Is A Sales Team Lead Role Worth Exploring?

Picture this: You’re a sales leader, currently responsible for a team of about 10 sales development reps.

You have a strong solution to go along with a solid stream of both inbound and outbound activity, which prompted you to split the team by each channel to maximize meeting creation — and hopefully pipeline.

By splitting your team, you’ve been able to deploy measurable processes to maximize strategies, as well as identify areas for iteration to improve results. 

Things are great, but your time is also stretched too thin. Before jumping the gun and hiring a seasoned veteran or promoting a rep from your (relatively) green team to sales manager, you should consider a middle ground: a team lead role for the inbound crew. 

But we have to warn you, there are sales leaders who will advise otherwise.

Are there risks associated with a team lead role?

Of course.

Reps can take on too much, too fast and burn out — suddenly, not only do you find yourself drowning in work, but one of your top performers is reconsidering long-term prospects at your company, or at the very least, they’ve lost confidence. 

I’ve seen this happen, first-hand. But, trust me, the team lead role, can work. And work well.

I know this, because the role has been absolutely crucial in my own organization’s growth. 

Now, is it perfect? No. Then again, nothing in sales is.

But the team lead role, for my money, is part of the reason we’ve been able to build out a world-class go-to-market strategy

3 qualities of a sales team lead

Because I see the topic come up time and again, I wanted to use this space to share what to look for in your team lead and how to avoid common mistakes whenever you promote a high performer to the delicate role of player and coach. 

Let’s start with some key qualities to be on the lookout for.

1. Collaborative closers

Contributors across any job function need to believe their leaders can do the job themselves, and do so effectively. That’s what makes the team lead so tricky.

The leaderboard is king in high-performing sales teams. And a team lead is tasked with helping others succeed while simultaneously leading from the front. 

The kicker is that, unlike general sales management, a team lead carries their own bag, and their numbers are on display. Naturally, then, it’s fair to say successful team leads tend to be higher performers. However, peerless performance is not the first criteria I would focus on. 

From a management perspective, sales is a team sport, but a higher performer just might want to stay in his or her own lane and just focus on their own numbers. And that’s totally OK. 

You need to be looking for a combination of solid performance with observations that go beyond any data point or KPI. For instance, do peers use the person in question as a resource? Are they naturally volunteering to help in ways that serve the greater good? Are they engaged? 

Great team leads are usually more vocal in team meetings and offer perspectives and ideas around everything from process to tactics: 

  • “Hey, I was thinking about this using this value prop? 
  • Have you tried this response to XYZ’s objection? 
  • I think there’s a way we can use this existing tool in our sales stack to improve XYZ?

2. Discretionary and trustworthy

The team lead needs to be more than a resource; they need to be a trusted advisor. Someone in their position, who gets the day-to-day struggle and that the contributor can bring everything and anything to. 

Peer discretion here is an underrated value; going up to their manager or skipping a level to even my position can create fear. Is this worth asking? Am I going to be looked at differently because I don’t know the answer to this?

It’s not always the case, but you’re just much more comfortable going to somebody that’s sitting right next to you all the time.

3. Curious and a problem solver

As an account executive you’re used to working off of gut and feel. You can think inward: I feel like this is a good win, so I’m going to put more attention on it. The managerial path has more consequences. The decisions you make have a trickle down effect. 

I’m not saying a team lead needs to analyze the sales funnel as soon as they step into the role. You don’t know what you don’t know — but they need to be curious, and to some extent, problem solvers and self-starters. 

After all, there may not be a data point, dashboard or standard operating procedure in place for every task assigned their way. And as a manager, you don’t have time to create one.

The question is: are they resourceful enough to tackle the challenges, both known and unknown? 

How to overcome the top challenges of the sales team lead role

At ZoomInfo, we didn’t immediately have the team lead function locked down to perfection.

We’re constantly iterating; in fact, we still could solve aspects within the role. Let’s review the challenges and pain points we’ve encountered along the way.

When the career path is unclear …

Do you have a defined career path for your team lead? What’s next? What does success look like and the timeline toward promotion?

You don’t want a team lead to feel stuck in an indefinite limbo. 

Communicate at the leadership level, and then with the candidate. Career path considerations — along with subsequent related conversations — can establish whether or not this person really wants this role.

They may find out managing people certainly presents uncomfortable situations and requirements which may not be for them. 

When the team lead is not a good fit …

Communicating contingency plans is important.

‘Hey, this interim role is initially exploratory. We might both really like this. We might find out that it’s not working. The role that you were doing before is not gone. And regardless, if this position is not a good fit, that doesn’t mean it is a step backwards, we’re just trying things out.

The way that we have it set up, there’s a few different paths a team lead can take. From an internal system perspective, there are varying levels of titles depending on tenure.

But if they do end up going back to the individual contributor role and let’s say they continue to crush it, there are levels in that path commiserate with the managerial perspective. For instance, they may be selected to support a specific territory with higher potential. 

The universal takeaway, though, is that you have to make them feel safe about their place in your organization, regardless of whether this avenue is the right path in their career progression. Otherwise, if they just think they are exiled into a win-or-go-home state of mind: I have to be successful, even if I hate it. 

This helps no one. (The team lead, the manager, or the team at-large.) 

When the team lead is a good fit …

Just like creating a safe space and mindset if the role doesn’t work out, you need to develop and communicate a fair plan that pushes the team lead along in their career. 

Don’t promise the world, but level with them on the opportunity and scope:

‘We’re going to start with three people under your purview. If the team works really well together, and this is what you like and we continue to do XYZ as a business then our plan is to keep adding headcount. I’m going to keep doing that and I’m going to start back-filling them onto your team, meaning your team’s going to get larger.

Communicating that business plan is important, but just as important is to highlight how their current responsibilities will shift. Namely, the account executive-turned-team-lead’s quota. 

If your company’s growth rate affords itself the opportunity, it is ideal to set the organization’s commitments in return.

For instance, if I see it going to essentially become longer than six months before we can expand the team, but they’re performing well, I wouldn’t call the employee a team lead anymore. They’ve done what they needed to do to be successful as a team lead, so they would earn a sales manager title, along with a compensation bump. 

In this scenario, due to external circumstances, they may still carry a small bag, but the compensation and seniority would be rewarded. At that point, the newly minted manager would come to the sales management meetings.

When they ask about expectations and incentives …

Diving into the deep end of the pool will always go back to compensation. Again, the challenge is that you’re just asking a team lead to do more, without tangible benefits.

This is where incentives or compensation enter the narrative, you start to tie success to team performance. We’ve been fortunate that most of the people that elevate to this role want that extra work (in fact, they’re usually already doing parts of it).

Even the best team leads will tend to shift downward in performance. So again, having these conversations that allude to the bigger picture is vital, not just with the employees, but yourself.

‘OK, my team lead is no longer the top dog, and that’s OK — are they more helpful elevating three, four, five people, whatever the number is, and enabling my organization to to drive more business?’

We’ll leave those answers to you.