Subpar or Superstar? A framework for ranking, managing and developing sales teams


  • You need to have a view of where your team sits in terms of execution and results. This framework gives you a starting point.
  • Just getting ‘results’ may cover up future serious problems with your top ‘performers’ and the team.
  • Consistently reviewing where your team members sit lets you set the right examples, lets your strongest team members shine and directs you where your focus should be.

Managing teams is hard.  Managing teams well is harder.  Leading teams is truly a challenge. 

There’s a framework that many use: the Skill/Will matrix.  In short, there are four boxes with someone’s ‘will’ (do they have the heart, the energy, the drive) to do the job as an axis along the horizontal and their ‘skill’ (can they do the job, do they have the talent) along the vertical.  Plotting each team member in this graph gives you an idea of who to nurture, who to develop, who to worry about and who isn’t a great fit.

This same four-square box is also a great framework to use in sales (and many other roles, but for this discussion let’s just focus on sales details).  I’ve been asked many times what I do with sales reps that aren’t performing and how I know when it’s time to help give a nudge that they often need to find a new place where they will shine.

I use these same four squares.  Let’s dissect the boxes in order of ‘easiness’.

Some of this is pretty self-explanatory, but let’s review this to see how we as leaders not only could but should ensure we’re leading, not just managing.

Along the horizontal is ‘doing the right things’.  And that in and of itself is the leadership challenge.  How to define what ‘right’ is. How to learn to adapt to new ways of working that supplant old definitions. Some are basics:  having a certain number of qualified new business meetings, prospecting and outreach, business cases, MEDDPICC.  And as generativeAI makes the ‘norms’ of what used to take days now take minutes–adapting and learning and redefining ‘right things’.  

Along the vertical is ‘results’.  Are they closing deals? Building pipeline? Expanding existing relationships? Getting deals that are of the right margin, and value?  All is not always what it seems when you just look at numbers.

The easiest to manage is the top right box–the stars. They’re modelling great behaviour and demonstrate that doing the hard work pays off. They consistently hit their numbers because they’re not gasping for air at the end of a quarter or year–they’re not desperate to close the one or two deals that they have because that’s all they have.  Customers know that these stars genuinely care about their business and making their jobs easier, better, and making them shine. The challenge here is keeping them motivated and challenged, and often showing that a management path is just ‘a’ path, not ‘the’ path.  Some Stars will be brilliant managers, some will be terrible.  The individual contributor (IC) path often is the right one and is often more senior (and more highly paid, more impactful, and more valued) than management.  You have to spend time on your Stars and not just assume they’re fine.

Then there’s the Risers.  They’re doing everything right but results just haven’t come…yet.  We all know these people and likely when starting out we were these people.  It was so frustrating to have deals not close, or have a dry spell—but we took the time, put in the work and eventually it did pay off.  As leaders, it’s our responsibility to nurture these team members, use the Stars as coaches and ensure they keep their spirits up, and keep doing the work—it will pay off.

The Strugglers aren’t the hardest to manage.  It’s pretty binary–can you move them to the right and get them doing the right things, or do you manage them out?  If you can set a plan and they improve, great!  Are they willing to put in the hard work, build the pipeline, and challenge themselves?  If yes, then I’ve seen Stugglers start to shine once they have a framework and know what to do. But if not, then it’s often kinder in the long run, and healthier for the team and the business to manage them out of the business.

The hardest are the Rebels.  These are the ones that organisations often keep on board far longer than they should. They bring in deals. They hit their numbers, though often by the skin of their teeth and it’s ‘heroics’ at the end of each quarter/year.  But they’re often the toxic teammates that can cause a great team to sour and great Risers to leave or fail.  Often these are the ones that you know their luck will run out, and I don’t want more junior members to start emulating, thinking that because they’ve hit numbers they’re the model of success.  The best outcome here is that they start modelling good actions, and become someone that others can emulate–you can make Stars out of Rebels (and yes, they may be Stars in disguise–I’ve had a few that taught an old dog new tricks) but more often than not, it’s a problem that many kick that can down the road to deal with later and it only makes things even harder. 

So what do we as leaders do to ensure that we have a constant bench of Stars and Risers?  

  1. Define competencies.  At Unbabel, in my team(s) across the different groups, my leadership team has defined competencies that equate to success, and we’re working on what ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ look like.  And I’m rolling out a program for my managers with the same – what competencies do they need and what actions equate to ‘doing the right things’.   It’s entirely unfair of me to expect my team to lead if I’m not defining what great looks like, and what I expect and then support them to get there.
  2. Regularly review where your team members sit in the matrix, the last thing you want is to miss the opportunity to help change the course of those who still can be helped.
  3. Don’t neglect the stars—spending all your time with those in the bottom left corner will cause resentment.
  4. Regularly review this matrix–if you just look at it once a year at Annual Review time, you might have missed an opportunity to nudge someone into the right track, and you need to always have a view on what your team looks like.
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