A Model of Excellence

Transforming Sales Managers into Skills Coaches

One of my first jobs at Habits at Work was to grow and manage Andrew Sykes professional speaking business.

The sum of my experience in professional speaking was a semester of Speech in college. If I’m being very honest, I did not know that Professional Speaking was a profession, let alone a massive industry.

Andrew started asking me for feedback on his talks and performance the first day I joined the team. You know the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me”? I remember thinking during those first few months, “It all looks good to me.”

I had no idea what made a professional speaker great and I certainly did not have any useful feedback to share.

Of course I knew what I loved, and what I hated, but I could not articulate what made a great talk great, to me! And, as a result, I had little constructive feedback to give Andrew when he asked me!


I was comparing his speaking to my limited experience of professional speakers at the time, which was essentially none. I began watching professional speakers online – this is where I started to see what separated the GREAT speakers from the merely good. I watched countless hours of TED talks, and talks by people like Les Brown, Andrew’s favorite speaker.

I started to see the deliberateness behind every action they took: long pauses, tempo changes, and their movement on stage. Slowly but surely, I began to understand the mechanics of great speaking.

As my model of excellence improved, the easier it became to provide useful feedback. But what really accelerated my ability to provide great feedback was watching Andrew’s professional coaching sessions. I saw things that I hadn’t even noticed before. I saw behind the curtain and I could never unsee it. We call these things distinctions.

For example, I learned about “vocal shading” as a catch-all phrase for the many ways in which we can vary our voices: speed, pitch, volume, pauses, and more. I started to see the impact of vocal shading and how an audience responded to what was being said. I could identify when and in what way vocal variation was needed and HOW to articulate what was needed.

Said differently, I could provide valuable coaching and feedback that was actionable!

Before I could be a good coach, I needed to develop both coaching skills AND a model of excellence from which I could provide useful feedback.

The same is true when managers are coaching sellers on their sales skills. While managers need to develop their skills as great coaches (in general), what’s more important is that they are able to coach TO the skills they want their teams to practice.

Most managers enter their role with a model of excellence for themselves as a seller, because many sales managers were high-performing sellers that were promoted under the assumption that if they know what makes them great, then surely they can identify those same skills in another person AND clearly articulate how to improve those specific skills (in other words, coach TO the skill). Unfortunately, that assumption is not usually true. Being a great player does not automatically make you a great coach!

Having a model of what excellence for yourself is certainly useful, but what’s required is the ability to identify excellence in others, surface what you observe, and use language and labeling to paint the picture for a seller about how they can improve in that area for themselves.

The feedback provided by the coach should be clear and focused so that it can be immediately transformed into a skill of the seller with the minimum amount of practice. This then leads to improved performance and greater business outcomes!

Without deeply understanding HOW to develop skills that make someone a successful seller, managers will struggle to support their teams performance improvement.

How can CROs and VP of Sales support managers and close the gap that exists in sales management today?

Step 1: Help managers to develop a model of excellence for the many skills that define excellence. This ensures that everyone not only has a common view, but a common language for coaching to that model of excellence. The shortcut here: ensure managers and sellers work together in their personal development. One of the common traps that organizations and sales enablement teams fall into is developing and delivering distinct training for managers and sellers with little nexus between the two – Not only is this a major missed opportunity in creating a culture of practice, feedback and coaching, but it is also more costly and requires roughly double the seat-time.

Step 2: Provide managers and sellers with the opportunity to continuously evaluate, surface and coach to individuals on their teams. This can be done in a few ways:

  1. Ensure managers (and other sellers) have the capacity to observe sellers in action (attending meetings, running practice sessions and role plays). This sounds obvious, but so many managers tell us that they don’t have time to coach because of the million things the business is asking them to do (reporting upwards, tracking data and so much more).
  2. Use one of the better Conversation Intelligence tools on the market (for example, Gong.io) to surface insights from real customer meetings and provide a baseline evaluation against “the ideal” so that managers can quickly see where their coaching will have the biggest impact!

In the face of a rapidly changing world and increased competition, the ability of managers to evaluate individual performance in real time and coach TO a model of excellence in sales skills is the key to creating an agile, high-performance sales culture.

Why? Because culture, after all, is nothing more than the sum of the habits and skills of the people that make up your team. Change sellers’ skills and habits, change the culture of your team!

Tia Pappas
Head of Business Development & Partnerships, Co-founder

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