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8 tricks to jump from sales director to CEO

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As someone who was once on the front line, it’s true that a CEO with a strong grounding in sales will have an intimate knowledge of the “coalface” of the business. My background in sales was the foundation for our rapid rise as a company. As they say, a good salesperson never loses their sales spirit. 

This obviously can be good and bad so here are some practical ways to turn the experience to your advantage and avoid the pitfalls.

1. It’s not just about sales

I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s not all about the sales figures. The sales route gave me an unparalleled experience of what it’s like to sell a product and I’ve carried that with me to this day. That passion for selling great value products is part of our ethos and a lesson I try to pass onto all our employees. 

But if sales experience was the only criteria for a successful leader then everyone would be at it.

Beware of becoming the textbook example of a salesman CEO. The classic, pumping-fists-in-the-air sales leadership may be great in a conference venue, but it’s arguably a liability in serious talks with suppliers and financiers.

2. Become a realistic optimist

As a salesperson, you know that, of course, positive sales figures matter. But when it comes to the financials be realistic and honest about what’s working. New companies can often be killed by a CEO’s optimism about the accounts. 

A good boss will learn how to gain and retain finance from banks and providers. Being pro-risk and entrepreneurial is one thing, but you have to show the banks that you’re dependable and can be trusted. Here, the worlds of the CEO and the salesperson collide: banks will trust a company that has both a successful history of pitching to new business and good client retention but also has excellent know-how when it comes to the finances.

3. Know your roles

Today, more than ever, a CEO needs a strong sense of vision. You have to be able to see where the market is going and how to respond to any changes. A CEO’s background should reflect the challenges their organisation is likely to face over time. You need a strong sense of understanding – of both the varied roles within your own company and the diverse skills of the employees who fill them.

A CEO who provides a clear sense of direction is important but a leader who can build a competent and able team is arguably even more crucial. Partners and clients have confidence in a CEO who understands all of their business, how products go to market and how different roles contribute. If distributors can see that a CEO understands their needs, they will get on board whatever their background. 

4. Trust your gut

Most sales roles involve making important decisions on a daily basis. Good leaders, like the best sales people, are more able to make hard decisions without fear of failure. 

By experimenting without fear, you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t. The ability to read business and react accordingly is one of the most important skills of a successful leader, but it is difficult to teach. A successful sales career is a good start.

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