How to Promote Salespeople Successfully to Management, and How to Help Them Cope

Adapted with permission from Folio: based on articles written by Jim Elliott and Joe Arpaia, M.D.

Over the 30 years we have been in business, we have often experienced management changes.  We have seen many examples of what can happen when a very good salesperson is promoted.  Sometimes it works well, and sometimes not.  Why the difference?

I asked my friend, Dr. Joe Arpaia, a psychiatrist who specializes in stress-management, what he thought.  That started a discussion that has led to two articles published in Folio: Magazine (April/May and September/October 2014) with another to follow.  These pieces deal with problems in the way salespeople are selected for promotion, some characteristics that can make the process more difficult, and some steps executives can take to help increase the odds for success.

One factor is attitude. The best salespeople tend to be social optimists. They expect success, and are happy to take credit when things go well. They expect to be accepted. When things do not go well in their personal lives or at work, they assign blame to other people or factors beyond their control. This attitude helps to shield them from paralyzing negative emotions when a proposal is rejected. They shrug it off and move on to the next thing, while less socially optimistic salespeople may brood over their failure. Social optimists continue to pursue opportunities energetically and creatively, while others are discouraged.

Dr. Arpaia says that interpretation skills of social optimists include:

  • Focusing on the positive potential in any situation
  • Generalizing from prior successes rather than prior failures
  • Assuming that a successful sale will occur
  • Response skills of social optimists include:
  • Stepping back and working on other accounts that are more likely to bring success
  • Talking with other salespeople to get new ideas
  • Finding creative ways to approach difficult prospects

For salespeople, there is not much downside in the characteristics of social optimism. It helps them be resilient because they don’t see the negatives. If their sales forecasts are often rosier than the situation calls for, at least they are consistently positive. Managers are willing to tolerate poor forecasting for the sake of higher production, and they learn to discount inflated projections.


For salespeople promoted to management, on the other hand, the characteristics of social optimism can be a real problem. A manager who takes credit when things go well, and blames others when they do not, will not earn much loyalty from subordinates. A manager who does not accurately identify obstacles cannot navigate around them. And, too-positive forecasts may be acceptable from a small number of salespeople, but top managers need accuracy, and cannot work very long with sales managers who turn in inflated numbers for a whole department.

After a year or two many new sales managers are unsuccessful, and after a relatively short time some burn out and leave the position. Why?

Selling is inherently stressful. Salespeople learn to cope with stress or leave the business early in their careers, or remain stuck in dead-end jobs. Those who thrive and appear eligible for promotion have become adept at letting stress roll off them.  Yet some of these optimistic producers crash and burn out under the challenges of management. Why don’t they handle stress well in their new positions, and how can their bosses help them?

Dr. Arpaia introduced me to a way of thinking about what we call “stress” that helped me see the problem in a new light.  He said:

“For people to understand stress management they must distinguish between stress and strain. This distinction is made in engineering. “Stress” is the load on a structure, and “strain” is the deformation of the structure under the load.

We need to make the same distinction when talking about the stress on a person. Stress refers to the load, or demands, the person is facing. Strain is the body’s response to the load. When we separate stress and strain in this manner we understand how to manage stress more effectively. This is especially so when the stress on a person changes significantly, such when they move from sales to sales management.

When a person is facing stress they experience strain and then act to deal with the stress. The sequence is new stress → higher strain → behavior. If the person is adapting effectively this leads to familiar stress → lower strain → effective behavior. Top performers have the cycle high stress → low strain → effective, efficient behavior. Effective stress-strain management allows the person to handle the new and higher levels of stress with less strain.”

I asked, “Would it be correct to say that a typical successful salesperson experiences stress but deals with it without excessive “strain” because he or she is competent to handle the load? And that when the salesperson is promoted to management, the skill sets that worked before as a lone ranger are often no longer appropriate for managing others?”

Dr. Arpaia said, “Exactly. The new salesperson experiences strain from the stress of selling. The salesperson develops a set of behaviors to handle the stress. As these become more automatic the strain the salesperson experiences from dealing with the stress becomes lower. The stress may even increase but the strain remains low.”

“When the salesperson is promoted, the stress of managing is a different kind of load and the behaviors that used to work no longer do. The new sales manager experiences strain. Ideally the new sales manager would develop effective behaviors to deal with the stress of managing thereby reducing strain. However, if the sales manager is not able to develop new behaviors quickly enough he or she is likely to revert to the behaviors that worked for selling. However, those won’t be effective enough when the sales manager has to sell enough to make goal for the whole team.”

“Another case is when the new sales manager develops behaviors to manage more effectively but those behaviors do not become automatic. In that case the sales manager is behaving effectively, but experiencing a constant high level of strain because managing has not become second nature the way selling was. Eventually, the high level of strain wears the sales manager down. The manager is then likely to suffer symptoms of excessive strain, e.g. physical problems, or an irritable attitude, creating a tense work environment that reduces productivity for the whole staff. So, even when behaviors change, if the strain is high, then the person can get worn down, and suffer ‘burnout,’ pulling the sales department down as well.” 

“Sometimes sales managers will deal with the constant strain by deciding that being a sales manager is not for them and they go back to being salespeople. That solves their problem, but their companies are then in the position of having to find new sales managers, and have lost all the time and energy they invested. It behooves the sales managers’ bosses to help them find a way to manage stress to reduce strain.”


Here are several useful techniques that can help newly promoted sales managers:

- Manage stress

  •  Introduce new stresses in a stepwise manner so that the new sales manager becomes effective at handling each step before the next is introduced.

-  Reduce strain

  • Become skilled at reducing tension, keeping the breath calm and deep. 
  • Use these techniques throughout the day.
  • Learn to recharge when coasting, like a hybrid car. This increases efficiency.

- Enhance effective learning

  • Take the time to review successes. Each review strengthens effective learning.
  • Redo mistakes using virtual rehearsal.

From my perspective, understanding the distinction between stress and strain is an essential first step for bosses seeking to help sales managers enhance performance and reduce the chance of burn-out.

Joseph Arpaia, M.D., lives and practices in Eugene, OR.  He is the co-author of Real Meditation in Minutes a Day.  He specializes in helping people deal with stress-related conditions to improve their health and personal effectiveness.