Spring 1993
Marvin A. Jolson Alan J. Dubinsky Francis J. Yammarino Lucette B. Comer

Transforming the Salesforce with Leadership

Vol. 34, No. 3Reprint #3437sloanreview.mit.edu

Transforming the Salesforce with Leadership

Traditionally, leadership has been described as the ability of a superior to influence the behavior of subordinates and persuade them to willingly follow a desired course of action. The leader’s task is to unite all assigned personnel in an organization and coordinate them in an effort to achieve sought-after results.

From one viewpoint, leaders are leaders, whether they manage sales personnel, production specialists, administrators, engineers, nurses, basketball players, or any other group of employees. On the other hand, many of those who manage and lead sales managers and salespeople suggest that sales personnel are different, distinct enough from their counterparts in other departments to benefit from a unique form of leadership.

But why are salespeople different from other employees? And what is this unique form of leadership? These questions are the focus of this article.

Why Are Salespeople Different?

But it is the field sales manager, the leader, who establishes, monitors, and enforces standards and expectations of performance and behavior. More than other employees, salespeople operate in glass cages. Their behavior and the results of their performance are subject to continuous scrutiny. Discrepancies between management’s expectations and the salesperson’s performance are readily measurable and instantly visible. Moreover, prospective and current customers are not reluctant to report a salesperson’s improper conduct, questionable ethics, or inadequate services.

Salespeople are boundary spanners.

The salesperson’s simultaneous links to prospects, customers, managers, family, and self identify him or her as a boundary spanner or a person who operates at the periphery or boundary of an organization and is therefore subject to influences and pressures from individuals within and outside of the organization.

The salesperson is a “person in the middle” who must negotiate between customer and company for prices, delivery dates, etc., or between manager and family for tradeoffs between work schedules and leisure time. The intellectual, emotional, and interactional demands on a salesperson may be so incompatible that the salespeople, leaders, and spouses may all be dissatisfied.

The boundary role of salespeople creates conflicts for everyone. Salespeople require enough discretion and autonomy to react to the varying needs and demands of customers and others. However, when the salesperson is granted too much freedom, the firm cannot standardize organizational procedures and instill needed controls over the scheduling, work flow, and procedures that salespeople use. And salespeople who operate at geographic or psychological distances from their managers have opportunities to engage in surreptitious behavior that may circumvent company ethical standards.

Salespeople are subject to stress.

The pressures of closing sales, meeting quotas, expediting shipments, finding new prospects, absorbing rejection, and fulfilling family obligations make the life of a salesperson difficult. Thus, the job of selling is often viewed as a succession of ups and downs, a series of field experiences resulting in alternating feelings of exhilaration and depression. Salespeople must cope with competition inside and outside the firm. They must often endure the company’s failure to provide quality products and services, meet competitive prices, and ship orders on time. Management may decide to change territories, alter compensation plans or quotas, and require that sales-people sacrifice earnings when sales are poor, travel extensively, and work odd hours. It is within this environment of anxiety, depression, and unrest that the sales leader must assemble, train, supervise, and stimulate a group of stress-ridden human beings, molding them into an exciting, purposeful, cohesive, and productive selling unit.

A Hierarchy of Leaders

In a large organization, the first-line field sales manager may have several managerial levels above him or her (e.g., division, regional, district, branch managers). Conversely, the first-line field sales manager in a smaller organization may report directly to the national sales manager. Thus, clusters of leaders and followers exist at all levels of a sales organization, and each sales manager is both a leader and a follower.

The superior/subordinate relationship may change at each organizational level. However, the unique characteristics of salespeople as followers apply in varying degrees at each level in the company hierarchy. Sales managers at all levels may be distinguished from other types of managers by the measurability and visibility of their performance results, their role as boundary spanners, their physical separation from supervisors, and the tension they experience.

The demands sales managers face are depicted in Figure 1, which illustrates the relationships of a field sales manager who is simultaneously a boss (leader) and a subordinate (follower). He or she is accountable to senior management for achieving a given level of sales but must depend on the salesforce for these results. If the group fails to reach this expected level of productivity, the sales manager alone has to explain the failure. Moreover, the manager must continuously perform as a leader as he or she trains subordinates in the field, conducts sales meetings, analyzes the reasons for lost sales, and hassles with leaders for sales support and resources. The sales manager represents his or her salespeople and the salespeople’s customers when negotiating with bosses and other functional managers for advertising support, price allowances, special promotions such as rebates, looser credit policies, prompt deliveries, and so on.

