While many CEOs come from finance or operations, a good number of them started out on the sales floor. In fact, about 20 percent of the more than 200,000 men and women serving in chief executive positions today began their careers in sales, including icons such as Larry Ellison of Oracle, Jim Skinner of McDonald’s, and Anne Mulcahy of Xerox.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, as many successful sales professionals also tend to make effective leaders – after all, both jobs require complementary traits: from gaining employee buy-in to persuading investors, c-level executives need to do their fair share of “selling.”
We looked at some of those common traits and skills needed to succeed in both types of roles:
Drive and Determination
The main objective of c-suite executives is to keep the company moving in the right direction. To do this, they need to be excellent at problem solving. Clearing internal and external obstacles—whether logistical, financial or motivational—is critical to their success.
Similarly, salespeople must be adept at thinking on their feet. They need to highlight different product or service benefits, depending on the customer and their particular situation. Whether you are an executive or a sales professional, both have to be problem solvers and require a good amount of ingenuity and self-motivation reach their objections.
It’s not enough for executives to just believe in their company—they need to have a level of belief that’s contagious. They need to defend their decisions to shareholders, employees and board members. And when they make a decision, they need to follow it through to the end.
Sales professionals have to demonstrate similar conviction in their products and services and how they can help their customers.
A Strategic Mindset
Executives and sales professionals are both pursuing long- and short-term goals through their work. For salespeople, that might be landing a big client or closing on a specific number of leads. For executives, it might mean increasing earnings or streamlining processes.
Both need the ability to think multiple moves ahead. They should understand the competition and be ready to improvise when needed.
Trustworthiness and Integrity
The stereotype of a slick salesperson who uses manipulation to get people to buy products is just that—a stereotype. If you think about it, a sales professional who uses this bad approach will never get a repeat customer.
Those who are successful in sales are not afraid to work with their customers to find the ideal solution for them. They understand that the foundation of success in sales is about establishing trust. And they cannot afford to lose that trust.
Executives also must establish trust with their stakeholders. When they lose that trust, productivity drops and talent may leave. When their ideas fail, executives do not look for others to blame. Instead, they take responsibility. In other words, they are people of integrity who people tend to admire.
When starting out in sales, it can sometimes feel like our entire purpose is chasing after prospects, closing deals, and trying to meet quota. It’s a seemingly never-ending dash repeating itself over and over again. But the skills that are learned from this chase will set you up for a future of successful leadership.