Top IC to Sales Manager: The Case for and Against

If I told you promoting your top performing individual contributor to sales manager was a bad idea would you be surprised?

In a recent Scratchpad Instagram poll, 76% of respondents said promoting your top performing IC to a sales manager is a bad idea. If you’re in the sales industry it’s the counter-intuitive, yet common sentiment.

Google “should you make your best salesperson a manager” and you’ll find countless articles that argue it’s bad idea.

Just because they’re great sellers doesn’t mean they’re great leaders,” says Liz Wendling at Sales Gravy.
“Do the best salespeople make the best sales managers? Almost unanimously, when we ask sales leaders this question, the answer is ‘no,’” claims Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer for the Harvard Business Review.
“We need to stop turning our best sellers into our worst managers,” - Jason Jordan for LinkedIn.

All of these articles think they are standing out by highlighting the irony that great salespeople don’t make great managers. But why? Is it a hot take for clicks? Haters who never finish on top of the leaderboard, but want the manager spot for themselves?! Is it really true that MOST top performers make bad managers?

In my personal experience, the majority of my sales managers were once top individual performers. Likewise, the very best salespeople that I’ve worked alongside, are now excellent managers and directors in their current roles.

In that same Scratchpad poll 80% (222 votes) said they’d listen to their manager more if they were once a top performing IC.

Last time I checked, getting your reps to listen to you is pretty important. Promoting your top performing IC to manager is obviously not a guarantee for success, but it feels like we need a little course correction here.

According to Chris Hartman, Vice President, Central Zone, for Boston Scientific’s Cardiology, Rhythm and Vascular Group, “We seek candidates from the sales ranks who have demonstrated excellence not only by generating strong sales results, but also who have demonstrated success in teaching others to sell by acting as a mentor to new salespeople, and who have demonstrated success in managing through exposure to leadership opportunities such as a field training role or participation on a sales advisory board or steering committee.”

Obviously, ICs and managers require different skillsets, but even in this article, which argues that it’s a bad idea to promote your top performers to managers, they acknowledge that they’re still promoting IC’s “who have demonstrated excellence by generating strong sales results.”

Not every top performer is going to make a great manager, but the fact that 76% of people and 99.999% of articles and blogs (not a fact-checked stat) say it’s a bad idea doesn’t make any sense and I want to get to the bottom of it.

So why is promoting your Top IC to Manager an Oh-No-No?

Top salespeople want to succeed. Crushing quota and finishing on top of the leaderboard every quarter is only so good for so long. Eventually you want to move up and get the new sexy title with more power so you can make the decisions. Heck you’ve made all the money you oughta run the dang company!

And oftentimes companies will even pressure salespeople down this leadership path for two reasons:

  1. Your top performers will stay at the company if you give them a promotion.
  2. If you promote your top performer to manager, they can train everyone on their team to become top performing, Big Deal Energy clones that will make everyone boatloads of cash.

“Some reps are pushed into management,” says Gary Kagan, Co-Founder at (and former Top IC). “This is an unfortunate problem that is very common. ‘You’re doing great, we want you to lead the team!’” But if the top performer doesn’t have the right expectations of the role, it can lead to disastrous results. Not only have you removed the most tangible revenue stream in the company, but if they’re not a good fit, then they won’t last as a manager either.

“Sometimes top reps aspire to whatever is the next thing, right? It doesn't really matter what it is. It's just: what is the next title?” says Ryan Clayton, Sales Leader at Asana (and former Top IC). Personal and professional growth is different for everyone so companies and Top ICs that are rushing into title-chasing promotions to retain talent without thinking about the Revenue Team as a whole, the results will be chaotic failure.

“75% of sales managers fail to excel in their role,” according to a recent Vantage Point Study and “High-performing salespeople are promoted with the assumption that they are inherently capable of passing along their exceptional skills to others. Consequently, the training and development effort they receive is meager by design.” If you think that promoting your top rep to manager is the easy decision, then you’re going about it all wrong.

Why promoting a top IC to manager is the dream scenario

Fine, I’m convinced. Promoting your top rep to manager is a terrible, no-good, horrible, very bad idea.

“I absolutely think that you should promote top performers. I'm such an advocate of that,” - Clayton.

“If you have a top rep who’s truly interested in management, that’s gold because if their motivations align with the company, it’s the dream scenario,” - Kagan.

Okay, nevermind.

