How to Manage a Sales Team, with Ivy Gordon of Unbounce

7 actionable insights to transition to a sales management role and build a high-performing sales team.

Unbounce Leadership

Ivy Gordon is the senior manager of sales and onboarding at Unbounce, a software company that specializes in custom landing pages. Currently, she is the interim head of the entire sales team, meaning that she leads all sales activities and manages 10 direct reports.

In this edition of our #ManagementHeroes series, we sat down with Ivy and discussed:

  • How she found the transition from Account Executive to Sales Manager.
  • Tips for coaching and motivating a sales team.
  • Strategies to build rapport with a remote team.

1 What did the transition from Account Executive to Sales Manager teach you?

Management is not for everyone – and it’s not your only career option.

One of my biggest mentors is currently my director at Unbounce. She had given me advice really early on in my career, which is:

“The best sales reps don’t always make the best managers.” 

It does vary from person to person, but I think that sometimes people get promoted into a sales management role because they’re stellar at selling. But they quickly learn that management is not necessarily the job for them. Some sales people like to be really independent and enjoy being in control of their own pipeline, their own destiny, and how much they can earn.

Enable your team with the tools and training they need to maximize results.

When I first started managing a team, a big learning for me was the realization that I didn’t have direct control anymore. It became more about taking a step back and realizing that in order for me to hit my numbers, the best thing that I could do would be to enable my team. Things like doing training early on, spending a lot of time coaching – that would set them up for success down the road.

When it gets really busy, you typically see two things out of a sales manager who has been promoted from a sales role: it’s either that they pick up the phone and start selling themselves or they take a step back and trust that other team members can do it.

I realized that if I spent a lot of time training them, then when times get tough, I am able to take a step back. The team understands that I trust them. And I just became a cheerleader.

2 What’s one piece of advice you’d share with someone transitioning into a Sales Management role?

Remember that if you let your bad day show in your demeanour, then your teammates can internalize that. If you look visibly stressed, or you’re a bit short with someone, what can happen is that they’ll read into that and make that about themselves. That’s a very human reaction. It can be really innocent – I could be having a bad day because I had a bad night’s sleep. But if I’m short with everybody at work, then, they could think, “Oh, she’s mad at me”, or “the company’s not doing well”, or even just, “I must be doing something wrong”. And that’s not necessarily a fair thing to have anyone take on for themselves.

3 Do you ever let your team know that you’re having a bad day?

Yeah, I do. If I know that it’s going to show at all, I’ll try to be really open. Because people take their lead from their leader and I want them to be open with me. I want to know if they’re having a bad day. 

“It’s not work-life balance – it’s all just life”.

I certainly think that there’s a lot of benefit to being able to turn off your job and not be available. I tell my team that I never expect them to be available at all times or that I’ve asked you to work like it. But, if your life is going wrong and it bleeds into your work, then that’s a natural thing. If you let me know, then we can accommodate, because it’s important to have empathy for each other during times of crisis.

You can set some context by saying something like, “I had a really bad sleep last night. If I’m short, or if I seem distracted today, that’s why”.

4 How can Sales Managers create a feedback culture?

A lot of it is setting up a culture where your direct reports can expect feedback right away. I try to give them feedback about their calls right on the sales floor. I even say to new team members:

“Look, it’s uncomfortable. The first time you’re going to hear this instinctively, you’ll feel a little defensive. That’s natural, and that’s okay. And that’s what I’m expecting, but it is part of the process, because the more times you do hear it, after a while, you won’t feel that anymore. And then it will be a really good thing.”

Now people give feedback to each other, and one can expect that at the end of your call that anyone on the team might give you feedback. I try to tell them the positive things that they did and give suggestions about what they could improve.

Sometimes I’ll turn around and say, “I heard you say this on the call, maybe if you tried saying this, it might have been more resonant.” Or I’ll just say, “You did a really good job of objection handling on that call”. 

5 Let’s talk about remote work. With some teammates in Vancouver and others in Berlin, how do you foster a sense of alignment?

We have weekly team meetings for the onboarding specialist team. At the beginning of every meeting, we spend 10 minutes doing Table Topics, which is a meeting icebreaker where you have a prompt and then you tell a story.

I’ll just read the question, and someone has one minute to tell a story that answers the question. No one has to prepare anything. It’s totally off the cuff. The game doesn’t matter, it’s just a good way to break the ice and get everybody learning a little bit more about each other. And it’s to help people understand the value of 1 minute of time and how to tell a cohesive story in that short time. Some questions are:

“What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?” Or, “If you could take a year off and dedicate your time to one charity, which one would it be? And why?”

Then either someone else does some training, or we have a pre-scheduled list of things to talk about. This is where the team can bring up anything that they’re experiencing with the sales process that they’re seeing isn’t working out. Any situations with a customer that they want the whole team to weigh in on.

Finally, we also have daily standups between Berlin and Vancouver (evening in Berlin, morning in Vancouver), and we keep those more casual and personal.

Now, with COVID, we’ve introduced themes, such as Partner Edition (where we introduce our partners to the team) or Cribs Edition (where we walk the team through our home on Zoom).

6 How do you run one-on-one meetings with distributed team members?

I usually try to ask some questions at the start of our relationship together. In my first one-on-one meeting with everybody, I’ll ask how they prefer their one-on-ones set-up. Some people prefer to use a meeting template, they have set talking points, they’ll send me an agenda, or they’d like me to send an agenda to them, or even recap in an email afterwards. That’s one type of person.

Some people don’t always have something to talk about. I just set the stage with them, that this is the time where they get my undivided attention and how they want to use it is really up to them. 

For my team members in Berlin, I try to use as much of that time as possible to actually get to know them more on a personal level because we don’t work in the same office. It can be really important just to understand the context around their day because otherwise, I can only see how well they’re doing from reports or from their metrics. So I like getting to know the person behind the numbers.

7 What’s something you wish someone told you when you first started managing a sales team?

I’ve worked in startups where everything is fast-paced and you want to do things as quickly as possible. An early mistake was, when someone asked me a question, I would just tell them the answer. It took me a while to realize that the better thing to do was to take some time, slow down with them and ask them:

“What do you think we should do?”

That’s way better in the long term. But hard to remember when you’re stressed.

Finally, I think that every sales manager should read the book Radical Candor at one point or another. And try your best to find a good mentor. Someone who you can be open and honest with. 

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