I've developed and promoted somewhere close to 100 customer success managers and directors throughout my years, and I'm here to tell you how.

I graduated from college in 2008 and started my first job in finance just as the financial crisis was kicking off. In Sweden, they have a law that states when you have to do layoffs: the last one in has to be the last one out.

Being that I was fairly new, I was let go. I cried for an afternoon or two, then I started interviewing for new jobs.

About a month in, I went to interview for a SaaS company, it was a panel style interview with six people sitting in front of me.

I had a tiny bit of sales experience from a whole other industry, I have zero tech experience and I was 25 years old and really nervous.

The VP told me:

“If we give you a job offer, it's not for you to be a sales rep. It's for you to help us grow this company and take it to the next level. We only promote from within. We only hire people who have the potential to step into a management role to help us fuel our growth.

“It won't be next week, or next month, if you take on this new role. But it could be three to six months, one or two years, all depending on your growth and development.”

“And by the way, we are going to be lazer-focused on helping you grow and develop through feedback and coaching. And by pushing you outside your comfort zone.”

How do you think this made me feel?

It made me feel empowered, valued, important.

I felt like someone believed in me, and was really ready to invest in my development. These people weren't just hiring me to do a job, they had bigger plans for me.

I was a recent graduate, young, driven and ambitious - luckily, I got the job.

Bumps along the road  

Road sign with a the symbol for a hump in the road against a blue sky.

And then I went on to miss my first six quotas in a row. It was rough, but the company stayed true to their word, and I'm still here today, 12 years and many wins, setbacks and promotions later.

This is what I'm here to talk to you about:

  • How you can improve retention
  • Supercharge your growth  
  • Promote from within and hire for the future

Employee turnover

Employee turnover sucks 👎 It’s…

Costly

Especially if you're using external recruiters.

Demotivating

You lose a lot of knowledge of the methodology, the products, your core values and how things work. You’re losing that relationship between the person leaving and that person's manager. It may also create an unnecessary cultural shakeup if you, for example, have a very tight-knit team, It's many months of training out the window.

Maybe you've even lost the person before they were fully ramped up, you never got a chance to see what they can accomplish.

Time-consuming

Losing people whom you spent so much time hiring and training never feels good. It's you having to do a whole new hiring process. There's also the alternative costs of you as a manager spending your time on recruiting when you could be spending it on coaching your team.

Account executive tenure is 22 months (management promotion is 4-5 years)

I recently read that the average tenure for a business development representative (BDR) is just 19 months, and many BDRs get promoted closer to a two-year time frame.

A lot of times when you hire a BDR, they’ll do that role for a year and a half, and then leave; they go on to do the same job elsewhere, or they’re an AE for another company - what a waste!

Account Executives (AE) stay with companies for closer to two years, and for an AE to go into a sales management role, it’s usually closer to four or five years.

No wonder it takes them that long to be promoted if they change jobs two to four times in that timeframe. Every time you have to start from scratch, you have to learn about your product, the company’s methods, and everything else you have to learn in a new job.

This just isn't effective or efficient for anyone. When someone is fully trained, they immediately leave, maybe even go to a competitor. It's a lose-lose situation. I also don't want to leave out the alternative cost here, either.

Hiring is very time-consuming, it's time taken away from selling, taking care of your customers, coaching your team and developing your business. Also, more senior sales reps are often the highest performing ones.

You definitely don't want them leaving before they're ramped up.

Management bandwidth

Another common problem for people who are trying to scale a company fast is management bandwidth.

There's only so many people a sales manager can effectively coach. You could go a lot faster if you had one or two, or even four or five sales managers or team leaders that you could hire teams for in order to propel your growth.

I know that this is a bottleneck for many growing companies - turnover obviously plays a role here as well - it's also very difficult to hire managers.

It's difficult for people to come in and build trust with a team quickly and build up credibility to be an effective manager. It's often a long and time-consuming recruitment process, and there's always the risk of making the wrong hire.

That can lead to even more implications and can negatively affect your growth even more.

Can promoting from within help you solve these issues?

What do you think happens with these two problems? If you promote more from within?

What do you think happens when you hire a sales development representative (SDR)?

You say: “Your title will be SDR, but that’s not why I’m hiring you. I'm hiring you to be a leader of this company. I'm hiring you to help us grow.”

As an SDR that's the sales and the business training you need to be able to take on new roles in the future.

“We need you to step into bigger shoes as soon as you're ready, or even a little before that.”

I would argue that hiring reps you know are teachable, have a good attitude and are driven is the right call. On top of that, hiring people based on what you can see them do several years from now helps you mitigate these two issues.

Let's look at it from both the employer and the employees' perspective.

Employees crave growth

Many account executives grade culture and management effectiveness higher than compensation, commission, job role and job flexibility. The hiring for the future approach helps strengthen the culture and empowers your people.

It helps them understand that there's no limit to what they can do and achieve. In fact, the company needs them to grow, learn and develop as quickly as possible.

With management effectiveness, people development is exactly what every manager should be spending their time on.

Breeding loyalty

Why leave when you have a manager who believes the sky's the limit for you?!

Like I said, people don't leave jobs to make more money and have more flexibility; they leave, because they feel they can learn and grow, and they don't see a path to where they want to go.  

This approach gives your people something to believe in, not just something to do.

If you know anything about Generation Z, you know that they’re not just thinking about skinny jeans and TikTok. They want something to believe in.

