“Am I being considered for the sales manager job?”

“Should you be?”

“Of course. I’m the best sales rep in the office.”

“Yes, you are an incredible sales rep. How do you think the manager role will be different than your current role?”

“It’s more of the same. Get more sales, hit quota, close more deals.”

“Sure, that is how you will be measured, but I didn’t ask that. How will your role be different in getting to those results?”

He paused to think.

Why Do People Want To Become Managers?

This is a conversation I’ve had many times over the last 15 years. A management position opens up and the top performer throws their hat in the ring.

They seek the position for different reasons, most of which can be narrowed down into Murray’s Needs Theory. Henry Murray was a psychologist that developed a theory of motivational needs.  In his theory, the four main motivational needs are as follows:

  • Achievement — The most studied motivational trait. Achievement Motivation refers to the desire to do things well, overcome obstacles, and do things better. A person high in this motivation tends to choose more difficult tasks than someone low in this motivation because they want to understand more about their ability to achieve.
  • Power — Desire for dominance, impact on others, prestige, position, and influence over others. Those who crave power are concerned about controlling their image as portrayed to others. Taking on more responsibility is viewed as an opportunity to display power.
  • Affiliation — Refers to the desire to spend time with other people. Social comparison, emotional support, positive stimulation, and attention from others are all very important to someone who is motivated strongly by affiliation.
  • Intimacy — Desire to experience warm, close, and communicative exchanges with others. It is a desire to build strong, individual partnerships. It is correlated to affiliation but more focused on one-to-one interactions, like self-disclosure and listening.
Henry Murray (May 13th, 1893 — June 23rd, 1988)

Most people are motivated by all four in some fashion, though we are typically dominant in only one or two with minor needs in the others.

Wanting A Promotion For The Wrong Reasons

My top-performing sales rep had some thoughts on what a sales manager should spend time on.

“I can show the other reps the best way to sell. We can ride along together and I can get involved in the strategy to help them close deals. Most of them don’t know how to close and don’t spend time on the right things.”

He wanted to tell them how to do their job. More specifically, he wanted to tell them to do their jobs like him.

“How do you think the office will react when we announce your promotion?”

Long pause.

“I think they will understand that I earned it. I’m the best producer.”

I waited.

“Some will be uncomfortable.”


“I’m not always the easiest to get along with. I’m blunt. I call it as I see it.”

I waited for more.

“Some probably think I am not approachable. I’m busy and don’t have time to stop what I’m doing whenever they have a question.”

As if he won’t be busy as a manager and they won’t have questions.

“How do you think the inside staff will feel about your promotion?”

“They won’t work for me, will they?”

“No, but they will play a big role in the success of your team.”

He thought of the support staff as less than important.

“I’m not sure how they will feel. I don’t know those folks too well.”

“Why do you really want to do this?”

“I’ve accomplished everything I can in this sales role and feel like I’m stagnating.”

There it was — achievement and power.

The Type of People Who Make Great Managers

First, anyone in the discussion for promotion is motivated by achievement to some extent. Without results, your name isn’t even considered. If achievements do not motivate you as an individual contributor, why would a company think that will change with a promotion?

For those motivated highly by power, you hope to see it turn up as influence power. Most people taking a promotion derive some motivation from the title, authority, autonomy, and perception that come from the role. This can be a very dangerous motivation and the most common reason for the downfall of leaders. Failed businesses are often traced back to decisions made by out of control egos.

Affiliation is critical for anyone considering management. Managers spend their entire day surrounded by people.

  • Interviewing
  • Onboarding
  • Coaching
  • Problem-solving
  • Motivating
  • Assisting

This is what consumes the day of a good manager. When they are not with their team, they are partnering with other departments to make life easier for the people they serve. If someone is not driven to spend time with other people, they have no business applying for a manager’s role.

Intimacy is last and separates average managers from exceptional ones. Great leaders are open leaders. They don’t leave their team guessing how they feel. They are not passive-aggressive or manipulative. They are transparent in the direction they want to take the team, their expectations, and how they feel. Managers who are motivated by building strong personal relationships inspire great performances. They make great coaches.

Why Some High Performers Fail To Get Promoted

An employee who is motivated highly by achievement and power can deliver elite results as an individual contributor. Think about the star programmer who comes into the office, puts on her headphones, and bangs out more code than anyone else on the team.

They don’t need to care about other people. They don’t need strong relationships with their peers. They only need to perform at an elite level in their roles. These folks can be incredibly profitable to an organization, and they should be paid commensurate to what they deliver.

That programmer might be building out technology that will separate the company from any competitor in the market, driving up the enterprise’s value.

Now, promote that person and watch what happens. A line forms at their door. Subordinates with only 50% of their skill have questions all day. Questions that seem ridiculous to someone so versed in coding.

The former star goes from being energized by their work to being depleted as their responsibilities do nothing for their core motivations.

It is not always that they “fail” to get promoted. They might know this about themselves and are smart enough to keep making bank and avoid a job they will hate.

It could also be that their manager knows this about them and helps them see it. They apply for the job and their boss walks them through what they will be doing all day, saving them from the inevitable.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

Our star sales rep was motivated by achievement and power. He had exhausted all challenges in his sales role and wanted the office to see him in a new light. He needed the office to see him in this new light. More importantly, he was concerned with who we might promote over him as this could be seen as a drop in his power.

He was a terrible teammate. People irritated him and he didn’t see the value in building partnerships.

Was he valuable to us? Of course. He was an incredible sales rep and without customers, a business ceases to exist.

That said, the office would have been horrified if we had promoted him to a management role. We would have lost good people and performance would have taken a step backward.

I said no, and was directly honest with my reasons why. I told him every reason I listed here. I went on to tell him the changes we would need to see if he were to ever be considered for a future management position.

We also offered up some additional assignments he could take on to give him a new challenge. We had a rookie in the office and he could take him on as a mentor, even getting a slight bump in pay for the effort.

“Be a leader before you have the title and the decision will be simple next time.”

I would love to say that my inspirational speech moved him.

It did not. He was pissed and two months later, he left us to take a sales manager role for a competitor.

It hurt in the short team. Companies don’t easily replace the production of a top performer. We did promote the right person and she went on to build a fantastic team.

Our former star made it one year with his new company before he left for another competitor. The role? He went back to sales.

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