After 22 years in the industry, 18 years as a Solution Engineer (SE), and 12 of those as an SE leader, I decided to take a few minutes to pull together a list of ten things I think you simply must be doing if you’re leading a team of SEs (and being authentic here, most of these stem from countless mistakes I’ve made myself). Honestly, there is no job on earth I would rather do, but I am always trying to do it better. I am sure you feel the same way, so I hope you find this list useful.
1. It’s about having an impact, not about having a voice
Theodore Roosevelt was often cited using the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” While his interpretation was primarily focused on U.S. foreign policy around 1900, it has taken on a more general meaning in the last 100 years. For me, being an effective SE leader is all about the impact you have – the impact to the business, the impact you have on your people and customers, and the impact you have on developing and coaching a sales team. It’s not about how many times you speak up at meetings or how many deals you challenge on forecast calls. So often we hear that SE leaders need to have a “louder voice” and “speak up and express a point of view”. I don’t disagree with that completely but overall, I look at the effectiveness of an SE leader more by impact.
Some of the most impactful and successful SE leaders I have known in my career have actually been the most quiet and introverted. These leaders prove themselves and contribute to the business through the deeper relationships they build with customers, through the meaningful contributions they make when working on deals, and by taking the time to coach salespeople so they can be more effective at their jobs. The bottom line is, you don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to be a great SE leader – as long as you’re carrying a big stick.
2. Take special care of your top talent
So, let me repeat this one – take special care of your top talent. And this includes both SEs and your SE Managers. Some of you might read this and think, “Of course I take care of my top talent!” The question I have is, do you take special care of them. Do you treat them the same way as you treat all of your employees? Well, you shouldn’t. And let me very clear here – I am not saying you shouldn’t treat all people as human beings and with the same level of respect, dignity, and professionalism. Of course you should – and I trust that we’re doing this anyway. What I am talking about here is that special attention you’re giving to your top talent, so they feel appreciated, cared for, challenged, and looked after. Why is this important? Because this is what top talent needs and wants to continue executing at that level.
Top talent generally thrives, performs better, and is willing to go that extra mile when they genuinely feel they are being looked after and appreciated for what they bring to the table. And if they don’t get it from you, they will eventually go work for a leader where they do get it. But taking care of top talent isn’t only about praise, awards, money, and recognition. In many cases it’s as simple as taking extra time for them, developing and coaching them, providing feedback, or giving them special challenges where they can excel.
It’s important, however, to strike the right balance when taking care of your top talent publicly. Too much public recognition can send the wrong message to other team members that they are not valued. This could demotivate them and you could be seen as playing favorites. So be smart about how you do it. Top performing SEs and SE Managers are extremely marketable resources and are in huge demand. Chances are if you know they’re good, so do recruiters and managers at other companies. It’s perfectly okay to take special care of your top talent – and you absolutely should. So, are you?
3. Build your brand too, not only your team's
We all know that as a good SE leader, you put your team first and make sure they shine. But what about you? When was the last time you put some focus on yourself to ensure that you got some recognition or did something to increase your own personal brand as a leader? Here’s a secret – it’s okay to do that. In fact, you should.
One of the most difficult things about becoming an SE manager is how quickly you get caught up in the day-to-day operations of the role (e.g. resource escalations, customer issues, hiring, career discussions, 1:1s, or that blind RFP which just landed in your inbox). It’s therefore critical that you take some time to identify opportunities where you can increase your visibility and develop your brand. Perhaps there is a keynote opportunity at a marketing event or maybe a highly visible customer meeting where you can own a key role in the presentation. Perhaps there is an enablement session or all-hands call coming up where you can support with a presentation slot. Or maybe a strategic initiative being launched in your organization, which you can lead. Key here is to ensure that you not only do the initiative but that you make some noise about as well. Let your key stakeholders know about it – including sales leaders. A great way to do this is to ask someone who worked with you to send a short note thanking you and highlighting what you did – or send it yourself. Regardless of how you do it, it’s important that you let people know. Far too often as SE leaders, we tend not to make noise about ourselves and focus on our people. Of course, that is a good leadership behavior (see Leaders Eat Last below in suggested readings), but building your personal brand is also hugely important for your own career development, so don’t be afraid to do it once in a while.