A Comparison of Leadership Styles

What kind of leadership is most appropriate in this type of work environment? Let’s compare the different styles of two leaders of sales personnel.

Leniger is a high-energy leader with limited managerial skills. He provides his newly hired salespeople with a desk, a phone, a well-known company name, and little else. Salespeople work independently, and competition among peers is intense. Leniger encourages little unity, camaraderie, and teamwork. Some salespeople report that the company exists in a cutthroat environment in which competitors attempt to steal customers, salespeople, and even “for sale” lawn signs from each other. Yet salesforce turnover at Re/Max is well beneath the industry average.

The thirty-three-year-old Pacetta, a maverick Xerox copier salesman, thrives on challenges and risk taking and is not reluctant to confront superiors. His hard-charging personality, buoyed by a well-integrated system of giving perks, penalties, and pep talks and weeding out losers, revitalized the moribund sales office. He exhibits demanding work habits and dedicated concern for quality customers and is committed to motivating salesforce members even if he has to break company rules.

Pacetta creates a friendly atmosphere that includes parties, rallies, and recognition for birthdays and other personal events. While he showers subordinates with awards and kudos when earned, he will not hesitate to respond aggressively to foul-ups. For example, each month, he posts a list of the eight best and eight worst managers in his district.

A New Look at Leadership Traits

When comparing leaders such as Leniger and Pacetta and others in sales organizations, it has been customary to look at their personal traits and behavioral styles. One of the authors developed a list of the major talents and characteristics that are desirable for district and regional field sales managers (see Table 1). These traits are classified into three categories: (1) conceptual and technical skills and knowledge, (2) human relations attributes, and (3) motivation.

Another approach has been to compare leadership styles based on questions like these:

Clearly, Leniger and Pacetta can be compared in terms of both of these approaches.

Burns and Bass introduced a broader paradigm of leadership that transcends but implicitly incorporates trait and behavioral style considerations in describing alternative methods of leadership.4 This approach to leadership has never been associated with sales organizations specifically, but, as we will show, it is uniquely appropriate for that purpose. According to Burns and Bass, the leadership process can be viewed as either transactional or transformational.Sales organizations have always used the first method; the second shows promise as a new approach.

Transactional Leadership in Selling

Contingent Rewards.

Most U.S. sales executives and managers are transactional leaders who rely on contingent reinforcement to motivate their salesforces. In a sales organization, the senior sales manager (leader) and the subordinate manager or salesperson (follower) draw up a formal or implied agreement specifying the reward or benefit the follower will receive if a predetermined level of performance is reached. The goals the follower should achieve usually have a short-term focus, can be based on effort and/or results, may or may not be quantifiable, and will depend on the follower’s (salesperson’s or subordinate sales manager’s) position and functions in the sales organization. Studies indicate that this approach can be quite effective, although the response of followers tends to be impersonal rather than emotionally involving.5

Goals for salespeople often include sales volume in dollars or units, new account acquisition, customer retention rate, percent of quota, willingness to assist new sales recruits, and so on. Subordinate sales managers may be evaluated by such criteria as group sales increases, controllable profits, balancing of sales volume across multiple product lines, salesforce turnover rates, share of market or sales penetration rates in the assigned territory, and company image relative to competitors.

The leader can reward successful performance with increased commissions, bonuses, salary increases, promotions to higher-level positions, recognition in company house organs, trophies, transfers to larger territories, praise, and other responses to followers’ short-term wants or needs. Conversely, the leader can react to poor performance with a wide array of negative contingent reinforcement methods, such as reduced compensation, intensified monitoring of activities, reassignment, and so on.

In simple terms, transactional leadership consists of a contract between the leader in a sales organization and a subordinate. An example of this relationship between sales personnel and their transactional leader is typified by the sign above one sales manager’s desk in a commission-oriented organization that reads “No Orders – No Money.”

Management by Exception.

Many transactional sales leaders practice management by exception, which means they observe the subordinate’s performance from afar and become personally involved in the follower’s activities only if they observe negative deviations from the agreed-on courses of action. The sales manager’s plan should include a precise sales goal for each subordinate, a suggested method for achieving each goal (including an outline of procedures), appropriate assignment of responsibilities, and ways to monitor subordinates’ progress.

If sales personnel’s results are on target, the sales supervisor tends to ignore procedures or tactics. If the symptoms are unfavorable, he or she examines techniques, call reports, and behavior with more care. When confronted by a salesman who was producing poor results and who complained because he was being monitored more closely than one of the top producers, an industrial sales manager replied: “When you’re doing okay, you’ll hardly know I’m around. But when you begin to falter, I’m going to make damn sure that you fail my way.”

