barriers if you identify where change is needed. So, ask questions and establish the information, data and facts you need to identify where change is needed.

Approach this task with a completely open mind, question everything and refute the mantra of

‘If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’

Instead try and think on the lines of:

‘Break it gradually and improve it’

Depending on the size of your business understanding capability maybe something you can do personally, or you may feel the need for some help from an external consultancy. If budgets allow, this is a powerful approach as you will be presented with a completely objective set of findings, conclusions and recommendations to act upon.

In conclusion it is clear that the sales director role brings significant responsibilities and expectations, but also the opportunity to drive growth, innovate and grow as a business leader.

You may be a seasoned professional or newly appointed, but regardless of experience the opening stages are critical. Reflection, understanding expectations and capabilities are three steps that form the foundations to build a sales function capable of delivering business objectives.

In the second article in this series, I will cover the sales director as a strategist with a focus on:

  • The Strategic Aim: where you want to take the sales function
  • The Value Proposition: the way you want your people to be seen by customers and internal stakeholders.

So, as I close ‘Opening Stages’ the first part of ‘The Sales Director’ I hope I have given you some ideas, perhaps created some challenges and that you will join me for part 2.

Brett Lyons


About the writer

Brett Lyons specialises in sales leadership, sales management, and strategic sales projects; working with individuals and teams to deliver business objectives.

Brett has completed projects in the UK, EMEA, USA and Asia Pacific working across multiple sectors that include finance, manufacturing, consumer goods, IT, capital goods and professional services. Projects completed with clients that include Casio, Fossil, BNP Paribas, Devro Plc, Luxottica, Casio, Ishida, Lombard, Xerox, Goodman Masson and Venari Partners. Equally important Brett has worked with many SMEs as a long term adviser to develop individuals and teams to generate business growth.

In addition to client projects, Brett now runs a mentor group ‘Leadership Insights’ working with individual sales directors and leaders to provide advice and support.

Brett can be contacted at TLSA by phone on 044 1428 658867 or email at [email protected].