13 Sales Compensation Leaders Share Career Growth Secrets

A Note from Forma.ai's VP of Professional Services

Almost every company that exists as a for profit commercial entity uses compensation as a recruitment, retention, and motivational tool for their employees.

Sales Compensation is a specialized niche of incentives where companies make enormous investments looking for even bigger returns.

Creating an optimal design of a sales compensation plan is often described as an ‘art and a science’ as it involves both sophisticated data analysis as well as an understanding of the psychology of human behavior and extrinsic motivation.

The design field continues to evolve from an initial body of knowledge based on the experience of practitioners and consultants as we get bigger data sets to analyze and apply machine learning and AI to see what really works.

The administration of sales compensation is an intersection of a tremendous amount of data, cutting edge technology, and stakeholders that span multiple business functions.

The day to day is fast paced and getting faster as companies move towards more frequent payouts and demand the agility to respond to ever changing internal and external market conditions.

The sales compensation field has been incredibly rewarding to me over the course of my career and I welcome others to see what it can offer them as we continue to push forward both the design and administration effectiveness and efficiency to drive corporate outcomes at the top and bottom line.

- Justin Lane, VP of Professional Services

Part 1: Getting Started in Sales Compensation

Sales compensation roles require a wide variety of tactical and strategic skills, that range from finance and accounting through sales operations, data and analytics, technology management, and everything in between.

As such, the ways through which people found themselves on this career path vary greatly. This section talks about how professionals got into sales compensation.

Progressive Growth

Tiffany Tassani shares how she started in sales compensation
“I was working for a small-to-mid-size business that built and managed sales compensation internally. Our CEO created the comp plans, and our Finance team managed them. As our sales operations grew, it was a natural transition for me to take control of our sales compensation plan management.” - Tiffany Tassani, Director of Global Sales Operations at Edmentum

“After years of working with sales and training operations teams, I found a new role responsible for managing sales compensation, sales performance management, and quota and territory alignment. With a focus on developing my skills, I studied and earned my designation as a Certified Sales Comp Professional" - Anonymous, Sales Compensation Manager, Fortune 500 Company

If you’re already working in a sales function, you’re on the right path. Many sales compensation leaders start their careers in a role independent of compensation and progress into a comp function.

Management Consulting

“My first job out of undergrad was at a management consulting and technology firm. While there, I was exposed to SalesPerformance Management (SPM). I enjoyed it and continued to specialize in the field while learning various software tools. Now, I use my expertise to help other companies solve their most challenging sales comp problems.” - Jon Newcomb, Senior Manager, Implementation & Onboarding at Forma.ai

“I joined a management consulting company that specialized in sales effectiveness. At the time, Incentive Compensation Management (ICM) technology had a strong pipeline of projects. My background in databases allowed me to immediately contribute on the technical side of projects, while also receiving strong mentorship from senior IC leaders.” - Evan Gray, Implementation Manager at Forma.ai

Consulting is a road many sales compensation leaders begin on. Learning about SPM and ICM technology early in your career can accelerate you into a full-time comp role. Not to mention the networking opportunities you will have at an established firm.

As Luck Would Have It

“Accidentally! I was hired as a business analyst focused on reporting and analysis of sales data.That evolved into territory optimization, quota allocation, and sales incentive design.” - Christopher Goff, AD, Sales Compensation at Labcorp

“I think the best way to describe it is by accident. I was looking for a new role and a former colleague of mine referred me for an interview at a sales effectiveness consulting firm. I really enjoyed all aspects of the space and it’s a cliché, but the rest is history.” - Justin Lane, VP, Professional Services at Forma.ai

“I moved to San Francisco, found a job as a Commission Analyst, and have never looked back. Most people don’t have a career goal to do sales compensation. But we all have a story about how we ended up doing sales comp and then grew to love it.” - Meredith Noyes, Director of Sales Compensation at Autodesk

Accidents happen, and sometimes in your favor. If you want a career in sales compensation, send that cold email, take that sales role, make that connection—you never know what could happen.