Management by exception may involve a simple, helpful suggestion for improvement, detailed instructions for reversing a negative trend, stiff punishment such as loss of territory, reduced compensation or sales support, or even termination. Some transactional leaders will offer praise for a job well done. Most will continuously inspect but only correct. Transactional leaders such as Rick Horn of Stahl Company (manufacturers of truck bodies) use the laissez-faire approach. Horn requires nothing more from his forty-five salespeople than a weekly itinerary. He feels that anything else gets in the way of their selling: “I don’t feel like I have to ever tell my salespeople what to do. They are all big boys and girls who know their territories as well as what they have to do to make it big. All I want to know is where they are in case I have to reach them.”

The Follower’s Level of Experience.

Transactional leadership may not be the best way to motivate newly hired salespeople who quickly become isolated, boundary spanners who are contractually under pressure to meet management’s expectations while becoming accustomed to a new environment. David Leniger wines and dines experienced sales producers from other companies, makes huge offers to them in exchange for productivity gains, and once he has locked them into Re/Max, he turns them loose to sink or swim. Bob Bardagy, executive vice president of sales with Comdisco, Inc., echoes this approach: “I hire the best people I possibly can and let them do their own thing. I don’t try to overmanage.”

John H. Patterson of National Cash Register was a transactional leader who promised a “parade” and “brass band” to successful producers. He lacked the ability to hire superstars and so recruited novices who were given two devices, supposedly of Patterson’s invention — a quota and a canned sales presentation. With these meager tools, his followers engaged heavily in self-management. Moreover, if they performed poorly, he wouldn’t hesitate to embarrass them in front of their peers.

Frank Pacetta also believes in the “rewards for results” approach, but, unlike Leniger, he offers a good deal of warmth and positive reinforcement to his inexperienced salesforce for a job well done. However, Pacetta is not reluctant to showcase both the strongest and weakest performers, thus increasing the pressures on salespeople with less talent.

How experienced must people be in order to respond to transactional leadership? We conclude that inexperienced, less confident, but hungry, subordinate salespeople and sales managers want transactional leaders to set objectives for them and provide instructions about how to achieve them. Successful, independent self-starters may think that a leader’s external efforts are only part of the influence process, because self-leadership makes a strong contribution toward motivating them to success.

The decay of selling proficiency and the need for external stimulation is similar to the movement of a playground swing that starts with a parent’s (or leader’s) push. Without the parent’s additional shoves or the child’s (follower’s) pumping (self-management), the swing will stop. Many sales leaders think that if a three-year-old on a playground swing can master the art of self-management, sales followers can do the same regardless of their level of experience.

Transformational Leadership in Selling

Transformational leaders are likely to probe deeply to identify and arouse their followers’ current and long-term needs, including those that are dormant or of a higher order. The capable transformational sales leader has the power to convert the subordinate’s latent desires into current needs. He or she broadens the scope and magnifies the strength of subordinates’ wants, desires, and needs. The result is a transfer of energies and an attendant motivational climate that encourages sales personnel to surpass their own expectations and personal objectives for the good of the sales district and company. Transformational leadership is the process of shaping the salespeople or subordinate managers, molding them into what the leader wishes them to be.

In building the Mary Kay Cosmetics Company, the Dallas-based producer of cosmetics, skin-care products, fragrances, and toiletries, Mary Kay Ash created an organization of more than 200,000 sales managers and salespeople with over $300 million in sales. Through her understanding of how saleswomen are inspired by dreams or visions of achieving goals, she remains convinced that “saleswomen will work for recognition when they won’t work for money.” The numerous pink Cadillacs awarded to high-producing sales managers and reps are more than just automobiles; they are symbols of recognition. They bolster subordinates’ self-esteem and arouse emotional involvement, intense excitement, and a confidence that no sales goal or reward is beyond reach.

Transformational leadership augments rather than opposes transactional leadership. Ash exemplifies the sales-maximizing leader who has always strived to improve the quality of her subordinates’ lives. Thus her leadership combines prominent doses of both transactional and transformational styles. Frank Pacetta also demonstrates both transactional and transformational leadership tendencies. Transformational sales leaders extend the boundaries of transactional leadership by exhibiting three recognizable characteristics: (1) charisma, (2) intellectual stimulation, and (3) individualized consideration.


Sales managers who have charisma create feelings in sales subordinates that exceed ordinary esteem, affection, admiration, respect, and trust. They experience a total and unqualified belief in and identification with the leader and his or her mission.

