Strengthening The Front Lines

9 Common Mistakes Made with Front-Line Leaders (And How to Avoid Them)

The cost of manager turnover is high, both in terms of direct and indirect costs. However, research shows us that much of this turnover is avoidable when organizations use proven tools that can help them assess and coach their managers. All told, some researchers suggest that hiring without the use of valid assessments can cost companies over $250 million a year in savings. What’s more, regardless of hiring methods, some estimate the cost of a bad hire to be 100% – 300% of that employee’s salary, which can sum upwards of $240,000 for a single person.

This is especially true of leadership roles, including front-line leaders (FLLs) in pharma/biotech field sales organizations. FLLs are responsible for motivating, engaging, and coaching the sales reps responsible for selling a product, making them an integral component of a product’s commercial success. As such, when FLLs have the right mentality, support, and skill sets, they can be true catalysts. On the other hand, if they aren’t a good fit or aren’t given the right tools to succeed, FLLs will likely have lower commitment to their employer and will be more likely to leave the company. Even if FLLs stay, a poor fit or lack of necessary tools can have a disastrous downstream effect, leading to the dreaded “hire a mediocre manager and lose a top salesperson” phenomenon. 

Avoiding hiring and development mistakes with FLLs is not easy. Sales leaders often inherit outdated processes that don’t account for organizational and/or macroeconomic changes. Sales organizations may change their go-to-market strategy in response to conditions on the ground (e.g., favorability of market access) or as they evolve post-launch. Similarly, organizations tap their relationship network and need to move beyond hiring “friends and family.” The selection processes set up in these contexts may not be optimal for success going forward, leading to costly mistakes that impede progress.

To help you avoid – or fix – hiring, communication, and operational mistakes that could hurt your organizational and product success, we spoke with our team of Industrial / Organizational Psychologists to identify some of the most frequent mistakes they see when hiring and managing FLLs – and how to avoid them.  

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Selection Mistakes

1) Promoting superstar sales reps to FLL positions 

How many sports coaches can you name who were previously star athletes? Not many. It turns out that, counterintuitively, being really good at doing something doesn’t make you really good at coaching it, which holds true in pharma sales. Even if a high-flying rep doesn’t really want to be in a managerial role, they may pursue an offer since promotion into management is often the only way for individuals to increase their earning potential (which is why you should have other ways to increase salary/earnings outside of becoming a manager).

2) Hiring FLLs from a completely different operational model and expecting their experience to translate

When entrepreneurial organizations hire FLLs from large, well-established organizations – and vice versa – it is too often assumed that their experience and success will easily translate. Revisiting the sports analogy, it’s similar to hiring a successful college football coach and assuming they will be successful in the NFL. On the surface, the jobs appear quite similar. But the differences between them can cause unnecessary stress that makes or breaks an FLL’s overall success with the company.

3) Hiring FLLs without the use of a validated assessment process

Selecting the right candidate can be a challenge, which many overcome by hiring the same way they’ve always hired. This could entail a résumé review, a single cognitive ability test, and several interviews that include broad, generic questions about the candidate’s background. However, such selection methods may cause unconsciously biased hiring decisions based on race or gender (which can lead to costly legal issues), bring about high impression management or faking from candidates, or simply be poor predictors of a candidate’s performance on the job.

Communication Mistakes

4) Not encouraging them to work well in the cross-functional sandbox 

Selling a product is always a team effort, with no one group possessing sufficient knowledge or skill to solve complex problems. Nevertheless, in the rush of expectations, sales goals, and KPIs, groups can become territorial and defensive, which sometimes turns into an internally divisive “field vs. home office” mentality that can hinder progress and collaboration. Moreover, such hindrances in social support and collaboration relates to reduced resilience, which can hurt the group’s ability to succeed when large setbacks arise.

5) Failing to communicate the Why

Collaboration and commitment to the organization as a whole start with good communication. If sales leadership is assigning orders and adjusting tactics but they aren’t explaining the reasoning behind those decisions, it makes it all too easy for FLLs – and the reps they oversee – to feel ambiguous about those decisions or to fill in that gap with attributions that may or may not reflect the actual motivating factors. That ambiguity can lead to burnout and eventual turnover, and individual biases (e.g. interpretation bias) related to those attributions are not often going to be in leadership’s favor.

6) Telling them what to think about their reps

Speaking of biases, consider the confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and interpret new information within the lens of existing beliefs and assumptions. When leadership gives their perspective on sales reps to new FLLs, it can unnecessarily prejudice FLLs’ perspective towards their reps, making it difficult for them to form their own opinions, relationships, or explanations behind people’s behaviors. Fostering diverse perspectives, coaching reps based on their individual needs, and solving reps’ issues using innovative methods are all more difficult when FLLs get locked into a pre-existing perspective

Operational Mistakes

7) Not investing in their leadership development

Entrepreneurial organizations often tell themselves they are going to be too busy to ask FLLs to spend much time on their own leadership development. This is correct, of course. Much of the allure of joining a smaller company is getting away from non-value added bureaucratic processes. However, we would posit leadership development for arguably one of the most important positions in the company is a critical success component, not a “big company” thing to avoid. By failing to invest in their growth and development, organizations miss out on an opportunity to help their leaders improve job performance and feelings of self-efficacy

8) Hiring reps based on experience rather than behaviors

Too often, FLLs are not given the support they need to hire effectively, even though they are largely responsible for bringing on many of the people who will represent your company on the ground. Without a clear model describing “what good looks like” in terms of sales rep behavior and associated measurement tools, FLLs often lock in solely on candidates’ specific experiences. This is also important to keep in mind for D&I initiatives, as studies show that FLLs are crucial to D&I progress

9) Not providing direct, behavioral feedback

Sales organizations exist to hit a number at the end of the day.  The objective nature by which performance can be judged makes it easy to miss opportunities to provide feedback to FLLs on the “how.”  The adage “people join companies and leave managers” is true, and if FLLs are not given constructive behavioral feedback they may drive turnover and ultimately impact productivity.

