Tactical or strategic? Which leadership style better prepares today’s sales manager for success?
Tactical leadership focuses on doing precisely what is required and following well-established processes to get a job done. Strategic leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the big picture and considers the implications of plans that are not tied to policies and processes best defined as “this is the way we have always done it”. There is, therefore, a clear difference between a strategic sales leader and a tactical sales leader.
The current business environment suggests that successful sales managers will lean more towards the strategic leadership style than the tactical leadership approach. The extent to which they do so depends on the nature of the organisations they represent and, to a large extent, personal interpretations of their leadership roles.
The tactical sales leader sees himself as being responsible for turning plans into action, continuously driving the sales team towards the attainment of organisational goals. To meet those goals, the tactical sales leader works closely with the sales team to ensure realistic alignment between sales targets and business goals. This operational effectiveness is achieved by constantly monitoring performance, detecting sales gaps, and providing the leadership required to correct lagging sales by ineffective staff or waning consumer response to a particular service or product. Tactical sales leaders focus solely on sales. Their perceived role is to manage the ‘hows’ of the job, not the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’. As management leaders, they are more of managers than leaders.
In contrast, the strategic sales leader has his eye on the entire operation. Strategic sales leaders will first analyse available marketplace data: economic indices; government policies; the competition; feedback from customers, collaborators and other external stakeholders; and requirements for human and material resources, then apply that knowledge to their organisations’ “big picture”. The strategic leader provides the information needed to guide the formulation of policies that shape business strategies essential to the survival of his or her business.
The primary strength of successful strategic sales leaders is their ability to provide timely, accurate information gathered from the sales teams, the market and the external environment to all levels of their organisations in ways that offer support for comprehensive strategies and performance. Strategic sales leaders go beyond implementation; they contribute to the formulation of corporate goals and aspirations.
Sales strategies originate with individuals at the top of the sales department organisational chart. They are expected to bring ideas to the table that are uniquely formulated by their sales insights and experience. Their longevity in that role depends on their ability to forecast market trends and translate strategies into actionable milestones. Effective managers need to do more than meet sales targets. They need to play an integral role in policy creation, strategy formulation and operationalisation of frameworks that other departments of the organisation can reliably act upon.
The nature of strategic sales leadership tasks, roles and functions differs from tactical sales leadership. Strategic sales leaders have the potential to influence the organisation’s overall strategy and performance. They have a direct impact on firm-level strategies and outcomes.
The success of any enterprise depends on effective leadership throughout the organisation. Strategic leaders are visionaries – they have an important role to play in the short- and long-term vision of the business. A strategic sales leader articulates a sales vision, monitors policies and strategies, making adjustments as necessary, and creates an imitative leadership style that communicates key values to next-generation leaders. Two qualities stand out as being characteristic of the strategic sales leaders: they are organisation-centred and, at the same time, committed to people-development.
Finally, even though this commentary advocates strategic sales leadership, it should be pointed out that no one can succeed as a strategic leader without possessing some key traits of tactical leadership. Both are needed – a focus on meeting immediate sales goals and concern for the future – but the degree to which a leader leans towards one more than the other is what makes the difference. Knowing when to utilise one skill set over the other – tactical execution or strategic planning – is the mark of personal and professional leadership success in the field of sales management.