Typically, charismatic sales leaders attract followers because of their overt confidence, risk-taking tendencies, assertiveness, magnetic personalities, and frequently feisty approach. Often they were promoted to their current positions because of their success as salespeople. Thus, as field sales managers, they often inspire their subordinates by inviting them to observe their presentations in front of prospective customers.

For example, by age forty-three, Jim Jensen had already turned Grantree Furniture Rental Company and Thousand Trails, Inc., into multimillion-dollar successes through their potent salesforces. As vice president, president, and CEO, Jensen was constantly in the field either as a salesman being observed by new recruits or as an observer, troubleshooter, or savior of sales. He impressed his followers with his uncanny ability to spot his followers’ selling flaws and come up with an instant remedy.

As a six-year-old, Jensen had sold water lilies door-to-door; later, as a college student, he sold cookware. The division sales manager for Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Jensen set his own selling example that emerged from his favorite saying:

“Ideal sales leaders are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their subordinates to cross the sea of problems, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging their students to create bridges of their own.”

Charismatic leaders are mood creators who encourage continuing positive reinforcement; they communicate what they want mirrored or imitated. These leaders trigger the transformation process via the “Pygmalion effect” by sending signals (e.g., by public or private recognition or praise, words of encouragement following a sales call, formal or informal kudos, or desirable assignments) that attest to their management and selling capabilities and effectiveness.

For example, sales leaders should empower their good performers by encouraging them to act in the interests of subordinates and customers without requesting prior approval. This includes giving subordinates authority to develop and implement employee sanctions and rewards, pricing negotiations, and unique customer adjustments and services. When empowered, many salesforce members develop strong feelings of self-confidence, thus triggering very powerful dynamic inner drives.

Charismatic sales leaders exhibit genuine confidence in their followers. Their expectations activate their followers’ right mental attitudes, which include positive thoughts and positive self-esteem and performance. In his speeches and videos, Louis Tice of the Pacific Institute pictures this as a cycle that is initiated by the sales subordinate. (See Figure 2.) Positive self-talk (“I’m sure our sales district can reach our quota”) leads to the follower’s positive self-esteem, which, in turn, leads to positive performance and then to even more positive self-talk (“There is no doubt we will exceed any quota assigned to us”). During each cycle, the process renews itself with new highs. Negative self-talk has an opposite effect. The golfer who tees up at a difficult water hole and says, “Every time I play this hole, I hit the ball in the water (negative self-talk)” invariably hits the ball right into the water (negative performance). The self-talk becomes even more negative (“I told you I’d hit it in the water”), and the cycle continues. The same is true of salespeople who practice negative self-talk: “We are rarely successful when the buying team includes a female member.” “I can never close a sale on the first call.”

Dave Yoho, the founder of Surfa Shield Institute and a top motivator of salespeople, is a charismatic leader with enthusiasm, optimism, excitement, and high energy. According to Yoho: “When you give high energy, you get high energy. When you greet your prospects, customers, and staff members with total enthusiasm, you get an enthusiastic response. When you give your spouse an energetic hug, you’ll get one back. When you pick up a phone, smile before you dial.”

When Yoho conducts sales meetings, he uses a Don Rickles style to throw friendly insults at his audience. Yoho is capable of inspiring many followers to try harder and exert themselves well beyond their own expectations. Thus, as with charismatic leaders in a variety of settings, a “love-hate” relationship can emerge. Most followers are inspired to greater heights, while a few are overwhelmed into inaction.

David Leniger and Frank Pacetta are also examples of high-energy charismatic leaders. Leniger shows a capability to arouse and satisfy needs and create high expectations among independent sales recruits. Yet he may be stubbornly insensitive to followers’ desires for warmth, attention, and support. While both Leniger and Pacetta inspire followers who are at different points in their sales careers, Pacetta seems more dedicated to the development of enduring relationships.

Intellectual Stimulation.

Charisma alone is seldom enough to generate effective transformational leadership. Intellectual stimulation is also required. A transformational sales leader stimulates subordinates by creating a readiness for changes in thinking and by encouraging subordinates to use new approaches for solving old and continuing problems and to apply past examples to emerging problems. Intellectual stimulation includes encouraging sales followers to use intuition in order to become adept at identifying and responding to prospects’ differing needs, problem areas, and buying motives. These leaders are capable of devising and introducing innovative prospecting and selling strategies, controlling salesforce turnover, and maintaining the organization’s stability by developing imaginative ways to recruit salespeople.

