What makes an A-Player walk away from tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in commissions? Many I’ve talked to reference their desire to leave the game as a winner. But with further digging I’ve learned that, more often than not, the real reason for their exit is that there’s no path ahead that supports their deep need for further growth and achievement. They’re on some type of earnings/learnings plateau given patch maturity and either have to pull a rabbit out of a hat or sit uncomfortably during a few idle quarters. During this period, they ultimately experience the lack of challenge and engagement they crave. Ultimately, these high-performing sellers become flight risks.

However, before tapping out, they may make attempts to keep the game alive for themselves. They might:

  • Inquire about promotional opportunities (a common indicator of striving for the next level)
  • Ask for equity (a key word indicating a desire for recognition and responsibility)
  • Offer assistance to peers (which meets a need for a sense of contribution)
  • Ask to participate on tiger teams solving broader issues (an attempt to fulfill the need to reach beyond oneself)

As one hiring leader shared with me, “Flat periods happen with even the best sales people” and “this is the opportune time to capture non-traditional value from quota-bearing sales people.” He called them “Citizen Salespeople”— those who have transcended the sole pull of the W-2 and have moved into a headspace that craves contribution as well as monetary gain. He explained that typically these are sales people who have hit an earnings level that generally becomes their new baseline, and their skills, confidence, and know-how allow them to occupy that baseline using natural effort. He said, “This nexus between earnings and an emergent need for greater growth can happen for some at $250k, for others at $800k. It’s different for everyone – but it does have a time-clock.”

I think what he was saying was that the altruistic impetus has limitations when traditional performance measures continue to stack-up against these sales people. Ultimately, they may volunteer themselves on extra-credit projects “to help the team” but given zero authority, little formal responsibility (outside of their quota), and disapproving managers, these sellers will often find refuge in the open arms of a loving recruiter like me.

He went on describe that it’s up to management to recognize these Citizen Salespeople and to find a path for them that keeps them paid and appreciated – as well as learning and contributing – before it’s too late. What are the warning signs? He said to look for these changes in behavior:

• They stop giving input on group phone calls

• They only give you what you’re asking for and never more

• They show signs of boredom

What’s a Sales Manager’s strategy in such a situation? Often the typical protocol has been to usher ambitious, high achievers into management roles, but this isn’t the answer for everyone nor an option for every company. When I asked what he does to keep them, he said, “Deep thinking, creative problem solving and much internal selling to carve out unique plans for these sellers. But, I’m paid to lead and it’s my job to get in front of my top people long before they even think of exiting.”

It’s not a simple nor quick-fix answer, but then again, nothing about the pre-ipo game is simple or easily-resolved. Recognizing and supporting such Citizen Salespeople in actualizing their full potential takes a uniquely intuitive and creative Sales Leader. It requires out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to make leaps of faith in forging new paths. It also takes a willingness to assume the mantle of both supporter and mentor—to be someone who understands that their own role is so much more than their personal quotas.

Such forward thinking and creative support proffered A-Players not only will keep them happier and continuing to contribute broadly to the company, but might just have the added benefit of bringing deeper job meaning and satisfaction to the Sales Leader willing to take the risk.

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