The other dimension to this is the notion of “leading from the front”. Not only does this help with your personal brand, but it also demonstrates to your team that you have the skills, the confidence, and the willingness to show them how it’s done. After all, we’re not only armchair generals in the SE world, are we? In The Prince (suggested reading below), Machiavelli writes, “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example.”
4. Flag low-performing “frequent flyers” to sales leaders
Generally, sales leaders are aware of their low-performers. What they are not aware of is how much time and energy these low performers are consuming from your SE team (and the negative impact they have on the morale of your SEs). This is a serious problem and needs to be addressed proactively. Remember – your team’s time is valuable, and as SE leaders, we all wish we had twice as many SEs.
One of the ways to do more with less is to address productivity leaks. If you haven’t taken a close look at the data behind some of the low-performing salespeople, then you should. I think you’ll be surprised when you add it up and you may have just found an extra SE headcount you didn’t know existed. Important is to be able to have a data-driven conversation with your sales leaders. Without data, the conversation can quickly become emotional. Sales leaders can get very defensive, and it can sound like a witch hunt. One of the reports I use for these conversations measures the amount of revenue a salesperson has generated versus the number of SE hours consumed. With this, we can discuss the primary cases which are of concern. Chances are you won’t completely plug the leak, but with a data-driven conversation you might be able to implement a stricter qualification process for certain salespeople.
This is not about blame and shame. This about you as an SE leader looking out for the interests of your team and the health of the business. Viewed from another angle, the same data can also be used to identify salespeople who are closing significant business with moderate to small amounts of SE support. Cases like these are ones you can highlight as best practices (e.g. some salespeople work well with partners or maybe they’re more self-reliant and are able to cover demos and high-level technical meetings themselves). You want to make examples of these people because they help an SE team to scale. But don’t allow low-performing frequent flyers to negatively impact your team and your business – and it’s your job to address it.
5. Have meaningful C-level customer relationships
Far too often, we as SE leaders, underestimate the impact we can have on the business by having meaningful, trust-based relationships with C-level stakeholders at our customers. There are two reasons for this, in my view. First, we often think it’s salespeople who need to own a customer relationship; the SE team is here to ensure all aspects of the solution are covered and we’re “technically closed”. Second, we tend to think customers are more interested in relationships with our SEs because they are the true content experts.
A tip? On the forecast calls you’re attending, listen out for things like, “We’re having trouble getting access to this executive.” or “We have a CIO who doesn’t like us.” That is a great opportunity to insert yourself into an account, build a relationship, and have impact (see point #1 above). Important for me is that when I develop a relationship with a customer, I make it clear to the sales team that it will not be one of a commercial nature. This means I will not be calling my contact the night before quarter end to apply pressure to sign a deal. I think as SE leaders it’s important that we develop these relationships on a trust basis so that our customers don’t see us as another person trying to close more business. Also critical for me here is quality over quantity; try to have a few meaningful and deeper relationships rather than many, which are more superficial.
Another advantage to having these relationships is that you’ll stay close to the “pulse of the customer” i.e. what customers are really thinking about. The larger the SE role you take on, the bigger the risk that you become disconnected with what’s keeping customers awake at night. This is the dangerous situation, which Jagdish Sheth calls the “expertise paradox” (suggested reading below) for which he specifically highlights Lou Gerstner “listening to and acting on the recommendation of his top 200 customers rather than his internal management team” as the reason for the successful turnaround of IBM.