A leader can stimulate followers’ awareness of enduring and emerging problems that tend to create barriers between an instilled strategic vision and desired marketplace results. For example, many sales organizations have formulated a compelling vision of building the ideal salesforce in terms of both quantity and quality. Achieving such an objective may require a lengthy agenda that begins with a rejection of conformity — a change in thinking about the recruitment and selection processes. According to Doug Clopton, regional sales manager for Hershey Chocolate USA in Seattle, “We aren’t doing any hiring right now” or “We have no openings” are responses commonly repeated to unsolicited sales applicants. Instead of looking at inquiries as interruptions, Hershey prefers a proactive to a reactive recruiting stance in anticipation of the need for future salesforce additions or replacements. Moreover, uninvited recruits may exhibit a level of initiative and inner drive that identifies successful salespeople. Thus, the best time to interview and screen sales applicants may be before you have an opening. A reservoir of attractive résumés can be a valuable resource.6

One charismatic industrial sales manager is a superior recruiter and sales trainer, but he consistently displays an absence of intellectual rigor. His dated techniques are somewhat effective with newcomers to the firm, but he fails to probe for and adapt to competitive hiring and selling programs. He does not implement much of his logic or many of his thoughts. Despite his puristic approach during the recruitment and training processes, he incurs minor misrepresentations and customer manipulations. Sales reps emulate this leader’s demonstrated style because they find that his actions justify their own behavior.

Leaders who use intellectual stimulation are not necessarily scholarly or even overly intelligent. The late Thomas J. Watson of IBM was a backwoods peddler and unwitting promoter of bogus securities before talking his way into a salesman’s job with National Cash Register (NCR). He spoke with a countryman’s cadence and poor grammar. As a sales leader, his optimism prevented him from spotting and dealing with forthcoming negative trends. Watson was known for placing heavy emphasis on image and pretension, excluding ugly reality.

Yet Watson was one of the most intellectually stimulating sales leaders of the twentieth century because of his ability to transform subordinates into constructive thinkers. He was convinced that the ability to think is a rare quality and that success is the inevitable result of the thinking process. At NCR, the word “Think” was printed on every page of the standard sales presentation. At IBM, he turned the word into a corporate symbol that was compulsory in every room and at times on every desk. “Think” ultimately became the name of IBM’s publication, which contained many of Watson’s loftier sales messages, as well as literary contributions and philosophical tidbits, that encouraged IBM sales leaders to use retrospection to their current and future advantage.

Although John Patterson excelled as a transactional leader, he provided intellectual stimulation by relying heavily on the thoughts and ideas of others. He was more of an adapter than an originator of ideas and encouraged others to do the same. For example, although he is famous for introducing the first canned sales presentation, it was really his brother-in-law who developed the idea. His genius for adapting allowed him to remove an idea from its original setting, think about it, modify it to meet an intended application, and implement it. The origin got lost in the process.

Intellectual stimulation seems to prevail at Quad/ Graphics, a $600 million high-tech enterprise. The firm’s sales training manager brags that he has never had a “graduate” instead, his aim is lifetime learning:

“Our environment is not for everyone. Only people who act like chiefs, not Indians, will make it here. Coddling, certainty, and paternalism are out. Continuous education, self-generated prospects, and unstructured settings are in.”

Bernard Bass suggests that intellectual stimulation is most important when an organization is in a state of flux or frenzy, for example, when major problems are threatening a business unit’s survival.7 Our earlier cited differences between sales personnel and other company members suggest that stressful situations are more likely within the sales organization than in other units of the firm.

Although leaders in almost all functional areas must live through difficult times, few situations are as unpleasant as the voluntary turnover of a valued sales manager, the usurpation of a key account, serious loss of market share in a territory, or unethical behavior by trusted sales personnel. During these serious problems, the sales leader needs to transform the victimized persons or organizations through intellectual stimulation. The possible stimulants are rethinking, reorienting, discussing ways to avoid crises, proactively planning in anticipation of a crisis, reactively planning after a crisis, maintaining ongoing responsibilities while confronting disruptive events, having a strong sense of humor, and preparing to cope with the next crisis.

Patterson and Watson responded to serious sales problems in different ways. When the growth of the secondhand market for cash registers collided with Patterson’s sales growth and ego, he organized an aggressive, palpably criminal plan involving espionage, payoffs, and the assignment of secret agents to clear the field and take possession of the secondhand market from coast to coast.8 Watson had the capacity to convert what he called the “complex and terrifying world of selling” into a transparent and simple situation; he bought a number of competitors in the secondhand business and outpromoted the remaining competition.

