The Shift from IC to Manager: How to Avoid Pitfalls and Ensure Success

Congratulations! You just got promoted from account executive to sales manager… now what?

The transition from IC to manager is not easy. It requires a psychological and tactical shift that can prove overwhelming to many. And if you don’t properly prepare in advance, it might be too late.

So let’s back it up to the moment when either leadership approaches you or you approach leadership in regards to an open management position. Over the course of multiple conversations, it’s critical to set realistic expectations with yourself. You might think that you want the role, but really you just want to be promoted to show professional growth and gain more influence at your company.

Ryan Clayton, a Sales Leader at Asana with over 10 years of manager experience after excelling as an individual contributor states:

“Salespeople are the top of the mark for selling you on why they want this role. For me, it's a lot more about observing behavior in the wild versus what people are saying to me in 1:1s. I have found that reps who go out of their way to consistently speak to me about an open manager position, or setting up a three to six month plan to get into that next managerial role - they don’t always show that hunger in the wild. I might not see that action or coaching in real time with people on the team. I think it's really important to speak up for yourself, but if I'm not seeing actions that back it up, that raises a red flag for me that they might not have taken enough time to reflect and figure out what they really want.”

It’s easy to be lured by the appeal of upward mobility within your company.

Within your first week of being an SDR, you don’t just want to be an AE, you deserve it!

After one quarter of crushing quota as an AE, you should be manager!

No wait, director! Why not VP! At that point they might as well make you the freaking CEO.

Oh, and if this could all happen in three to six months after onboarding, that’d be great.

But before you get allured by a title, look within yourself to learn why you want it. Maybe you’ll find that your internal motivations don’t line up with the “obvious” sales career path.

“Some reps are pushed into management” says Gary Kagan, Co-Founder at Leap with over a decade of experience as a high performing individual contributor, sales manager, and CEO.

So as you start having conversations about moving into management, it’s vital to not just discuss the responsibilities and tasks that come with the role, dive deeper into why you personally want to make this change.

“When I sit down with a rep who says they want to be a manager, I try to find out what motivates this person,” says Kagan. “Where do they wanna go in 3-5 years? Are you purely financially motivated? Do you want to build something? Do you want to gain experience leading people?” Kagan breaks down this conversation as follows:
  • If they’re financially motivated, which a lot of salespeople are, hit the brakes. This is not going to be a good fit because when you’re a manager, you’re earning less than your top reps and they’re going to be unhappy in the role.
  • Do you want to build something? What do you want to build? Perhaps a new team, a new vertical, partner sales or something like that. Why do you want to build it? Do you fully grasp the sacrifices that will come with it?
  • Want to gain experience leading people? Why? Where do you want to be in 5 years where you can utilize this newly acquired skillset?

This conversation helps the organization and the individual. If your motivations align with the role you want and the company as a whole, then it’s worth pursuing further.

The next step is gaining some experience as a mentor and coach before moving into management full time. Read our blog post on Promoting Top ICs to Management to learn effective ways on how to plan and execute this.

Congratulations, you’ve set expectations, gained invaluable experience as a mentor, and are stoked to start your new role as a manager where you’ll probably earn less money, deal with reps who are less motivated than you, and tackle bureaucratic inter-office politics that are often out of your control! (Just double-checking that you’ve set the expectations.)

Now it’s time for action.

Besides investing in mental health therapy, here are a few proven strategies to help your transition:

Find a Mentor

Imposter syndrome is real and it happens to all of us. Just because you were successful in your previous job and you’ve earned this promotion, there is a part of you that doesn’t think you deserve it or are ready for it. This is not only natural, but probably part of the reason why you were successful in the first place.

When Stevie Case, who set records as a video game icon before becoming one of the most prolific salespeople and managers in the history of Twilio, accepted her role as the CRO of Vanta… she had no idea what she was doing.

“I remember having a conversation with my mentor, George Hu who was COO at Salesforce at the time. I asked him, 'How do you even know what to do?’ And he said, 'The truth is most people don't know what to do when they take a job, especially at the executive level. You may not have the domain expertise and you really just lean into making it clear what you want people work on, give them clear priorities and learn and iterate. And that's all you can do.' And I've tried to roll with that mentality. That discomfort to me is growth. That's challenge. If you don't put yourself on the line, you don't get those kinds of opportunities.”