How to Set Your FLLs up for Success

So, how do you avoid these common mistakes while strengthening your salesforce? There are three primary initiatives you should take: enhance and improve your selection process, prioritize clear and open lines of communication, and implement processes that balance people needs with business goals. Let’s take a closer look. 

Enhance and Improve Your Selection Process

What do the first three mistakes have in common? In short, a lack of objectivity when promoting reps and hiring new FLLs. All of the different subconscious mechanisms that get us through the day – including seeing things in a way that confirms our existing beliefs and avoiding things that illuminate our mistakes and shortcomings – can cause problems. They can cause biases that hurt the successful prediction of good performance, and they can hurt the consistency of how candidates are evaluated from day to day. 

Falling into these traps isn’t hard. The fundamental attribution error – which states when we create explanations for mistakes, we tend to attribute others’ mistakes to their personality while attributing our own to the situation – is fundamental for a reason

This is why we firmly believe that bringing objectivity into the equation can make a significant difference. When you have proven methodologies for assessing the capabilities of your FLLs – including their ability to inspire, build and implement strategy, form their own highly effective teams, and collaborate with others – you reduce your chance of making hiring and promotion mistakes that could be detrimental to the success of your sales team. 

Prioritize Clear and Open Lines of Communication

While assessing FLL candidates before hiring or promoting is a good first step, being intentional with your FLL management should continue post-onboarding. One of the great things about using valid, job-relevant assessments is that it gives you a strong foundation for coaching and communicating with FLLs. You understand their strengths, their opportunities, and their personalities better than if you had not done assessments. This gives you focus with your coaching and training, allowing you to help your FLLs feel more empowered and connected while strengthening your organization as a whole. 

That said, while communication is one of the most important levers for improving performance, it isn’t easy. It takes commitment, perseverance, and the willingness to accept constructive criticism and feedback. That’s hard work, making it easy to simply doll out marching orders, tell them what to think about others, and neglect explaining the reasoning behind high-level strategic decisions. While this approach may be easier in the short-term, it can lead to longer-term cultural rifts that are difficult to remedy after the fact. 

Implement Processes That Balance People Needs with Business Goals

Leadership is always a balancing act: figuring out how to empower and support your people while also ensuring that the organization’s goals remain the number one priority. Being a strong sales leader starts with understanding your people and building communication habits based on that understanding. 

But it also requires processes that bring consistency and structure while speeding up decision making. Considering that every organization is unique, there is no perfect way to do this. That said, our approach is usually of flexible structure

This means that you intentionally outline processes for key activities, including how to hire sales reps and what to do if a FLL isn’t performing in their role, while not treating the process as gospel. Systems and processes should serve both the organization and the people. If processes are prioritized over common sense, your organization can begin to take on bureaucratic characteristics that can harm your culture. That said, if the organization becomes too individualistic, it can lack the structure that your team wants and needs to be successful. 

About Mix Talent

Mix Talent is a talent acquisition and consulting firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Founded in 2018 by a group of veteran consultants specializing in life science, we are focused on partnering with companies to ensure they identify, attract, develop, and engage the talent they need to make their businesses successful. 

With a team of Industrial / Organizational Psychologists, we combine our industry experience with the science of leadership to bring rigor, objectivity, and deep psychological expertise to help life sciences organizations make the right hiring, coaching, and operational decisions to help their front-line leaders – and organization as a whole – thrive.

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About the authors

Chad Thompson, PhD

Chad is the Principal of Mix Talent’s consulting practice. An industrial / organizational psychologist by training, his expertise is in defining and measuring people, behavior, and culture in organizations. He has worked with a variety of companies in his career, from the Fortune 10 to start-ups. He has built over two dozen behavioral models and selection systems for pharma/biotech sales roles over the last decade. 

Nicholas Kovacs, PhD

Nick is a talent consultant with Mix Talent. An industrial / organizational psychologist by training, his expertise in research falls under motivation, resilience, occupational health, and selection, and his expertise in practice falls under building and administering selection and development assessments, developing surveys and reports, and conducting analytics using Excel, R programming, and machine learning. Nick began his career working within healthcare research at the National Institutes of Health, and he has since shifted to a career providing selection and coaching support for pharma/biotech sales.

Fahey, MA

Ryan is a talent consultant with Mix Talent. An industrial / organizational psychology consultant by training, his expertise is in developing assessments for selection and employee development, coaching, survey development, and data analytics. In his career, a driving core focus has been to help organizations and individuals make better hiring and organizational decisions through a focus on organizational and assessment best practices, data, and psychometrics. Through this focus he has been able to positively affect a variety of organizations in both the private and public sector in the areas of increased productivity, culture, employee and leadership development, engagement, selection, and turnover.

Shondrick, PhD

Sara is the Lead of Mix Talent’s consulting practice. She leverages her deep expertise in leadership, development, and assessment to coach leaders and embed business strategy and culture into talent solutions which are grounded in I/O psychology and designed for the future. She has designed talent solutions for companies ranging from start-ups to international Fortune 500 organizations.

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