Why Sales is the Perfect Training Ground for Effective Leaders

Posted on Wednesday, November 2, 2022 by Graham Quinn

Some of the world’s most successful CEOs began their careers as sales reps including Billionaire Warren Buffet, former IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

The climb from lowly rep to CEO may seem awe inspiring. However, when you compare the  skills needed for effective leadership to those required for sales success, this career trajectory is not so surprising. 

Emotional Intelligence


Enjoying working with people, being able to build relationships and communicate effectively are all necessary traits for succeeding in sales. Although it seems obvious that the same traits are needed for effective leadership, research suggests that too few leaders actually possess these qualities. 

Harvard Business School’s Why Emotional Intelligence is Important in Leadership, explains why the usual method of basing recruitment criteria of leadership on technical rather than people skills is flawed.

While you might excel at your job technically, if you can’t effectively communicate with your team or collaborate with others, those technical skills will get overlooked.

Part of effective communication is being able to empathise. Salespeople quickly learn to view problems from other people’s perspectives in order to build effective working relationships. Many leaders could benefit from what, as Forbes explains, “Good salespeople’ already  know: ‘how to read another person and connect with their hopes, fears, and perspectives.’ Because, ‘as a result, they’re able to bring people along on their journey.’


In fact, global leadership development firm DDI ranks empathy as the number one leadership skill, reporting that leaders who master empathy perform more than 40 percent higher in coaching, engaging others, and decision-making.


Negotiation Skills

Seeing things from another’s perspective is also an essential for negotiation. Buyers are much more likely to purchase if a salesperson recognises the obstacles and potential benefits from the buyer’s perspective.


By viewing direction as a negotiation and listening to workers’ perspectives, leaders can more successfully motivate employees and achieve buy in to the task.  In contrast, by taking an autocratic approach, expecting employees to ‘do things their way’ without listening to their opinions, was suggested by Forbes as being one of the Five Most Common Leadership Styles to Avoid in a recent article.


Energy and Engagement

Recent trends in the workplace have shown how crucial motivating employees is. The Great Resignation and currently, the phenomenon of Quiet Quitting have highlighted what research has been telling companies for years – that employee engagement is crucial to the success of an organisation.

Sales is an energizing and motivating environment to work in. As a result, CEOs who have spent most of their careers in this environment have something extra to bring to workplace culture; an ability to foster a sense of excitement and passion about working towards a common goal.


Creating a culture of engagement has been found not only to reduce turnover but have a direct effect on profits. A recent Gallup study found that ‘unhappy and disengaged workers cost the global economy $7.8 trillion in lost productivity.’ This is particularly  relevant in the UK, which has the ‘lowest employee engagement level across the globe.’ 



Along with being able to inspire and motivate, effective leaders model attitudes that they want to develop in their teams.

An attitude of resiliency is something that all salespeople must develop in order to go the distance. Rejections and failures are common experiences for those starting out in sales, but those who persevere develop a faith in their ability to work through difficult times and tasks. This resiliency is an invaluable attitude for leaders to instil in employees.

Resilience is part of developing a ‘growth mindset’. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Carol Dweck, (a professor at Stanford University) shows that by developing a growth mindset, employees ‘have the capacity to learn, grow, and improve.’ Research by Dweck and others in their field shows that resilience significantly increases the potential for success in both individuals and organizations.

By focusing a growth mindset in their employees, companies like General Electric and Microsoft have also become world leaders in innovation.

Changing attitudes towards what makes effective leaders

Although Forbes found that ‘over half of Fortune 100 CEOs’ had recruited based on their academic background, and ‘have a degree in business, economics, or accounting’ this shouldn’t dissuade successful salespeople from applying for leadership and highlighting how their experience has prepared them.

In their book Catalyst 5: Making The Leap From Sales Manager To Sales Leader, authors Nancy Sutherland and Carlos Quintero explain that salespeople ‘know how to unite a team, how to help their people achieve and exceed their goals, how to motivate and encourage, and how to handle challenges.’


Working with a specialist Executive Sales recruiter can help you learn how to present these transferable skills. Wireless Mobile International Search has successfully recruited sales candidates for leadership for fifteen years, including Vice President roles and Senior Directors. Contact WMIS today to discuss how we can help you make the leap into leadership.  



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