Part 2: Standing Out as a Sales Compensation Professional

Advancing in your sales compensation career requires you to make a difference. Not only in your organization but with the people you work with every day. There isn’t one unanimous way to do this, but there are, however, some common practices. This section speaks on how to stand out in sales compensation.

Use Data

“Provide insight based on the data you work with every day. Many sales compensation functions are very good at executing on the process of getting people paid, but it requires almost all their time and effort. Find ways to create time to focus on understanding if the sales compensation plans are driving the intended behaviors and results. Sales compensation administrators have access to and understanding a wealth of data from across the organization and are best positioned to provide strategic insight on incentive plan design. Spend some time leveraging data to answering questions leadership care about.” - Kyle Webster, Chief of Staff at Forma.ai

“Use data and build collaborative partnerships across the organization. Compensation sits at the crossroads of IT, HR, Finance, and Sales. It’s key that leaders of these areas understand how powerful data can be to their success.” - Evan Gray, Implementation Manager at Forma.ai

The best sales compensation models are data-driven. Think about how sales results, quota attainment, detailed commissions, territory structures, etc. interact with each other to drive results. Leverage this information to anticipate and find solutions for problems within your sales organization.

Prioritize Sales Teams

Quote from Meredith Noyes about putting sales first.
“Put sales first. Treat your sales team as if they are your customer and aim to provide an amazing customer experience for them. This builds trust and allows them to focus on selling rather than worrying about how they’re being paid.” - Meredith Noyes, Director of Sales Compensation at Autodesk

“The main objective of sales compensation design and administration is to motivate the sales team. Listening and discerning actionable items from their feedback can both earn their trust and improve sales comp effectiveness.” - Jon Newcomb, Senior Manager, Implementation & Onboarding at Forma.ai

Put those who are being compensated by the plan first. Standing out in your sales compensation career requires a holistic approach that considers the benefits of your entire sales organization.

Be Available

Quote from Serena Sabella says: "Sales compensation requires collaboration."
“Sales compensation requires collaboration. Make yourself available to the many functions in your organization that you collaborate with. Understand the bigger picture and strategy of the company. The more you understand, the more you will stand out.” - Serena Sabella, Sales Compensation Director at Imperva

Enable Revenue Generation

David Gerardi shares that it's essential to deliver the connection between strategy, optimization, and revenue.
“Work hard to deliver the connection between strategy, optimization, and revenue. Revenue generation is largely dependent on having the right territories, number of reps, quotas, and incentives to motivate a sales force.” - David Gerardi, VP, Customer Operations at Forma.ai

“Work with commercial businesses and collaborate on initiatives that highlight the impact current plans have on sales rep performance and behavior. Recommend changes that help drive revenue growth and employee retention. Deliver results and you’ll be seen as a valuable partner.” - Anonymous, Sales Compensation Manager, Fortune 500 Company

One of the main objectives of sales compensation leaders is generating revenue for the sales organization. Find ways to help achieve that goal to stand out and get ahead.

Challenge the Status Quo

“Don’t accept the status quo. Sales compensation is like rowing a boat upstream against a current. The strength of the current is based on constant change and complexity, but it’s relentless. As an organization, you can easily get swept downstream and over the proverbial waterfall. Constantly fight against the status quo, because what’s good enough today won’t cut it tomorrow.” - Justin Lane, VP, Professional Services at Forma.ai

“Have an open mind, challenge the status quo, and pay attention to the details. There are so many components to sales comp—willing to dive deep will set you apart.” - Anonymous, Sales Compensation Manager, Fortune 500 Company

Many sales compensation professionals become complacent in their careers and operate based on conventional systems. Have the confidence to be different. Your willingness to forge a new path will set you apart.

Choose Empathy

Benjamin Oberndorfer shares that it's important to take an empathetic approach to sales compensation.
“Take an empathetic approach to sales compensation. Commission is a large portion of the total comp for a sales employee and thereby an overly sensitive subject. Mistakes happen—you will stand out if you can resolve them quickly and with clear communication.” - Benjamin Oberndorfer, Sales Performance Manager at Trustpilot

Put yourself in the shoes of the sales rep and recognize the value a fair and equitable sales compensation plan brings to them. Be empathetic towards them and your sales organization will take notice.