“You need to sit down with your top rep to make sure they want to be in management, know what’s expected of them in the role, and understand what the compensation is going to be,” says Kagan. “If you’re a top rep, you’re making more than your manager and that’s how it should be. So are you ready to take that pay cut? Are you ready for the boring stuff? Are you able to coach not just the B Players, but the C Players on your team who might not be as motivated as you are?”

There’s a reason why top performers are top performers. They hate to lose more than they love to win. They’re competitive problem-solvers. In a perfect world, they also make perfect managers, but that’s only the case when their expectations are realistic, their motivations are honest and aligned with the company, and their skillset translates.

“The lone wolf salesperson is a lone wolf for a reason. That’s not the person you want leading the team,” says Kagan. If your top performer wants to be a manager  “There are different types of top performers and you need to determine what type of rep that person is.”

This lone wolf, top-perfomer stereotype is probably the #1 reason why 76% of poll respondents say it’s a bad idea to promote your top IC to manager and why 99.999% of blog posts agree with that sentiment.

When these individuals are promoted and don’t see the same success, the spotlight on their failure is naturally brighter. But the reality is that there are plenty of top ICs who make great managers and you just have to dive a little deeper to figure out which ones make sense for that type of leadership position.

Say you have someone who has finished at the top of the leaderboard and thinks they’re in line for a promotion. Leadership is scared that the rep will leave if they’re not promoted and the IC thinks that they deserve a promotion or they’re going to entertain outside opportunities. What do you do?

Give them a taste.

The first step is always a conversation, but talk is cheap and talented salespeople are always convincing so it’s important to judge on actions. If your top rep says they want to be a manager, do the following:

  • Stack rank your team by A, B, and C Players. (I know Jack Welch was toxic, but just hear me out)
  • Set up your Top IC who wants to be a manager with a B player to in a mentorship capacity. Invest 3-5 hours per week to work on 1:1s, co-sells, and whatever else they think works. Do that for 45 days.
  • Still want to be a manager? Now here are 2 people to mentor: one B Player and one C Player. Do this for 45 days.
  • Still want to be a manager? Excellent. You’ve found a top IC who’s willing to take a backseat to make the company a better place. This is your dream.

“It’s important that they experience dealing with a C Player who doesn’t work like them. They might think everyone does what they do and has the drive that they do. I did this experiment with two of my top reps. One went through the entire process and went on to be a great manager. The other couldn’t deal with C Players. She was too frustrated by the feeling of being held back and dealing with the 🐂💩 and just wanted to go back to controlling their own success. And that’s totally fine! They had more appreciation for their role after we went through the process,” says Kagan.

There are plenty of reasons why a top IC won’t make a great manager. Just because you can close doesn’t mean you can teach. But that’s only one part of the job.

Clayton lays it out perfectly: “To be honest, the coaching side is fantastic. And that's my absolute favorite part of the job. But depending on where I am in the quarter, that's not the majority of what I'm doing. Coaching 1:1 and getting someone to be like, Oh, my God, you just completely revolutionized my life. That's very sexy, and that's very appealing. But that doesn't last forever, when it comes to maintaining the the numbers side of the role, diagnosing the dashboard, ensuring forecast accuracy and data quality, dealing with internal blockers in other departments - that’s the boring nuts and bolts, but maybe the most important aspects of being a good manager.”

The irony of sales is that talk is cheap. But if you have a top IC who proves with their actions that they want to become a manager because they believe in the company and that they can have a bigger impact as the leader of a team, then you’d be an absolute fool not to promote them. This is not something you want to avoid doing, but an opportunity that you cannot afford to pass up.

Your honor, the jury has reached a decision…

It depends on the human.

Despite the overwhelming opinion on the internet and in the sales pit that promoting your top IC to manager is a bad idea, that is not the case. In fact, I’d argue in my own opinion that promoting your top rep to a manager is probably the smart move because top ICs are typically people who  know your product, your process, have natural selling skills and innate drive to succeed in any role they’re given. Additionally, if their motivations, expectations, and skillset align with the role, then promoting your top IC to manager is the best thing you can do. To say otherwise is probably thinking a little too hard about it.

That being said, not every top IC is made for management. There is a risk in promoting your top performer because you’re not only taking away a revenue stream from your team, but there is a bigger spotlight on a successful rep who underperforms as a manager and that can affect morale across the org.

Before you make your decision, give your Top IC a taste of what being a manager entails and they’ll probably realize whether or not they’re a good fit on their own. As long as you’re constantly communicating with each one of your reps to learn and understand their professional and personal motivations, you can work together to achieve mutual success as individuals and for the Revenue Team as a whole.