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Sales - 6 min READ

The difference between a sales manager and sales leader

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Author photo: Shabnam Kakar

Shabnam Kakar


Contrary to popular belief, “manager” and “leader” are not interchangeable terms.

Someone who is a leader does not necessarily need to be in a manager’s role, but anyone in a managerial role should most definitely be a leader.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case with every salesperson.

The problem? A lot of sales managers were never taught how to lead. They were taught only to manage—y’know, sales forecasting, budgeting, delegating, hiring and firing, and so on. In other words, managers were taught how to make people, including their sales staff, work for them.

Leaders on the other hand, inspire people in a sales organization to follow them.

In today’s workplace, sales leadership is crucial to maximizing the success of your business. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between sales leaders and sales managers in the areas of:

Sales managers talk at their employees. Sales leaders practice two-way communication.

leader communication quote

Managers and leaders both know that communication is important. The difference is their definition of “communication”.

Sales managers think of communication as something they need to give their employees so that they know what do and what not to do.

Sales leaders, on the other hand, recognize that effective communication is a two-way channel between boss and employee. They encourage their team to voice their opinions regularly rather than staying silent and simply taking orders when leading a sales team.

Not only does the definition of communication differ between sales managers and leaders, but the information being communicated often differs as well.

Sales managers want their reps to close sales. So, they’re always going to be talking at their staff, such as sales reps, about closing sales.

If a manager is a leader, however, they’ll be looking out not only for the sales numbers, but to how their reps are feeling as well. Sales leaders are empathetic and genuinely care about the well-being of their team from both a sales performance and a human perspective.

Knowing your boss has got your back and is genuinely invested in your well-being is bound to result in better work performance among your sales reps.

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Pro-tip 👇

Hire the best.

Learn how to hire a rockstar sales team with this sales recruiting handbook.

Sales managers are scared of being wrong. Sales leaders know it’s okay to be.

bill gates leader quote

Sales leaders realize that they’re not always right, and their ideas aren’t always the best ones in the room.

And they’re okay with that as a sales team leader.

It takes a secure person to admit to their sales team leader mistakes and not be offended when they’re called out on them.

Sales managers, though, aren’t there for it. Poor self-esteem may drive a manager to lash out at sales staff when challenged by a subordinate, sometimes yelling at them or even threatening termination—aka how not to lead.

Sales managers lead by fear of negative consequences.

Sales leaders lead by passion and purpose, inspiring others to attain positive results.

Being in a managerial position doesn’t mean you’re perfect now and can stop growing. A good sales leader recognizes this, and makes efforts to improve on a daily basis.

Sales managers direct their employees. Sales leaders develop them.

leader quote by indra nooyi

Sales managers tell people what to do. How well an employee is evaluated depends on how well they follow these instructions and complete their assignments. If everyone does what they’re told, a manager doesn’t even need to leave their office—they’re golden!

It’s one of the main reasons they enjoy the job at a sales organization: managers enjoy being the boss and having people under them. They might even feel threatened to find out an employee is ambitious enough to be eyeing their position.

Sales leaders are a bit different.

A quality of a leader is their constant desire to improve, so staff just doing as they’re told isn’t good enough. Leaders don’t let their team stagnate; they're always challenging them, motivating them to do better, and coaching them to reach their full potential.

Fun fact: caring about your team and every sales rep leads them to perform better, which leads to more revenue for your company too.

Good leadership involves investing in employees for long-term business growth and retention.

Sales managers want you to perform well so they succeed. Sales leaders want you to perform well so you both do.

iyanla vanzant leader quote

A sales manager pushes their team to close as many deals as possible because by doing so, the manager looks successful.

A sales leader pushes every individual salesperson on their team to perform their best so that they can all look and feel successful.

This difference of intentions isn’t lost among the team and affects their performance.

Leaders are compassionate and truly enjoy seeing their employees do well. They carry themselves as mentors when leading a sales team, not just as “the boss.” They facilitate employee success by providing coaching and learning opportunities so their team can continue to gain confidence and increase the quality of their performance.

This environment is highly beneficial to the company in the long run. First off, because happier employees = more productive employees. Second, you’re left with competent and invested employees you can trust with great sales leadership. This, in turn, opens up opportunities for them to be promoted and advance their career.

If your team is doing well for themselves, it’s safe to say that you’re doing something right in the leadership department.

Sales managers encourage conformity. Sales leaders encourage innovation.

steve jobs leader quote

Old school mindset: the sales manager has all the authority and calls all the shots. There are no risks involved because the manager follows strict rules in order to complete their job flawlessly.

Today: sales leaders empower their employees to contribute to their shared mission in their own ways. This creates a space where new ideas and strategies are regularly brought forward from all team members.

The latter is where innovation is born.

It’s also riskier because it means trusting your employees, which is a challenge for a lot of sales managers. But by not doing so, you’re risking never innovating, which is a bigger risk to take than the occasional blunder that may come up from trusting your employees.

Instead of offering rewards or threatening employees with corrective action based on how well they conform, empower them with the flexibility to drive change.

Sales managers follow a checklist. Sales leaders follow a mission.

jack welch leadership quote

Without a mission, where are you even going?

Sales leaders create a meaningful mission their team can work toward with vigor.

All the people working under a leader know their part in achieving this mission. They have something that gives them purpose at work besides just getting a paycheck. They know their roles are significant and the impact each of their roles make to your customers and your company.

Believe it or not, working with the sole mission of making the CEO richer doesn’t do much in terms of maximizing job performance or boosting employee morale.

Managers tick action items off a checklist. Leaders see the bigger picture.

Not everyone is a “natural" sales leader. That doesn’t mean you can’t become one.

Clearly, there are certain traits that distinguish a sales leader from a sales manager. The good news is, all of these qualities can be taught and learned.

Like any skill, it’ll take time to develop the qualities that make a leader. With the right dedication, however, you’ll get there. All while making gradual improvements along the way.

Start working on yourself today. It’s what a leader would do.

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