6. Protect your team form “FRM” (free resource mooching)
You all know exactly what this one is about. I would wager that in most of your organizations, your SEs are not billable. This means that using them does not require a cost center or a purchase order (like a billable consultant would). Consequently, this makes it easier to ask for your SEs to support non-opportunity related work because people don’t have to find and justify budget. This - combined with the fact that SEs are generally good, helpful, corporate citizens – means we are prime targets for FRM; teams who come looking to staff their “projects”, “initiatives”, or “enablement”. Examples of this are partner or sales enablement, business development initiatives, marketing campaign support, post-sales implementation or post-sales customer satisfaction work.
Now, we all know that these things are important to our businesses, but the key question is, should your team be supporting it - and how much of it? Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that we shouldn’t support any of these activities (and in some cases they might be things your SEs enjoy doing and gives them exposure to other parts of the business). My key message here is to carefully manage the amount and the scope of them. Agree on the task, scope, timelines, KPIs, and frequency. For your SEs, it adds up very quickly and for anything that doesn’t have an agreed scope, it can rapidly turn into a larger and longer project than you thought.
Oh, and by the way, pushing back on these kinds of things is completely okay. You don’t always have to say yes. Too much non-opportunity related work - on top of opportunity related work - is a quick and easy path to SE burnout. It can also send the message to your team that you’re not fighting hard enough to protect their time. But if you say no, make it a data-driven response and back up your answer with the numbers – this takes emotion out of the equation and makes it fact-based.
7. It's who you know, not what you know
Back when I was an SE, it was all about what I knew; how deep my product knowledge was, how many technical questions I could answer, and how great my demos were. This made my brand strong. People saw me as a content expert and that meant salespeople wanted me to support their deals. Once I became an SE manager, I started to realize – as many of us do – that I was no longer seen as the expert. In fact, I was even seen as a bottleneck; challenging salespeople on their RFP or saying no to demos for which we haven’t done discovery.
This is where having a strong network is essential. When you take on the role of an SE leader, you need to focus more on helping your team do their jobs better. One of the best ways to do this is by having a strong and useful network. When your SEs (or sales teams) run into problems, one of the best ways to help them is to find the right people to assist. A useful network across your organization, partner ecosystem, and customer base can become one of the biggest assets you’ll possess as an SE leader and can help you bring value and impact to the business (as mentioned in point #1).
An interesting book, which is highly relevant here is Give and Take (suggested reading below) by psychologist Adam Grant, wherein he discusses the three reciprocity types: givers, takers, and matchers. Givers like to give more than they get, and they help others when the benefits to others exceed their personal costs. Grant claims that “Givers” generally build more useful networks in collaborative knowledge work (what we do as SEs). Giving, he claims, provides an advantage because you can’t always predict who’s going to be helpful to you in the future. The most successful SE Leaders I know are givers and have done exactly that – built useful networks with people without necessarily expecting something in return.
8. Don't ignore the sales coaching problem, but don't own it
You know the conversation. You’re having a 1:1 with an SE and it’s the fifth time you’re hearing that the sales team isn’t qualifying deals – and perhaps doesn’t know how to. Clearly there is a coaching problem here. In a perfect world, this is something that the sales manager would be coaching his or her team on. But as we all know, this doesn’t always happen. It is essential that you not ignore this problem. Why? Because when sales needs coaching and doesn’t get it, things will never improve, and it will have a negative impact on your SE team. Time will be wasted, morale will sink, and it will surely have an impact on the business.
This is where you as an SE Leader need to step in and put forward a plan with sales leadership. It is entirely possible that a sales leader may not even be aware there is an issue, so they need to hear it from you. Once again, make the conversation data-driven and be sure the sales leader understands the potential impact to the SE team and to the business. The best thing you can do here is to have a recommendation already prepared. Perhaps it’s a training or enablement session or maybe a new tool or process which needs to be implemented. The key here is to ensure that the solution you’re putting in place is the right one but be careful not to fall into the trap of owning the bigger coaching problem. As an SE leader, you have your own team to take care of and all too often sales will ask us to own this.
Most companies have a sales enablement team, which is responsible for things like this.