Part 3: Leadership Roles in Sales Compensation

The best sales compensation professionals share one common career objective: earning a role in leadership.

Being a leader requires extensive industry knowledge and expertise, but more importantly, requires you to serve people first. And although making the transition isn’t easy, it can be incredibly rewarding. This final section answers how to move into a sales compensation leadership role.

Build Relationships

“Become familiar with sales plan design and strategy. Form relationships with senior and/or influential sales leaders. Listen to their concerns and try to address them while balancing those with the best interest of the company.” - Meredith Noyes, Director of Sales Compensation at Autodesk

“Remain humble and look to leaders that you admire. It’s important to set a foundation of success by leading in a way that inspires others to put forth their best efforts. Growth only happens in a healthy environment.” - Jessica Martinez, Commissions Manager at Viasat, Inc.

Career growth is all about who you know. Put yourself out there and build organic relationships with internal and external sales leaders. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.

Create Change

“Identify the critical risks and opportunities in the operational processes you manage, make them widely known within the team, and set a plan to address them.
Sales compensation is half repetitive process and half adapting to strategic change. Without the former being locked-in, it’s hard to be a strategic partner with the organization.” - Evan Gray, Implementation Manager at Forma.ai
Jon Newcomb suggests that sales comp professionals need to find balance.
“Find the right balance between learning from those who came before, while also questioning everything and seeking to improve. Comp design and administration is frequently hampered by stagnation. Businesses change and so should your comp plans.” - Jon Newcomb, Senior Manager, Implementation & Onboarding at Forma.ai

The best sales compensation leaders understand that strategy is not static.They challenge current design and administration processes and look for new ways to improve. As you transition into a leadership role, embrace this mindset.

Understand Your Team

Christopher Goff shares that leadership is a people position.
“Leadership is a people position first and foremost. It isn’t about you. It’s about the people that support you and lift you up with their efforts. If you remember that servant perspective, you will accelerate your growth into leadership.” - Christopher Goff, AD, Sales Compensation at Labcorp

“Put yourself in the mind of a sales rep. As a sales comp leader, knowing what they care about and what motivates them is the key to an efficient sales force.” - David Gerardi, VP, Customer Operations at Forma.ai

Your goal as a sales compensation leader is to ensure the sales team is incentivized to work towards the business’ objectives and provide insights into how compensation spend could be better optimized to produce results.

Find out what drives your sales team to outperform, implement a plan of action, and leadership will come naturally.

Provide Holistic Value

“Two pieces of advice come to mind. First, realize the sales compensation is the intersection of, at minimum, three business functions: sales, finance, and HR. Work to build a collaboration across depts. through alliances, understanding, and empathy. Second, if you are involved in the design and/or the administration of sales compensation, remember that on the other end of every comp plan is a person. Strive to build a team and process to serve all of your stakeholders, from the board to the sales rep, to the best of your ability.” - Justin Lane, VP, Professional Services at Forma.ai

“Understand your internal customers. Sales compensation is a cross-functional process involving stakeholders with different problems and needs. As you transition into a leadership role, ensure you build relationships across these groups and take the time to understand how the sales compensation function provides value to each.” - Kyle Webster, Chief of Staff at Forma.ai

Sales compensation involves many stakeholders across the organization. Your goal as a sales leader is to provide holistic value to each of those functions, ensuring that decisions are made based on real-world data. That’s where you will find success.

Closing Thoughts

So, we’ve reached the end of the road. By now you’ve seen that there are many different avenues you can take to grow your sales compensation career. Whether you are just starting out, advancing up the ladder, or making the leap into leadership, there is no one set path that can guarantee you success.What matters is that you take the secrets shared in this book and pave your own way to a career that works for you.

No matter where you go, remember this: Sales compensation moves fast—and it’s only getting faster as companies move towards frequent payouts and demand the agility to respond to ever changing internal and external market conditions.

Keep this in mind and use it as a standard for your growth. As long as you can keep pace and avoid complacency, you will be successful.

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