I've started and stopped writing this post half a dozen times over the last few months. I hesitated as I didn't want to upset anyone or look like I am casting shade on some amazing and successful people. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've come to understand that this is a topic that needs to be discussed.
I'm talking about the glass ceiling in Sales Development. And no, I don't mean the glass ceiling faced by many women and minorities. I mean this:
Once you have risen to the rank of VP of Sales Development, how do you crack into the C-suite?
Where do you go next?
Some of the best and brightest our industry has to offer are sitting in an SDR leadership role right now. They run global teams, report to the CEO, and are instrumental in revenue growth. But have their careers hit a glass ceiling? I chatted with three (current and former) Sales Development Leaders that I have immense respect for and posed the question to them. Here's what they had to say.
VP #1: Going to lead an AE team
His first VP slot was at a small tech company (100 employees) that he loved. For him to continue to up his game he knew he had to move to a larger company and so he did (~5k employees). He wanted the challenging experience of working for a public company. In short, he had to move to grow. His advice for anyone wanting to follow a similar path? Never leave a company until you're sure you've left a buttoned up organization behind. Better karma.
When I asked what's next he had two thoughts. One is to go out on his own and be a sales development consultant. The other is to move into a role where he has responsibility for revenue. In other words, run an AE team that carries a revenue number.
VP #2: Took a Field Sales role
This leader has already made her move from Director, Sales Development towards the C-suite. And it was an unexpected one.
From SDR leader, she took a position as a Field Sales Rep selling into the Enterprise. She shared that she wanted to round out her skill set and see what opportunities present themselves. This is a strategic, and bold, move. But with her skill and drive, I'm confident she is laying path to VP of Sales, SVP of Sales and Sales Development, and eventually CRO or CEO.
VP #3: In it for the long haul
He stressed that running sales development is a “real” profession and not second class to other roles. To that I say “Amen!” It is where he took the conversation next that really interested me.
His view was that Sales Development leaders need the psychological makeup to "mold" not simply "manage." They are typically handed recruits with little-to-no domain expertise. And their real job is creating and shaping a vision and plan for that person’s career. Molding green reps into true value-adding sales professionals is an incredibly hard and important job. To that, I once again say “amen!”
Where do we go from here?
In speaking with these executives, I was impressed and energized by their talent and drive. But I can't help but reflecting on how few C-suite leaders come straight from Sales Development leadership. There are hundreds of former Sales VPs and SVPs that are now either CROs or CEOs. And hundreds more former Field Sales or Channel Sales leaders who have moved up. I even know of the occasional CEO who has come up as VP, Marketing into SVP, Marketing and Sales into the C-suite.
But I don't know of any VPs of Sales Development whose next move was into the C-suite.
To me, the benefits of a CEO or CRO who is fluent in sales development is obvious. A leader with practical, hands-on experience in this important discipline is invaluable. This background would prepare them to lead with a unique perspective. The reality as I see it doesn't give these fabulous Sales Development executives a shot at the C-suite today.
I'm hoping to start a conversation about this. Do SDR leaders need to move across, down, laterally and/or gain hands-on AE/Field/Channel experience to get to the next level?