Chess board with two sales reps standing in the background
CEO Insights

Build a Future-Ready Sales Team: The Power of Strategic Succession Planning

Written By: Dave Manning

July 2, 2024 – 5 min read

The foundation of any thriving business lies in robust succession planning. Carefully orchestrated succession planning does more than just prevent the risk of promoting underprepared individuals; it fosters a culture of respect, motivation, and enduring loyalty across the organization. It also helps all team members—whether they are destined for a leadership position or not—feel there is a development plan in place to encourage ongoing

Believe it or not, succession planning is a frequently underestimated element of team development. Amid the daily grind of business, the significance of implementing a strategic approach to leadership succession, particularly within sales teams, often goes unnoticed.

Succession planning is more than simply identifying “who’s next in line.” It is an intentional process of recognizing, nurturing, and fostering ongoing professional and personal development among potential future leaders.

Know Your Players to Nurture a Deep Bench

The goal of any sales organization is to develop a framework whereby stakeholders can identify and nurture a robust pipeline of individuals who would be strong candidates for promotion to leadership (once vacancies arise either from turnover or expansion). It is important to note that a succession-planning paradigm should not focus solely on “the chosen few” who are most likely to ascend into management positions. Rather, the goal is to enable career advancement opportunities for all and build the strongest sales
organization possible.

To do this, first-line leaders must regularly assess the skills, capabilities, and attitudes of every team member and then create an individualized plan to provide a broad range of opportunities (cross-functional, self-directed, and more) that will let every rep broaden their skills tool kit and demonstrate their potential for leadership.

Sales leader moving around team members

A strong succession-planning paradigm enables career advancement
opportunities for all and builds the strongest sales organization possible.

In the absence of a thoughtful succession-planning strategy, three common scenarios often play out:

  1. People who are not qualified get promoted to leadership roles
  2. People who have good leadership potential, but don’t yet have the tangible skills, tools, or coaching mindset they need to thrive in the role, get promoted
  3. People who don’t want to manage other people get promoted to leadership positions

Each of these scenarios has potentially disastrous implications.

Today, most larger pharma/life sciences companies have an established framework in place when it comes to developing talent with succession planning in mind. However, this is often not the case for small and mid-sized companies and startups, which may be hampered by a lack of experience, bandwidth, or personnel.

Consistent coaching by sales leaders provides regular opportunities to assess their field reps. Through regular coaching conversations, leaders can develop a more complete picture of the rep’s strengths and weaknesses and gain a deeper understanding of their attitudes and motivations when it comes to career aspirations. These insights help to identify the best candidate for internal promotion—and importantly, help to reduce the ill-fated practice of reflexively promoting someone into a leadership role because they have the longest tenure, or they are popular within the organization.

Your executive leadership should also work to foster cross-functional leadership
development. By identifying and developing potential leaders throughout the organization, you can introduce new ideas and best practices. This approach allows you to place individuals with strong leadership and coaching capabilities in charge of the overall field sales effort.

Keep diversity and inclusion objectives in mind when assessing your overall leadership pipeline and create projects and opportunities for individuals to showcase their skills and capabilities. Also, assess both internal and external candidates for leadership.

Group of diverse sales reps 

Keep diversity and inclusion objectives in mind when assessing your overall leadership pipeline and create projects and opportunities for individuals to showcase their skills and capabilities.

Similarly, long-term succession planning for leadership roles should always assess both internal and external candidates, which is useful for benchmarking. However, over-reliance on external hires to fill leadership vacancies can be demoralizing for internal staff. While external candidates can bring fresh ideas and invigorate the team, promoting an internal candidate carries less risk due to their known capabilities, experience, and cultural fit.

Nurturing Talent for Long-Term Success

Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each sales rep is one thing; truly understanding their hopes and aspirations and providing growth opportunities is another. The best sales organizations use succession planning to create roles, projects, and scenarios for reps to expand their skills and showcase their leadership abilities. Formal and informal opportunities for visibility help reps stand out to managers and executives.

This requires commitment from executive leadership and a mindset focused on long-term, organized planning. In the life sciences industry, not everyone wants a leadership role. Some prefer to advance without managerial responsibilities. When such individuals are promoted, they may continue working as individual contributors, driving sales but failing to manage or mentor their teams effectively. This can hinder organizational growth.

A transparent succession-planning framework allows sales leaders to assess and develop all team members for their next roles. If your organization doesn’t offer long-term career growth, recognition, and competitive compensation, your people will seek these opportunities elsewhere.

Thank you Jeff Weisiger and Michael Ratican for the robust conversation and your contributions to the ideas shared in this article.

CEO Insights Article Series

PDG CEO Insights is an article series that provides a deeper dive into some of the most pressing challenges commercial leaders in the life sciences sector face in developing effective sales teams. The series will discuss strategies and recommendations to help commercial leaders foster and empower a more tightly integrated sales organization—one that is able to create a competitive advantage in the field and deliver a demonstrable return on investment for the company.

The Power of Coaching—How to Drive Field Force Performance Excellence

Identifying and Nurturing Effective Sales Leaders in Pharma—A Blueprint for Success

Taking Pharma Sales Teams from Good to Great

Never Miss an Article from PDG