It was 2007 when I accepted my first promotion to a director-level position at a prominent distributor of keyboards and amplifiers. I was a successful district sales manager for some years at this company and tended to the needs of two very large key accounts. But did that experience really prepare me to be promoted? In retrospect, I wonder where I would be today had I declined the offer, but I was up for a new challenge, and I would forever wonder if I would have been able to thrive in the elevated role. At the time I was managing 17 district managers and 4 inside salespeople, a total of 21 direct reports. Based on many academic studies, this was two to three times more than the maximum number of employees to manage, guide, train, and review. I also had the mistaken idea that the DSMs all worked the way I did and would be responsive in the way one would expect.
Welcome to the Great Recession
The first several months of my new position included traveling with each of the field salespeople, liquidating overstocked inventory, and generally getting acclimated to being bombarded each day with other people’s problems. It was much different than my previous work experience, and I found out quickly that several of the remote workers were not really on top of their game. Shortly thereafter, the great recession of 2008-2009 hit us hard, sales tumbled, and two painful restructuring plans had to be implemented. This meant laying off a percentage of our sales force and attempting to navigate an economy with 10% unemployment, with both dealers and consumers facing tough economic times. The pressure to hit our numbers regardless was coming on heavy, and I was regretting my decision with no way to go back. Eventually the tide turned, but this “trial by fire” left an indelible mark, and some very bad memories. But it also taught me some good lessons about what not to do in a sales leadership role, and afforded me the opportunity to learn, and document my developing methods.
The Good, the Bad and the Unimaginable
Fast forward to today, and I am the owner of a mid-size manufacturer’s rep firm in the musical instrument and pro audio industry. Every week I deal with sales managers, directors, and vice-presidents from over twenty suppliers, with a variety of personalities and skill sets. The best are empathetic problem solvers who partner with me and my team, and this is typically reflected in our performance. But there are also manufacturers that have promoted people to positions who have far less experience, or who do not seem to understand what it’s like working in difficult economic times. Some vendors we deal with cannot supply the most basic tools that we need to succeed or are incapable of providing much in the way of guidance or strategic planning. The “Peter Principal” comes to mind here, where employees are promoted to their own level of incompetence, which translates to poor managers that are ineffective or outright difficult to deal with. There’s a couple that come to mind where “no good deed goes unpunished,” and a few that for good reasons shall remain unnamed in this post.
Managing Up and Side-by-Side
Part of my role as a rep firm principal is to attempt to get the best out of our respective suppliers. The good ones understand this, have genuine experience, and work in harmony with us to find mutual success. Today we are working through a challenging time in the business, so it’s more important than ever to provide solid advice and have a thoughtful plan. This also means becoming true partners, something that we could certainly see more of. We are all in this together, so let’s keep this in mind before hitting “send” on that next scorching email.