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SDR Career Paths for Modern Sellers + Progression Plan Template

SDR Career Paths for Modern Sellers + Progression Plan Template
Stephen Williams
February 24, 2022

The SDR role can be a grueling position. But with the right mindset and sales training, the SDR role can be very rewarding. The skills that SDRs gain set them up to unlock many incredible opportunities. And not just as future AEs. They can also be suitable for exciting roles in Community, Marketing, and Customer Success.

Providing SDRs with a clear progression plan, perhaps even at the very beginning when they are going through their sales onboarding can help them have a clear view of where the SDR career path can take them.

So let’s talk about how sales leaders can inspire and support their team with progression plans for SDR career paths.

Stick around and find out more as we discuss:

Five Exciting Career Path Options for SDRs

We have to start with the exciting stuff — the future for SDRs.

The SDR role can be an incredibly tough and mentally taxing role, and your sales talent needs a helping hand to stay committed and focused on their goals.

But remember that everything depends on perspective.

So, as long as you set clear expectations, nurture your SDR team, and offer exciting career opportunities, you’ll get the most out of your talent and turbocharge their careers inside your organization.

So the question begs, “what can you do after being a SDR?”

21st century Sales Development Reps can choose between at least five paths:

  1. The good old AE
  2. SDR Manager
  3. Community Manager
  4. Customer Success Manager
  5. Content Manager

We’ll talk a little about each role, but first, we need to quickly answer a question we hear all the time about SDRs:

“How long should you be an SDR for?”

The research says you should spend at least 16 months after your sales onboarding in this position because it takes a good chunk of time to gain the experience and skills you need to succeed later on. The key is not to rush a promotion and instead focus on learning to think like a salesperson.

The shockingly high failure rate of premature SDR to AE promotions should scare you:

AE failure rate by # of months tenure as an SDR

Alright, now back to the five roles.

Account Executive

Going down the SDR to AE path is the most traditional way to climb the sales ladder.

And it’s still one of the most common ones, too.

It’s only logical for reps to focus on closing deals after mastering how to generate a sales pipeline from scratch.

It’s the right choice for SDRs with an “always be closing” mindset and a special knack for building long-term relationships.

It also doesn’t hurt if:

  • They loved their jobs as SDRs, as the best AEs never stop prospecting and growing their own pipelines.
  • They’re committed to your industry and interested in building up the product/service knowledge they need to really understand their prospects’ pain points.

Sarah Brazier, over at Gong, is an excellent example of an SDR that took her time — 20 months in the role — before getting the nudge up to AE. Her patience and positive attitude paid off, and less than two years on, she’s now a senior AE rocking her sales quotas.

SDR Manager

Another option for Sales Development Reps is to stick around the wonderful world of SDRs and focus their efforts on running the team.

Becoming an SDR manager is a unique chance for them to show off their managerial skills even when they don’t have a ton of leadership experience.

They can demonstrate they’re capable of:

  • Managing a diverse group of people
  • Sales onboarding and training
  • Coaching and career development
  • Motivating and retaining high performers

We find that the best candidates for this SDR career path are the ones that display a mixture of the following characteristics:

  • Lifelong learners
  • Collaborative closers
  • Discretionary and trustworthy
  • Calm under pressure

Nick Trueman, currently at Firstup, is the guy to read up about if you’re considering the SDR manager career path either for yourself or one of your team members. His ride from a math teacher to SDR to Director of Account Management is inspirational.

Community Manager

A community manager is an official liaison between a company and its online audiences.

They take care of building and maintaining a consistent brand personality and tone of voice across all the social media platforms you’re active on.

And in 2023, that’s a seriously important job.

Just think that 83% of consumers want to see brand personality on Facebook, and 90% buy from brands they actively follow on social media.

So who better than a former SDR with a taste for social media to handle the comms?

They know your prospects’ problems inside out, and they’re already well-versed in distinguishing the real opportunities from the fluff.

This is the journey Zoë Hartsfield went through as she transitioned from an SDR into a full-blown Community Manager via an interim Community Marketing Associate role.

Needless to say, she’s rocking it thanks to her passion for storytelling and connecting with customers online.

Customer Success Manager

What happens after you close a deal is just as significant as the sale itself.

This is why having a team of highly skilled customer success managers (CSMs) often means the difference between loyal customers and high churn rates.

CSMs usually step in right after the sale has been made, and they act as a mentor for your new customers. They show them the ropes and provide them with all the tools and support they need to achieve their goals.

It’s a rewarding position, where a background in sales comes in real handy.

After all, an ex-SDR has already mastered the skills that make or break a CSM:

  • A customer-first mindset
  • Proactive communication
  • Relationship management
  • Empathy and active listening
  • Time management
  • Cross-selling and upselling

Kelsey Calabro, currently the Community & Customer Success Manager at Dooly, is a great person to follow on LinkedIn if you want to learn more about using a sales background to excel in customer success and content creation.

Speaking of content…

Content Manager

Good salespeople often make phenomenal copywriters and ghostwriters.

Well, that is if they’re passionate about writing.

Everything else comes easy because a former SDR has literally spent 16+ months speaking to tens of thousands of prospects and honing their lead generation skills.

They know what a prospect’s problems are. They know how they’ll push back. And they even know the exact phrases customers use day in, day out.

Keyword research and content strategy will seem natural. As will keeping your pipeline stuffed with high-quality inbound leads.

SDR career path options

How To Set Up Progression Plans for SDR Career Paths

Modern SDRs have a lot of options available to them.

Their careers could take them into any of these five roles, or maybe even further into other marketing or tech roles.

