Can HR help sales to the top seat in the board room?


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Without doubt, the percentage of CEOs that come from sales significantly lags those with a finance, operations or even a marketing background.

According to Spencer Stuart’s ‘Route to CEO Positions’, for the second year in a row in the US, operations (31%) was the most popular functional role before becoming CEO, followed by finance (21%) and marketing (12%). 

In the UK, the figures are even more stark; maybe as a result of recent economic woes. Recent research from Robert Half shows 51% of current FTSE100 CEOs have a finance background up from 31% in 2008.

Sales is the one of the most important functions of any business; some would argue the most important. Yet, of the key functions it's one where no formal qualifications are required.

Could that be one of the problems? Are chairmen and boards looking for formal, professional qualifications in their CEOs and that they consider sales generally lacking in the area of professional development?

Formal Qualifications

The lack of formal qualifications is surprising given the numbers of people in sales. According to the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management, in the UK around 2.2 million work in sales and 547,000 work in sales management.

Just to underline the scale of the issue, compare the opportunities for formal education in sales with, say, a more 'traditional' educational discipline, geography.

If you are a prospective geographer you can find 80 undergraduate degrees on offer in the UK and over 300 post graduate degree courses. However, if you were to take a look at the opportunities for a formal qualification in sales, you would find only two undergraduate degree courses and three in post grad studies. And yet, to accentuate the issue still further, a quick glance at one of the leading jobs boards (Indeed!) shows some 564 jobs available for someone with a geography qualification but over a quarter of a million jobs for sales professionals!

Not only does this show the dearth of opportunities for sales people to achieve a professional qualification in sales at undergraduate and postgraduate levels but it also shows significant numbers of jobs being advertised for sales! Why a lack of professional qualifications in sales?

Furthermore, there appears to be some disparity between some elements of the education sector when it comes to demand. It's not that all universities have failed to recognise the potential for degrees for sales; in fact, the Dean at one of the UK's largest business schools commented recently that whilst degrees for sales exist there seems little demand coming from the business and from undergraduates themselves.

Professional Development

Our experience is different and we sense there is a deep rooted demand in sales for 'professional' development. This stems from working with organisations such as HBOS, Santander, Standard Chartered Bank and Hewlett Packard where we co -designed different levels of university accredited work based learning sales programmes. On the back of those projects two new Masters programmes have been designed and launched and they are already being used in inspiring ways to help offer innovative professional development opportunities.

For instance, SAP and Toshiba TEC UK are both putting senior sales professionals through the programme but, interestingly, see the benefits from different angles.

Talent Management

In SAP's case the Masters programme is offered as a talent management opportunity for their elite sales managers on a global basis. They see the programme as the 'Formula One' of their sales curriculum and see the innovation, driven from the dissertations of their top thought leaders as influencing the entire sales operation.

On the other hand, Toshiba has established the programme for their channel partners. Carl Day, National Sales Director for Toshiba TEC UK, recently commented that they not only see the same benefits in innovation as SAP, but also see it as driving sustainable strategic relationships with their partners. Furthermore, three of Toshiba's board members are conducting the Masters alongside their partners.

Relevant Development

Both SAP and Toshiba talk about 'relevance' and how crucial it is that professional development opportunities are created that are 'fit for purpose.' Professionals, and maybe sales professionals especially, will only 'buy in' to programmes where they can see an immediate benefit. Making something 'work placed', not restricted by traditional approaches to academic or professional development programmes and, crucially, designed by sales people for sales people certainly helped.

Innovative approaches like these to professional development in sales can help companies transform their sales and survive the challenges of the recovery; surely a topic close to the heart of boardroom executives? Whilst finance orientated CEOs may be the norm today, perhaps sales orientated CEOs are required for the growth agenda of the future and HR certainly has an active role to play in this development.

Dr Philip Squire is CEO at Consalia

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