Frank Pacetta was a maverick sales leader who apparently thrived best when conditions were less than calm. The Cleveland district was in a state of chaos when Pacetta took over. He was ready to buck company rules and take on his bosses if necessary. He created a readiness for transformation by using unconventional tactics as a form of intellectual stimulation. Pacetta was not the only rule-breaker who was successful. For example, what about Jack Welch at GE, Ted Turner at Turner Broadcasting, Boogie Weinglass, the nonconformist who built Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, Bill McGowan at MCI, or Sam Walton at Wal-Mart? Each one of these top executives is, or was, a transformational sales leader in his own way.

Individualized Consideration.

The influence of sales leaders is most clearly seen in their continuing interpersonal roles, that is, one-on-one relationships. Many charismatic and intellectually stimulating sales leaders spend little or no time with each subordinate on a personal level.

Individualized attention requires that the leader show concern for each salesperson or submanager rather than for tasks, policies, administrative matters, or decision making. Its major purpose is to smooth the conduit for ongoing communication between the leader and the subordinate, evoke personal commitment and devotion, and allay fears, anxiety, and depression. Individualized consideration is workable at all levels of the sales management hierarchy. However, it is useful to explain its value at lower levels, such as the relationship between the first-line field sales manager and each assigned sales-force member.

As shown in Table 1, the ideal field sales manager will possess conceptual and technical skills and knowledge, demonstrate considerable capability in the human relations area, and will be highly motivated. Frequent personal contact with salespeople is often difficult because of their physical distance from headquarters. However, it may be even more difficult to convince salespeople to transcend their own self-interests for the benefit of the organization without the leader’s knowledge of, sensitivity to, and response to each assignee’s unique needs for growth and development.

Clearly, the leader cannot treat all salesforce members alike. There are numerous examples of sales managers who support some salespeople or subordinate sales managers more than they support others. According to leader-member exchange theory, leaders divide subordinates into two broad categories.9 Those they perceive as competent and skillful, trustworthy, and highly motivated become the “in-group” that receives more latitude and support and are called “cadres.” Those that leaders see as having contrary characteristics are known as “hired hands” they treat them more formally and assign them to the more mundane, routine tasks and ask them to swim in uncharted waters (e.g., cold canvassing). Leaders give cadres more support, latitude, and more qualified prospects than hired hands and provide informal day-today attention to encourage self-development and opportunities for more sales, higher earnings, and promotion.

Under Tom Watson, no one could think of being a “boss.” One could be a leader who did not tell people what to do but helped them do it. In this sense, individualized consideration takes the form of supervision that occurs in the field, face to face with a subordinate.

Supervising salesforce members is aimed toward: (1) improving the salesperson’s morale, (2) uncovering selling strengths and weaknesses, (3) providing additional guidance and training, (4) enforcing company needs, and (5) stimulating improved performance. The active field supervisor may spend time with a different salesperson each day. Each salesperson faces a unique problem calling for an individual reaction. The supervisor is under pressure to uncover the problem and recommend an instant solution to transform the salesperson. In this sense, the leader is somewhat like the baseball star who every new group of spectators expects will hit a home run.

When salespeople’s work assignments provoke intolerable anxieties, it may be the result of the inherent disappointments of selling that were described earlier. Or salespeople may have been assigned to routine, boring duties, or they may be in jobs that are over their heads. For example, a salesman may be quite successful when supplied with qualified prospects but may find it difficult to create his own leads. A salesperson may be working in an environment where he or she is not accepted and where his or her past history or present inadequacies may cause rejection or conflict. Even when not the subject of open attack, the salesperson can be deprived of group support, membership, and acceptance and can become, in essence, an outcast.

Supervision and individualized consideration should be preventive as well as remedial. The transformational leader should not limit doses of stimulation and motivation to periods after troubles have cropped up and the salesperson is in a slump. Leaders should anticipate and be proactive toward salespeople’s grievances, emotional setbacks, company inefficiencies, economic disturbances, and other difficulties.

Field sales managers must spend considerable time with salespeople in their territories, visiting them and their families, holding private sessions, analyzing call reports, and extending simple understanding and warmth. Clearly, many subordinates’ complaints or concerns are imagined, but even these call for the leader’s coaching and counseling. Coaching is a teaching technique for imparting facts and methods for accomplishing a task. Counseling is called for when salespeople’s personal feelings come into play. It is used when salespeople cannot view their own actions and outcomes with the objectivity necessary for learning, e.g., when they view their own behavior through the lens of their own personal feelings, self-image, and prejudices.

