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How to Climb the Sales Ladder (6 Tips)

I believe that most sales professionals get into our profession looking for challenge and the opportunity to move up. As a group, we’re hard-wired to seek “bigger” and “better”. Having interviewed tens of thousands of sales professionals I can tell you with certainty that it’s an incredibly rare person that sustains an upward career trajectory AND enjoys the work each step of the way. In this blog, I’ll share what I’ve learned observing this elite few in How to Climb the Sales Ladder.

6 Tips to Climb the Sales Ladder.

1. Have a plan.

Most sales professionals have career goals. I’ve found that these goals are usually income related (make $250k/yr), title related (become a VP) or industry related (break into medical sales) . If you haven’t already established and written down your goals, do it now!

But before you invest too much time mapping out your goals, get crystal clear about the work you enjoy and excel at. It doesn’t make much sense to chase a goal that would put you in a position that makes you feel miserable. Trust me, I’ve worked with countless sales reps and sales leaders that learned this lesson the hard way. You can read more of my thoughts on this topic in Is Your Sales Career Mapped Out?


2. Know your “Why?”.

The one thing more important than defining your career goals is understanding what’s driving you towards them. When you’re clear on your “Why?”, you’ll have the strength to overcome setbacks and the discipline to avoid “shiny objects”. Allow me to give you an example to help explain.

Consider a situation where a talented sales professional just got passed over for a big promotion. If she isn’t clear with her “Why?”, her next move might be to update her resume and start answering calls from headhunters. Instead of moving towards her long-term goals, her ego may lead her in a totally new direction. Most likely, this will be a direction that she hasn’t thought out or thought through as our recently scorned rep’s biggest driver isn’t a promotion. Her driver is the satisfaction that she receives from being able to balance a challenging career with having enough time to spend with her family. Remove too much of either piece and her life (and career) satisfaction plummets. I go into more detail with career mis-steps in 3 Preventable Sales Career Mistakes.

In short, when I interview a sales professional, I’m looking for someone who is running towards vs. running away from something. If you ever catch yourself running away from a problem, stop and revisit your “Why?” or risk making a mistake.


3. Test your plan.

Take the time to research what life would be like on the other side of your goal before jumping in head first. Want to move into management, for example? Interview as many sales leaders as you can in your field. Find out what the +s and -s are and size up the fit for yourself. Some of the best career decisions you make are the opportunities you decide NOT to pursue.


4. Acquire the skills.

Moving up in your sales career will require you to tackle tougher challenges. This usually means learning how to sell or lead a team of reps to sell: to larger companies, to higher level decision makers, larger ticket items or more complex solutions. The sales professionals that impress me most are the ones that prepared for these challenges by maximizing their growth opportunities within their current positions. As an example, they might focus on penetrating the largest prospects in their territory to help build the skills necessary to tackle a promotion to major accounts. I’ve had several A players use that experience during an interview to earn a step up with one of my clients.


5. Build a network.

You never know who could dramatically change your career trajectory for the better. To that end, I’ve watched multiple A players get ahead by riding the coattails of an even more impressive and fast rising boss. When their boss gets promoted, they often bring the team that helped get them there with them. Treat everyone well, do great work everywhere you go and never burn bridges. This approach is guaranteed to open doors and arm you with a strong list of stellar references.


6. Revisit your plan.

Research shows that most career changes are triggered by major life milestones: getting married, having a child, turning 40, etc. Don’t wait for a major life event to happen to prompt you to check in on how your career is progressing. Your goals should be written down and they should have realistic completion dates associated with them. In addition it’s important to revisit your goals AND your “Whys?” every 5 years. As you do, you might find that your once burning career goals don’t align with your current life situation. From experience, I can share that what I valued and how I prioritized those values has changed over my career.
My last bit of advice with climbing the sales ladder is to remember that success doesn’t happen overnight. Enjoy the journey and stay true to who you are. Best of luck to you in your sales career!

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Chris Carlson

My name is Chris Carlson and I’m the founder and President of Sales Talent. This blog grew out of my desire to document and share what I’ve learned in my two plus decades of sales recruiting and leading Sales Talent. Our posts are aimed at sales professionals and leaders that speaks to talent selection, team building, or career advancement. If you have a topic that you’d like my take on, please reach out to me.

You can find Chris Carlson on LinkedIn or contact him directly at:
[email protected].