Ideally, with the support of sales, you provide the vision and what needs to be done and they can execute the training for you. Perhaps you participate and even own some of the content, but in the end it’s important that you don’t own the entire coaching initiative. If your company is smaller and you don’t have sales enablement, then work with sales to put together a business case for such a resource. It’s a critical part of making sure sales teams are productive and it’s too big and important a task for you and your SEs to own. Don’t ignore it - but don’t own it either.
9. Never tolerate inaccurate negative feedback
We’ve all been there. You’re in a forecast call or a team meeting and somebody from the sales team says, “Well the meeting didn’t go so well because our demo wasn’t any good.” It is absolutely essential that you take action on any and all issues like this and ensure that you get the facts. The sales team must know that when negative feedback about SEs is reported there will be action taken – that conditioning is essential. If it turns out the demo didn’t go well, then it’s critical that you follow-up and put a plan in place to understand what happened, ensure it doesn’t happen again, and inform sales about the action you’ve taken. If, however, your research uncovers that the feedback from sales wasn’t accurate, this must be challenged, called out, and addressed.
It is completely unacceptable - and can set a dangerous cultural precedent - to have sales teams thinking that unjustly blaming SEs for lost deals, bad meetings, or poor sales performance is tolerable. Now, it probably doesn’t happen very often, but I bet you’ve all had one or two situations like that. How you react and follow-up is critical. You simply must have a zero-tolerance policy for inaccurate feedback about your SEs. And the teams you’re supporting – sales or otherwise - must know this. If these things go unchallenged, you will lose the confidence of your SEs, lose the respect of your sales counterparts, and it will undoubtedly destroy the morale of your team. Zero tolerance!
10. Be proactive on helping the SE make time to learn
I am sure you know this already, but SEs are lifelong learners. SEs are curious. SEs have questions. SEs like to develop new skills. But they also need a break once in a while from the day-to-day of their role to challenge themselves with something different. This is why you, as an SE leader, need to not only ruthlessly defend their time to learn, but you need to be proactive about it. Experience has shown me that aggressively waiting for the SE to come to you with a training or development plan only happens in the smallest number of cases.
And it’s not because SEs don’t care about it – it’s because they simply don’t find the time. This is the curse of the dedicated SE – burning the midnight oil on key deals and helping to close more business – all at the cost of developing themselves. It is incumbent upon us as SE leaders to proactively push our SEs to make time to learn and grow. If we don’t do this, you’ll find morale will sink, fatigue will set in, and possible burnout. It is important, however, that you’re also providing feedback on where your SEs invest their training time. Far too often, SEs think the best training is something technical; something to deepen his or her solution skills. This is not always the best use of their time. Perhaps one of your most technical SEs is actually in need of presentation skills training – or solution selling. It is your job to ensure that when these conversations are taking place, you are coaching your SEs and recommending trainings, which are best aligned with their development areas.
I think it goes without saying that we also need to practice what we preach. This means as leaders also need to make the time to grow and develop ourselves.
11. "Today a reader, tomorrow a leader”
And so said Margaret Fuller, the American journalist. So, here's a bonus #11 for you. Read these books, if you haven’t already (and if you have, read them again). They are not intended to provide you solutions, but rather varying perspectives on leadership, which I have found invaluable as I’ve tried to understand what leadership means and what my own philosophy is. Enjoy.
Meditations (Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD)
The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532)
On War (Carl von Clausewitz, 1832)
Leadership That Gets Results (Dan Goleman, 2000)
The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter (Michael Watkins, 2003)
The Self-Destructive Habits of Good Companies … And How to Break Them (Jagdish Sheth, 2007)
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Adam Grant, 2014)
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't (Simon Sinek, 2014)
And for some fun …
Be More Vader: Assertive Thinking from the Dark Side (Christian Blauvelt, 2018)
Jon is currently the Vice President of Solution Engineering (Western Europe) at Oracle. Previously he has led PreSales teams at Salesforce, SAP, and Siebel Systems.
Connect with Jon on LinkedIn.