What’s your 5-year plan? What about 10-year? While it might be tempting to say, “Who cares, I’m in sales, I’m here to make bank,” there’s good reason to look ahead and chart an actual plan for your career. You might find that coaching others is more rewarding than smashing quota, or you’re more excited about taking a company to the next growth stage than mining a plum territory at a large enterprise.
The goal of this section is to help you understand what different sales roles are and how they fit together in several common career paths. That way, you’ll know what’s right for you when the time comes. (Warning, there are a lot of acronyms in this section! Most of these should be “standard,” but don’t be alarmed if the organization you work for uses different terminology).
SDR: Sales Development Representative – This is considered an “entry-level job” for sales and a way to get started in your sales career. An SDR would typically focus on qualifying inbound leads that come in. Don’t be discouraged if you get made fun of as an SDR, we all need to start somewhere! Most sales professionals have an SDR story from “back in the day” they’ll be happy to share.
BDR: Business Development Representative – This is another “entry-level job” for sales and usually is focused on outbound lead generation. In both SDR and BDR roles, the goal is not to close a sale but to validate and generate leads for an Account Executive to close. Be aware: not every company has a separate SDR and BDR team, but these are pretty standard “beginner” sales positions that don’t require previous sales experience.
AE: Account Executive – The Account Executive is the closer. Typically the Account Executive will take the leads from the SDR or BDR team and then work with those prospects through closing the deal. This role has very high earning potential with commissions.
Within the AE role you’ll often see companies divide them into Commercial, Mid-Market, or Enterprise roles. Each company will make its own definition, but those categories tell you what size company you’re going to be working with (Enterprise is generally the largest and the most lucrative).
Sometimes you can jump straight to this step, but usually, you need prior sales experience, often as a BDR or SDR, to apply for an AE role. It is not uncommon to see someone spend their whole career as an AE – it can often be the most lucrative career track.
In the right company and right industry, the commission can be very, VERY compelling. As an experienced AE, you may start to get more choosy about the types of products and solutions you want to sell and the types of customers you sell to, but that comes with success, time, and experience.
SDR/BDR Manager: As the name implies, this role manages other SDRs and BDRs.
If you’re looking for a management career path, this role may be a great fit. As an SDR, a common decision is to try to progress into a closer role (AE) or into management (SDR Manager) and there are a few pros/cons to either route.
Typically, an AE role will have the greater earning potential, but you’ll be an individual contributor (IC). It also sets you up better for becoming a VP of sales or a Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) down the line, since those roles typically require closing experience.
The management path as an SDR Manager has less earning potential upfront, but it gives you a chance to put “management experience” on your resume and see how you like the responsibilities of managing a team. As an SDR Manager, it may often feel like you have to deal with everyone else’s problems compared to an IC role where you only have your own issues to worry about.
Sales Manager: This role manages AEs and potentially also other members of the sales team (Solutions Engineers, etc).
This is another management role, which is normally considered a “higher” position than an SDR manager and carries more weight within the organization. Sales Manager is often a requisite stepping stone to becoming a VP of Sales or CRO.
However, a Sales Manager role is usually not a commission-based role, so there will be Account Executives on your team making more money than you.
Many people love the challenges and successes that come with management and leading a team of people, while others prefer to not have their compensation be tied to other people’s performance.
VP of Sales / Chief Revenue Officer: This is a senior management role, responsible for leading the entire sales department.
Typically a team of Sales Managers would report to a VP of Sales. Depending on the company, the VP of Sales may report directly to the President or CEO of the company.
At bigger companies, this can be a very senior role, so don’t be discouraged if it takes decades of management experience to even be able to apply to this role. If a VP title is important to you (and remember, titles can be deceiving), then you may want to look at a smaller organization or a startup.
As a company gets larger, there will typically be more layers of middle management before a Vice President. Years of experience in people management and in closing large, enterprise deals are almost always prerequisites for this role.
This article touched on three of the most common sales career paths: (1) lifetime AE, (2) team management, and (3) sales leadership. However, these are not your only options! You may find yourself better suited for roles in solutions engineering if you’re more technical, sales enablement if you’re more operational, or customer success/account management if you prefer to focus on upsells and renewals.
Regardless of what you decide, the important thing is to know the options and tradeoffs. If you want to be a VP of Sales one day, you’ll need to figure out how you can get enterprise closing experience and people management on your resume. If you just want to maximize your earnings, then maybe career AE is the right move. Ultimately, when you make a job decision, you should consider how it fits into your long-term career aspirations.