So, you want to be a Sales Engineering Leader?

Sales Engineering can be a great career, and for the right person very rewarding and fulfilling. For some of us, being an individual contributor is all we ever want to do. Over years and years, we hone our craft and our skillset and become indispensable and bring true value to our customers and our companies. Some Sales Engineers wonder if there’s something else. The traits that make an exceptional Sales Engineer can easily translate to other roles. The most obvious one, and the one that I’ve seen time and again is the Sales Engineer making a full transition over to Sales Executive. We jokingly refer to it as moving to the “dark side”, but honestly, it can be an extremely lucrative career change, and the “dark side” comment actually does a disservice to the Sales Executive role. The other path a Sales Engineer takes is moving into a management track, and that’s what I would like to discuss.

I started my career over 20 years ago as a Sales Engineer and as an individual contributor, I thrived. There were times when I thought about making the move to Sales Executive, but one of the things that I discovered about myself during this journey was that I was less motivated by money, and more interested in solving problems for my customers. So, I kept to my mission with no real thought of doing anything else, because I loved it. Fast forward a few years into the journey and a peer of mine, and perhaps one of the best Sales Engineers I’ve ever known was promoted to SE Manager of the team. It makes sense because we were scaling, our team was growing, and the structure needed a change to meet the growing demands. Well, six months into the promotion he ended up quitting. In speaking with him afterward he said he hated it. He went from being the best in his craft and solving the most difficult customer problems to what he called a “cascading mountain of bulls***” After that, I swore I would never be a Sales Engineering manager.

Then it happened to me, I was asked to lead the team of Sales Engineers at a company where I was an individual contributor. I’ve since played both roles, and I’ve actually grown to love being a Sales Engineer leader, but it’s taken a lot of time and a significant mind-shift. Through the years, I’ve learned many lessons, and I would like to share some of those with any of you who are considering moving into the SE management track. Some of these lessons seem pretty obvious at first, but they can be surprisingly complex.

1. FIND THE WHY

When I was asked to be a Sales Engineer manager, I never questioned it. In the back of my mind, I had questions, but I figured the executives knew what they were doing and they had enough faith in me to select me as the new leader in this role. Two months into the role, I began to realize that it was a “hot potato” situation. The Sales leadership did not know how to manage Sales Engineers. Finding the “Why” isn’t difficult as long as you’re willing to ask the right questions. In his book “The Six Habits Of Highly Effective Sales Engineers”, Chris White uses some terrific analogies when you are probing the customer for information. One of my favorites is

“He who buys a shovel doesn’t want a shovel. He wants a hole. But he doesn’t just want a hole he wants to put up a fence, or he wants to plant a tree. But he doesn’t just want a fence or a tree, he wants privacy, or he wants shade, or fruit, or flowers.”

Now, this is stated in the context of technical discovery, but I’ve found myself applying it in all sorts of situations. It’s about asking enough of the right questions to discover their context, their objectives, their issues. If you can understand this, you will better understand what you are getting yourself into. If you don’t do this, you’re doing yourself and your company a disservice. So ask the Whys. Why me? Why now? Why this role?

2. REALIZE YOU ARE STILL SOLVING PROBLEMS

I said earlier that one of my motivations has always been to solve problems for my customers. The more complex the problem, the more fulfillment I got. As an SE Manager I found myself a bit lost in the beginning because as a Sales Engineer, I solved with technical solutions. How could I possibly find the same sort of satisfaction in this management role? This was one of the biggest challenges that the peer of mine I mentioned earlier just could not overcome. He even said to me after he left the position that he wanted to go back to solving problems.

There’s an old saying that goes “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As an SE manager, you don’t stop fulfilling that desire to solve problems, you just have to adjust your thinking a bit differently and realize that everything is not a nail. There are really interesting problems and challenges to solve. Many will not require a technical solution and you have to be ok with that.

3. BE OK WITH DIMINISHING RECOGNITION

Sales Engineers thrive on recognition. In fact, 10 out of 10 Sales Engineers that I spoke to told me that given the choice they would rather be publicly recognized by their peers and their leadership for solving a complex problem, rather than some sort of bonus or pay raise. We are Ego driven, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The SEs I spoke with wouldn’t say no to the money of course, but money is not the #1 motivator. This was another tough challenge for me as a new SE Manager. Putting aside my own ego, and putting my team first. One of my favorite authors, Simon Sinek, wrote a book called “Leaders Eat Last”. In it, he writes

“Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”

If you are thinking about being an SE manager, you have to be ok with this. If you are not, and you continue to drive your own ego, you will not be fulfilled and you will no longer have a team to lead.

4. FIND YOUR INNER COACH

As a leader, you are placed in a position of influence. When used properly, you will receive a tremendous amount of satisfaction when you see the results of that influence and how it actually leads to the individual success of your team members. As an SE Manager, part of your job is to coach. If you don’t want to coach, or you don’t think you can coach, I would ask that you challenge yourself here. Especially if you are truly considering a leadership role. One of the reasons you have probably been given this opportunity is because you have experience, and the executives who want you for this position probably feel the SE team will benefit from that experience. There’s most likely an expectation that you coach your team. Again for me, this was hard because I didn’t really understand what coaching was. I thought coaching meant telling your team what to do based on your experience. In some cases, you might have to do this, but that’s not coaching, and not what I am talking about here. For me, being a coach means helping my team understand what makes them happy while projecting a future in which they can achieve their full potential. I believe everyone can be a coach, you just have to tap into it.

Hopefully, you found this to be useful. If you have been asked to take an SE leadership role, go into it with your eyes wide open, really spend time thinking about whether or not this is something you really want. Don’t just say yes because you are eager to please executive management. Finally, I encourage you to leap. We need more talented leaders in the SE ranks. Leaders who can teach, guide, and coach this next generation of Sales Engineers.

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