To be a district sales manager, or not to be?

September 1, 1998

Pharmaceutical Representative

Looking at your future in pharmaceutical sales.

In sports, it has long been known that the best players don't always make the best coaches and managers. A superstar baseball player may be able to use many of the same skills and personality traits he learned on the playing field, but in order to be truly successful as a coach or manager, he or she needs to draw upon additional new behaviors in order to motivate a team to win in the end. Individuals who naturally demonstrate such behaviors - and are willing to invest in continually refining them - have a better chance of success.

The same is true in the pharmaceutical industry. The superstar sales representative is not always cut out to be the district manager - even though this may appear to be the natural next step in the "ladder of success" within an organization. As a sales professional planning your next move, it is wise to consider a number of factors (aside from your desire to "get ahead") before committing yourself to the first-line management track. Such planning will not only help you move ahead if you decide to go that route, but it will also steer you away from making a decision that is not right for you or your company.

Assess the role

It goes without saying that the selection of talented district sales managers who are prepared to take on the role is one of the most critical decisions organizations must make. In fact, results from voluntary attrition studies conducted for the industry by the Hay Group over the last several years confirm this. These studies show that one of the main reasons representatives leave their current organization to take a similar role in a competing organization is their concern about the perceived effectiveness of the relationship with their current manager. While most people who leave do receive higher compensation from their new employer, compensation is often not among the top reasons why people seek another job in a competing organization.

Although organizations need to be thoughtful about selecting their district managers, individuals should also think carefully before deciding to pursue this position.

There are three primary questions to ask yourself if you are considering a district manager role as a possible next step:

Can I do the job? The first part of the equation relates to whether or not you have the ability to do the job. This comes from an honest self-assessment, as well as targeted feedback from others with whom you have worked closely. It may be that the answer is "not yet," but that you have potential; with practice and coaching you could become capable.

Do I want to do the job? The second question goes beyond your technical capacity to do the job and delves into the issue of whether or not you truly desire to do the job, and whether the nature of the role suits you, given your personality and interests. People are often capable of performing in a managerial role, but have no genuine passion or interest in doing so. You need to consider whether the context is workable for you. For example do you want to work from home or be on the road four or five days per week?

What are the organizational realities? Finally, you must determine the likelihood of being selected for the role. How many district manager positions are currently available, and what does the candidate pool look like? Are you willing to relocate, or do you want to stay put in your current capacity until a district opens up in your area?

Thinking through your answers to these broad questions will help ensure that you make a well informed and realistic plan for yourself. You may find that your plan will move you along toward the district manager's job, help you refocus on your current job or consider totally new options.

Critical transition

The most critical transition you will make if you are promoted from sales representative to district manager is that you will change from being an individual contributor to being a team leader who is responsible for achieving results through others.

As a district manager, your role is to lead, coach and motivate others to allocate their effort effectively to drive the business. The challenge for high-performing representatives who aspire to managerial roles is to be able to motivate others as effectively as they motivate themselves - holding back on the urge to do the job themselves.

A district manager must also have a keen sense of what motivates each individual representative at each point in his or her sales career, and know how to cater to those needs in order to drive business results. Today, in a competitive labor market where first-line managers are being asked to "fit in" more activities than ever before, managers must pay close attention to their internal "customers" and ensure that their needs are being met.

The Hay Group identified trends in the competencies selected by many pharmaceutical companies to predict success in the district manager role. While the specific competencies and behaviors vary from company to company based on cultural values and management philosophy, there are a few key competencies that are common across organizations. Assessing yourself against these few illustrative competencies may be a good starting point as you consider whether or not to pursue a district manger role.

Team leadership. Managers must be able to model team-oriented behavior, promote team morale and drive the organization's strategic vision within their local geographic area. They, unlike anyone else in the organization, must effectively garner others' commitment to drive results and exceed organizational expectations on a sustained basis.

Impact and influence. Not unlike sales representatives, district sales managers need to influence others on a regular basis. The critical shift in focus is between influencing one's external customers and influencing one's internal customers. The latter is often a harder task. After all, it is always harder to sell to a salesperson.

Developing others. Rather than simply "passing along" the techniques that were effective for them as sales representatives, managers must be able to assess the specific skills and behaviors of individuals and tailor the developmental of each person. They must be able to deliver balanced feedback that is honest, yet motivating, for the individual.

Business acumen. Incumbents must possess a deeper understanding of internal organizational strategies, "bigger picture" customer needs, regional and industry-wide trends and the impact of such factors on the representatives and the business.

Prepare for the role

If you have done a thoughtful self-assessment, gathered and integrated feedback from others and determined that the first-line manager role is a good fit for you, there are a number of ways to prepare yourself to "stand out" in the crowd. While your organization may support your professional development with a number of activities, you must take matters into your own hands in order to increase your chances of success.

Beyond formal classroom training, there are many other activities that will prepare you for a managerial role. Best of all, you can easily initiate many of them on your own. Involving yourself in these kinds of activities will not only allow you to self-assess your strengths and areas for development, but also provide you with an opportunity to "road test" aspects of the position with which you may be less familiar or comfortable.

Volunteer for a project. Volunteer for a project that will allow you to take a leadership role, such as the coordination of a district-wide physician education program. This will allow you to get a sense of what it feels like to coordinate the efforts of a group of people, rather than just yourself, and will also allow you to see if you can effectively drive your team toward a common goal.

Be a mentor: Seek out an opportunity to be a mentor to a new or poor-performing representative. This will give you the chance to assess an individual's strengths and development needs, create plans of action that will help develop the individual in relevant areas and follow-up on the progress over time.

Do a rotation at corporate. Ask to be assigned to a corporate rotation for a defined period of time. This will allow you to network with others in the organization, learn more about the "bigger picture" organizational issues and strategies and build relationships that will benefit you long-term.

Form a mentoring relationship. Seek out an experienced, well-respected district manager on whom you can rely for career advice, guidance and overall exposure to the realities of the role. You should solicit personal feedback and ensure a well-informed career pursuit. Work with your mentor to understand the responsibilities associated with a managerial role and judge how your personal strengths align with those required for success.

The right job for you

The role of the district sales manager is very unique, and is certainly not for everyone, regardless of past success in a sales position. Ultimately, your career goals should be linked directly to the functions or roles that will motivate you, satisfy your needs for job-fulfillment and allow you to capitalize on your personal strengths. In the end it is far less important to have a "good job" than to have the "right job" for you and your organization. PR

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