They want their jobs to be meaningful, and they want to learn and grow.

And that's exactly what promoting from within and hiring for the future does.

Employers need growth

Open palm with a small plant cutting.

Losing people sucks on all levels. 💔

Losing a customer success manager or a customer success director has ramifications on your customers and losing a sales manager, or even a VP of sales, can disrupt the whole team.

You lose relationships that are built, methodological knowledge, know-how, credibility and trust.  

It will take a while to find a replacement, and during that time, sales will suffer.

What if you already had a few sales directors on board who know the business, know the people, know the product and the methodology, who you could quickly and easily put into the role?

That way, you won’t lose sales momentum.  

These people already have a lot of credibility with the team and there’s trust there.

You really wouldn't be set back as much for someone leaving.

You know their strengths, their weaknesses. Even if they're not 100% ready, you could coach them. Often it's a lot easier than starting the whole recruitment process from scratch.

I also think that the trust portion here is really key.

Since trust is so important to be able to be an effective manager, it's usually easier to build trust for a person that's been in the exact same shoes as the team.

This has huge benefits.

If you have an SDR, this is someone you could promote to be an AE, probably with pretty minimal training.  

Obviously they know what it takes to be a successful AE, having worked closely with them, they already know the internal processes and such, so, it should be a pretty seamless transition.

What if your new AE stays for more than 20 months? Could they be promoted to a sales manager in 24 months? Would they stay if they knew this to be a possibility?

Not all of them.

But if many of them would stay, this could lead to you hiring 10 more account executives in your projected one year - imagine what that would do to your growth!

Having fewer reps per manager can lead to higher output per rep as well - that's another scenario that would also lead to more work.

How do you hire for the future?

Silhouette of a hand holding a glass orb against a sunset.

Because that's a must, right?

If you’re not bringing on anyone more senior externally, you have to develop your people really fast. I think it's a summit you could spend days on, but if I were to pull up what I think are the most important things, they would be:

Push people outside their comfort zone

If I don't challenge you, how are you going to get stronger?

Challenge people by pushing people outside their comfort zone, and they will grow faster.

Put people in shoes that are a little too big, and they will grow faster. Yes, they will make mistakes, some things won't go as planned, you want to step in and help, but overall, this approach should lead to your people growing fast.

Hire people based on potential

When it comes to the hiring process, I look for:  

  • A person’s background - what challenges have they overcome?
  • Are they driven and motivated?
  • Have they shown that they’ve taken themselves in and out of places of their own accord?
  • Do they have that inner drive to succeed?

I don't care about past jobs or experiences, I care more about what type of person they are. I look for those things that are hard to teach.

I also look for emotional maturity, someone who is good at taking an implementing feedback and someone that has a good attitude.

Above all else, I always look for a good attitude at a high growth company.

I think this is just so important in general, as there might be ambiguity and a lot of challenges, you want people to embrace that and roll with it, often that comes with a good attitude and emotional maturity.

At the same time, if it's a person that I think would be a fit for the job that we're hiring for, but I don't see a future for them past that role, then I don't hire them - I'm pretty hard on that rule.

Culture of continuous improvement

Coaching will be key, and feedback will be key. When do people learn and grow the most? It's when they feel safe, when they feel they can make mistakes without repercussions.

You want to create a culture that's conducive of that, you want to create a culture where failure is good, it's something you can learn from. I also think that a collaborative culture is really important here, that's always been a big focus for us.

But you also see that a lot with companies that try to be very innovative. They have what they call a culture helping, they have that so that they can drive ideas, innovation, and make sure ideas are spread throughout the organization.

It’s similar to a collaborative environment. This can sometimes be tricky in sales, as there is often competition within the team and people on the team are often highly competitive.

But this makes people lower their guard, learn from each other and develop faster. I think you're doing yourself a huge disservice if your people aren't learning from each other.

A tactical way to do this could be to have an open landscape in your office, rather than a closed cubicle layout, so that people can collaborate, listen and learn from each other.

Another tip is to try to make it measurable, include this in the quarterly performance reviews that we do with everyone on the team, where they can grade themselves, as well as their teams, on how they stack up on everything, with continuous improvement as part of a company's DNA.

Make people development a company focus

For management, when I start to train and coach entry level managers, or anyone on my team that I think can manage, I talk to them a lot about believing in people - in fact, I really preach this.

Believing in people is the foundation of hiring for the future, you want to believe that as long as the person has a specific set of traits, there's no limit to how far they can go. If your managers believes in you, that will give them the confidence needed to thrive and grow fast.

I even make entry level managers, and sometimes even people who are not managers yet, take part in the recruitment process to teach and train them how to look at and think about people and because it's easier to believe in people whom you hired yourself.

I also want everyone to know that it’s not just the manager's responsibility to train and coach new people, we want everyone to help the person next to them and make sure people ramp up fast. One person's success is the whole team's success.

At Meltwater, we always say that people development is rocket fuel.

Let’s summarize

Employee retention and management bandwidth leads to growth.

Promoting from within and hiring for the future can help.  

If you can improve on bits and pieces of the strategy, I think they could effectively help you improve both of these problems, and really supercharge your growth.

I never thought that getting abruptly fired from my very first job would lead to me working across continents, and being able to help hundreds of fresh grads grow into fierce SaaS executives running massive teams on their own.