Whereas coaching and counseling are forms of occasional individualized consideration, mentoring is a more permanent type of guidance with the follower serving as a protégé of the leader. In her younger days, Mary Kay Ash was the model mentor. She literally moved in with her promising sales managers. She handled them with the same motherly concern, interest, and fairness with which she treated her own children. They followed her in every step she made. She always had a trainee with her in the field — either observing or performing in front of her. Chuck Harris is another mentor who believes in leading by example. He switched from law to selling, and as vice president of sales with Deibold USA, Inc., he leads by pulling rather than pushing. He is such an effective and convincing performer that subordinate sales personnel are eager to emulate him. He is convinced that followers would rather see a sermon than hear one.

Escaping from a Comfort Zone

A capable leader strives to make followers comfortable through his or her own charisma, intellectual stimulation, individualized consideration, and contingent rewards. However, transformational leaders are not content with the status quo and tend to develop followers who seek to emulate their leaders by escaping their own comfort zones, or self-imposed boundaries of achievement potential. Favoring a particular type of prospect, preferring a prospecting method, avoiding a structured sales presentation, disliking a commission-based compensation plan, being afraid to ask for a high enough price — these are all manifestations of a given salesperson’s comfort zone. Sales leaders on all levels have analogous restrictions.

Many salespeople and sales managers who are hesitant about testing their own limits can benefit by associating with a strong transformational leader who challenges their comfort zones. They need leaders who encourage individualism. A subordinate’s comfort zone, once stretched by a transformational sales leader, may never snap back to its original dimensions.

As we examined the hierarchy of several sales organizations in the electronic security industry, we observed managers’ tendency to adopt the leadership style of their immediate superiors. In one east coast sales operation, four of the regional sales managers are highly transformational and one has dominant transactional leadership tendencies. The behavior of the twenty-one district and branch sales managers reporting to the transformational leaders models that of their immediate leaders. The behavior of the six subordinate managers of the transactional leader is based on contingent rewards, management by exception, and few signs of intellectual stimulation, warmth, personal direction, or one-on-one consideration.

Implementing Transformational Leadership

The actual practice of transforming the salesforce begins when the incumbent sales leader is convinced of the need to encourage subordinates to reject the status quo and strive for the achievement of higher-level goals. The leader’s first step is to formulate a vision or mental image of the sales organization’s future, such as “a happy, successful sales team totally dedicated to developing and maintaining a highly profitable base of loyal, satisfied customers.”

There are at least two ways to foster transformational leadership in sales managers and other sales personnel. The first approach focuses on the recruitment and selection of sales personnel with transformational qualities and characteristics. The second method concentrates on the training and development of transformational leadership skills in the sales personnel the organization already employs.

Typically, both methods feature the use of the Multifactor Leadership QuestionnaireTM (MLQ) developed by Bernard Bass, Bruce Avolio, and colleagues.10 Many types of organizations have successfully used this instrument to identify people who show promise of becoming transformational leaders. The basic MLQ consists of a series of five-point scale items that describe a leader, ranging from “Frequently, if not always” to “Not at all.” Some sample items measuring each dimension of transformational leadership are:

Recruitment and selection.

There are both direct and indirect ways to identify transformational leadership characteristics in applicants for sales manager or other sales personnel positions. Indirectly, several personal traits and characteristics are associated with transformational leadership, and these qualities can be identified in interviews or pre-employment screenings of job applicants (see Table 1). For example, transformational leaders are innovative, creative problem-solvers and risk-takers who are able to handle cognitively complex tasks. They also display high levels of self-actualization and need for achievement, embody the entrepreneurial spirit, hold strong personal convictions and values, respond well under stress and in crises, and are courageous. For identifying each of these qualities, there are professionally developed, reliable psychological and personality assessments.11

More directly, candidates can initiate a detailed, computer-generated profile by completing a self-rated version of the MLQ to inform management how they describe their own leadership styles and traits. The scale items parallel the cited examples but are presented in the first person, e.g., “I provide my subordinates with new ways of looking at things which used to puzzle them” (intellectual stimulation).

Training and development.

There are several successful programs designed to enhance transformational leadership skills regardless of an employee’s current skill level. These programs can be easily tailored and applied to sales settings. Individuals who have no prior knowledge of transformational and charismatic behaviors can acquire them.12 Bass and his colleagues have been developing and conducting transformational leadership training programs for individuals at various organizational levels in numerous types of organizations.13 These programs and workshops typically involve one to five days of intensive training and related experiences. Often, after several months, they conduct additional three- to five-day follow-up advanced programs.

