Why Business Degrees Should Be Minimum Criteria When Hiring Sales Managers

During a recent recruitment assignment with a client involved in the manufacturing industry, the discussion arose of whether or not the sales manager should be required to have a business degree. Typically the hiring of sales managers is focused on their experience in a particular industry and their product knowledge. For some technical products a degree in engineering related subjects often is seen as a pre-requisite due to the complicated knowledge requirements for certain products. The next criteria will be their ability to manage a team of people and deliver sales quota.

Very few advertisements rank a business degree as an important requirement and place more emphasis on industry skills and background information.

Not to say that these points are not important, but if you look at this from a different perspective and give heed to the fact that sales managers make decisions that affect the entire organization on a day-to-day basis, then maybe the criteria needs to be included.

In the discussion with my client, I explained the reasons why a business degree would be important criteria in the sales manager’s role. First and foremost the discipline of achieving a degree requires focus, dedication, structure, perseverance and the ability to prioritize. These are all skills and traits that would be optimum for a sales manager (or any manager) if you are looking for a person that is capable of growing your business and ensuring suitability.

Many of the people completing business degrees are often those returning students on a part time basis whilst fulfilling a fulltime employment role. Many Gen X people (those born in the 1960-1980 era) that have taken a career in sales, have typically left school and not pursued any university education. Typically their involvement in sales comes from a desire for freedom and self management and an easy to access career. This background gives foundation to their ‘run your own business’ mentality of managing people and a focus on relationships that often is promoted by Gen X sales managers. They were the survival skills that carried them through most of their employment.

What sales organizations have learnt over the years, and often at great expense, is that sustainable success comes from having a structured and measured approach to selling practices. The person with the degree understands those principles, has learned in that environment and personally conducted themselves in that manner. Therefore their leadership style will be a reflection of this too which is carried through to their teams.

When completing a degree, people are taught to research, solve problems and look at situations from different angles to make informed decisions. This is a major contrast to the traditional sales manager who often makes decisions on the fly in response to emotive situations or alarmist situations with customers. They are reactionary in most cases to the market and customers, and even their teams. Their skills are learned on an action-success-failure basis known as experience or being in the field. Some learn from those success-failures and others stumbling early and repeating the same issues over and over again. They are creating or attempting to create what has already been created – the wheel. However they have selected the hardest road to get to the end goal-unguided trial and error. They are basically learning on the job at great expense to themselves and those working with them.

The content contained in a degree provides graduates with a set of business principles, methods and processes that are proven to be successful giving a strong platform to develop from. It cultivates a process of thinking and decision making. Degree qualified people are not re-creating the wheel or putting the wrong wheel on the vehicle due to lack of understanding or learning basic principles on company time. They are immediately lifted to a level that can be considered arguably as some six to eight years of experience if measured in field management time.

Most importantly the degree provides them with an understanding of the repercussion of decisions they are making that affect the broader organization. How they impact the culture of the business in relation to supply-chain. How they impact the business in relation to financial management. They gain a deeper understanding of operational management and human resources. This more rounded approach provides improved decision-making, more clarity in functionality of the sales team and strong upward reporting capability contributing to strategic planning.

The person that does things on the fly is considered a high risk individual in today’s market whereas the person with the degree will have some strong business principles and understanding that will take a more pragmatic and calculated approach to management of the income of the organization.

Does the degree guarantee success? Definitely not. There are some people that struggle with the transition of knowledge to application. The important element is that if there is evidence of their ability to apply that transition of knowledge to the business then you are in a much stronger position as a company.

As evidence of the difference in the two profiles, on reviewing the resumes of the candidates for our client, there was a distinct difference in the content of what was presented. For those candidates that put forward resumes that were not degree qualified, their focus was on team spirit and customers and in the main their resumes demonstrated they focused on existing customers primarily. Often their major achievement was installing a CRM system, something that is of the most basic level in business. The level of engagement by sales people rarely cited. The primary focus of their work effort being what is best described as basics of sales management or even to say sales supervision. There were often references to trending statements around emotional intelligence and other subjects that had been through their employer’s corporate mantra.

For those that are more educated through a business degree and experienced managers, their resumes demonstrated their strategic capability, implementation parameters and output. The wording to describe achievements was business based statements that would be accepted at CEO level. They demonstrated the ability to streamline sales practices and install structure that maximized the performance of sales channels. Their references to basic management requirements or sales supervision were minimal. Their resume demonstrated thinking on a much higher level even though they were delivering the sales management functions.

In consideration of who was capable of driving the results; the answer was clear. The traditional sales manager would keep some form of a wheel on the business as long as the market stayed relatively stable. The business may endure unnecessary ups and downs and fluctuating profits as they learn through trial and error. Those ups and downs could be quite significant.

The more educated sales manager had the ability to have foresight and strategy to manoeuvre the business through changing markets. The ups and downs were only small hills and slides that did not have excess impact on the business. They were able to develop strong business practices and enabled them to be operating both at a hands-on with the team level and strategically simultaneously.

With equal knowledge of an industry and products, the degree qualified candidate will definitely come out the winner as a much lower risk to the company.

Sales managers need to consider the necessity of business degrees in the future as formal education becomes a standard offering for the younger generations as they move into management. The younger person is often seeking more than what their predecessors did for their careers and see the business degree as a leverage to higher roles in the future outside of just sales management.

With the market place continuing to endure the long tail of the global financial crisis, companies hiring are looking for lower risk placements in their companies. Certainly education ticks the box of comfort for them.