This is your first time being a manager. Mistakes will be made and you’re not going to be perfect. Having a mentor who can share their experiences and give you honest advice will go an incredibly long way.

Be Yourself

Often as a first time manager, you will have to lead team members who were once your peers. You might also have to manage people who are 5, 10, or 20 years older than you. But that doesn’t mean that you have to create some whole new authoritarian persona to earn respect or get people to listen to you.

“You need to meet people where they're at and you need to really understand what intrinsically and extrinsically motivates them. Take yourself and your ego out of it completely because it doesn't matter,” says Clayton.
“Don’t be authoritative,” says Kagan. “Be a coach and partner. It’s never easy for people to handle when you’re promoted above your peers. You need to setup a 1:1 with individuals immediately. ‘Not much is gonna change in our relationship, but my goal is for all of us to win.’ Break the ice proactively.”

Transparency and authenticity is key. You’re training salespeople after all so if you try to create a new identity when you become a manager, they’ll see right through it. Instead, be yourself, strip your ego, encourage feedback, and be open to change.

Balance team vs. company

There’s an invisible line in every company that’s most evident in the sales organization. There are frontline reps generating revenue and above-the-line leaders who’s role is to put those frontline reps in the best position to succeed. This division can create animosity, but it can be avoided with good managers who serve as a bridge.

“I think the authenticity of being able to take off the corporate hat and put on the human hat when you're talking to your people is really important,” says Clayton. If there are layoffs, if quota is being raised, if a new process or methodology is being implemented, it’s important to explain the why behind that leadership decision. It’s not enough to say, “this is what needed to happen. Instead, explain in a very organic and real way, this is why the decision was made. This is what it means for our team. This is what it means for our organization and company and this is how we can benefit long-term. The more uncomfortable you’re willing to get, the more your team will respect you and understand the leadership’s vision.”

This obviously goes the other way as well. Be willing to listen to your team’s feedback and suggestions and fight for what they need. Whether that’s different outbound marketing strategies, better snacks in the kitchen, or a workspace designed for them to get every piece of critical data into Salesforce 🤧 Scratchpad 🤧, take their considerations seriously because it might make the entire team more successful.

On the flipside, you need to be able to effectively fight for your team behind closed doors. In order to do so, you have to build strong relationships with leaders in other departments to understand their problems and motivations or else you’ll be fighting a brick wall.

Your team’s quota and happiness is your quota and happiness now. If you want them to fight tooth and nail for you, you have to reciprocate that action. Perhaps the most critical trait of a great sales manager is someone who can remove blockers for their reps so you have to be able to find ways to work with other departments to achieve mutual success for the company.

Stick to your goals and process

According to the Harvard Business Review, “top sales managers scored 19% higher in the self-discipline facet, 20% higher in the success-driven facet, and 27% higher in the priority-focused facet than underperforming sales managers. As a result, they have the natural disposition to fixate their team on achieving their revenue goals at the exclusion of all else.”

Nobody loves the manager who simply “checks in” on “where we’re at” in the never-ending chase for quota. But at the end of the day, sales is about hitting a number and it’s important to maintain focus on achieving that goal as individuals and as a team.

Sticking to your goals is not enough though. You need to have a consistent process to show your reps how to achieve those goals and also be able to measure results so you can iterate and improve on that process in the future.

One way to do that is by having a set methodology for your reps to follow. Work with your team and leadership to define key data points that have proven to accelerate and close deals. Then implement a consistent process to follow that methodology, build up your data, and analyze your results.

With a clear process and methodology, the next step is setting up your team with a simple tech stack that they’ll adopt. With a workspace like Scratchpad that’s designed to fit your Revenue Team’s workflow based on their role, “it encourages adoption,” says Rosalyn Santa Elena, CRO of the RevOps Revenue Collective. Even from “a RevOps’ perspective.” For managers and the rest of your leadership team, having technology that drives process and methodology adoption gives you the ability to better analyze results in the past and strategize on deals in the future.

“It's important for you to figure out how to build accountability and reliability. Because at the end of the day, your team doesn’t have to love you outside of work, but they'll love the sh*t out of you if you help them win,” says Clayton.