The cores of all these programs are quite similar. They explain the underlying philosophy of transformational leadership. Then the programs give its key components (charismatic leadership, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation) and the enhanced individual, team, and organizational outcomes that result from transformational leadership. Through a variety of cases, individual and team exercises, video presentations, and the participants’ videotaping, transformational leadership and related skills are discussed, analyzed, and practiced. The workshops include feedback to participants (from the MLQ) about their transformational leadership. The focus is then on self-development and the development of others. The others in this case are not limited to followers or subordinates but may also include coworkers, superiors, and customers or clients (see Figure 1). The formation and implementation of individual actions plans for improvement of transformational leadership skills are the main components of the programs. Because all individuals possess some transformational skills to some degree, even minimal levels of these skills can be enhanced through training. In fact, Bass and his colleagues have demonstrated repeatedly the success of these transformational leadership training and development programs. Again, with minor adaptation and modification, a salesforce leader could successfully implement such programs to transform the salesforce for even greater effectiveness.

An experimental salesforce-specific version of the MLQ is being tested by Crime Prevention Company of America, Inc., a mid-Atlantic designer and marketer of commercial and residential security systems. Aspiring transformational leaders complete the self-report version of the MLQ and then participate in a three-phase leadership training program:

  1. Lectures, demonstrations, audios and videos, discussions, study, and other classroom vehicles.
  2. Role-modeling by the leader to promote learning by example and to demonstrate work habits and commitment as well as techniques of recruitment and selection, sales training and supervision, motivation, and conducting of sessions with prospective and current clients.
  3. On-the-job supervision and personal monitoring by the leader, who makes constructive comments and corrections while serving as a coach, counselor, and mentor. The MLQ is completed by peers or leaders who have been in contact with the trainee.

A Salesforce Panacea?

Transformational leadership may not be appropriate in all salesforce settings. It may not be useful in relaxed sales environments or for firms facing very stable market conditions. We must also question whether all incumbents in sales organizations are seeking the changes that transformational leadership will bring about. In situations where resistance is substantial and the transformational leadership style is needed, the role of the newly arrived transformational sales manager will likely be more difficult.

Nevertheless, transformational leadership in sales management is intuitively appealing because it apparently improves the performance of subordinate sales managers and salespeople beyond typical expectations.A number of studies involving nonselling personnel, many of them by Bass, Avolio, and their colleagues, have suggested significant positive relationships between a transformational style of leadership and the effectiveness of followers. Our widespread but informal observations of sales subordinates’ job satisfaction and bottom-line sales results also suggest the desirability of adding transformational to the transactional leadership that may already exist in most sales organizations. Although the ingredients of transformational leadership are well-established and are used intuitively in many organizations, they need to be introduced and developed in a sales management setting.


1. D. Berry and K. Abrahansen, “The Types of Salesmen to Understand and Motivate, ” Industrial Marketing Management, July 1981, pp. 207–218.

2. Wall Street Journal, 10 September 1991, p. 1.

3. Wall Street Journal, 24 September 1991, p. 1.

4. J.M. Burns, leadership(New York: Harper & Row, 1978); and B.M. Bass, Leadership and Performance beyond Expectations (New York: Free Press, 1985).

5. J.S. Selvaggi and a staff of University of Maryland faculty members, “CEO Leadership Profiles in High-Technology Firms” (College Park, Maryland: Working Paper, 28 September 1991).

6. J.D. Clopton,”Becoming Proactive about Recruitment,” Sales and Marketing Management,September 1992, pp. 93–97.

7. Bass (1985).

8. W. Rodgers,Think (New York: Stein & Day, 1972).

9. G. Graen, M.A. Novak, and P. Sommersamp, “The Effects of Leader-Member Exchange and Job Design on Productivity and Satisfaction Testing a Dual Attachment Model,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance,30 August 1982, pp. 109–131.

10. B.J. Bass and B.J. Avolio, Manual for the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (Palo Alto, California: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1990); and

B.J. Bass, Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership (New York: Free Press, 1990).

11. For a review and description, see:

Bass (1990).

12. J.M. Howell and P.J. Frost, “A Laboratory Study of Charismatic Leadership,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 43 (1989): 243–269.

13. Bass and Avolio (1990).

B.J. Avolio, D.A. Waldman, and F.J. Yammarino, “The Four I’s of Transformational Leadership,” Journal of European Industrial Training 15 (1990): 9–16.

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