Only time will tell.

However, we don’t advise you to sit around waiting for your SDRs to make up their minds on their own.

You need to take a proactive approach and plan out a personalized SDR career path for each of them.

Try something like this six-step process:

1. Create an internal process for identifying SDRs with potential

Before doing anything else, you need to sit down and build a standardized way to identify talent that deserves to be nurtured.

What should you look for in a high-potential SDR?

  1. Consistent top-of-the-pack performance on sales quotas
  2. A focus on skill development
  3. Patience, a.k.a. not constantly asking, “how long does it take to get promoted from SDR?”
  4. A few personal traits and principles, which we’ll summarize in the table below:
Traits of SDRs and why they matter

N.B. Each of your future SDR career paths should have slightly different requirements, i.e., an SDR Manager needs to be a terrific coach, while that skill is only good to have” for a Content Manager.

2. Communicate expectations on day 1

Setting the right expectations is one of the most important things to get right, and day 1 is the best time to have this discussion. Why?

Because when a relationship starts on the wrong foot due to a miscommunication or misunderstanding, it’s bound to get ugly sooner or later.

So stop any problems from arising later on and be sure to discuss the following as soon as you meet your new SDRs:

  1. The SDR role itself and how it’s linked to the sales team’s overall performance
  2. Development opportunities
  3. Career progression timelines and checkpoints
  4. 30/60/90 day plans

Not sure what a 30/60/90 day plan is?

It’s one of these guys:

30/60/90 SDR Progression Plan

This simple yet effective tool is a fantastic way to break down an employee’s good intentions into bite-sized chunks for the first 30, 60, and 90 days of their new role.

Each month’s actions should be:

  • Connected to an overarching “focus for the month,” i.e., learn in month 1, connect in month 2, and execute in month 3
  • Centered around high-level priorities
  • SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound)

This provides new SDRs with an actionable roadmap for their efforts and equips you with an objective way to measure progress in the pivotal first three months. End result = new SDRs that know exactly how to kickstart their career with your company.

We recommend you co-create these plans and objectives with each SDR during their first few days in the office to help them feel more accountable for their future.

3. Hire effective SDR managers & leaders

If you’re going to build effective SDR career paths and follow through on your promises, you need to ensure your management team is up for the challenge.

You should focus your efforts on establishing a coaching culture and hiring managers with a proven track record of training SDRs and supporting their development.

Your SDR managers should regularly be:

  • Checking in with SDRs
  • Listening to calls and roleplaying
  • Coaching and providing constructive feedback
  • Fine-tuning your sales playbook

You can find excellent candidates by explicitly testing their ability to coach in the interview process, or, even better, you can foster your own talent by placing your most collaborative and trustworthy SDRs on the SDR manager career path.

4. Build an SDR ladder with multiple levels and checkpoints

SDRs tend to be competitive, driven, and diligent people.

They won’t wait around forever to get promoted to higher-paying, more exciting positions.

And while you already know that giving in to them is not a good idea because they should stay in their roles for at least 16 months, there is something you can do to keep impatient SDRs motivated and focused.

You can set up an SDR ladder with multiple steps that prevent them from feeling like they’re stuck in the same position for ages.

These mini-promotions build their self-confidence and ensure your SDRs are gaining the right experience, skills, and knowledge to succeed in senior positions.

It’s also pivotal that you include explicit knowledge and skill checkpoints that your SDRs must pass before they can climb to the next rung.

These “soft” targets, coupled with sales quotas, enable you to:

  • Set clear performance expectations
  • Increase collaboration among SDRs
  • Build and maintain a coaching-first company culture
  • Create opportunities for further learning
  • Reward SDRs for a job well done both in terms of title and salary

This last point is particularly important as 79% of people who quit, mention “lack of appreciation” as their primary reason for leaving. That’s not something you want to risk when you’re putting so much effort into grooming your SDRs.

Here’s an example of a multilevel ladder that can speed up the perceived career progression for an SDR:

SDR Levels and the knowledge, quota, salary, and time in position associated to each role

5. Provide ongoing support with monthly coaching sessions

It’s not enough to simply say you have a strong coaching culture or hire managers with tons of coaching experience.

You need to incentivize coaching and make sure your people have the time to sit down with SDRs on a regular basis. Once a month minimum.

This level of informal support can really empower their development journeys and help catch any potential issue before it becomes a serious problem.

We find that these meetings are an excellent forum for tackling recent failures, trying new sales techniques, roleplaying difficult situations, or even just chatting about an SDR’s expectations and skill development plan.

Sales coaching advice also helps SDRs build more robust prospecting processes and internalize company culture and values.

Pro tip: Start honing in your senior SDRs’ coaching skills early on by having them support a couple of new hires through their 30/60/90 day plans.

6. Implement and stick to a structured SDR promotion process

Career progression for an SDR isn’t always a black-and-white process.

Some years, you’ll be able to promote all of your top performers. Other years, you’ll have to leave a few behind.

It all depends on how quickly your company grows and how many opportunities are available when the promotion cycle comes around.

And while that’s easy for a manager to understand, some SDRs might take a non-promotion the wrong way and jump ship due to the disappointment.

This is why you have to build a structured interview process that keeps everything transparent and avoids unnecessary conflict and miscommunication.

Your SDRs should know:

  • How many promotions are available
  • That it might take more than one try to make the jump
  • That a non-promotion isn’t a sign they’re not performing well, just that someone else is currently more prepared to move on

Four Benefits of Creating Progression Plans for Your SDRs

Making a robust progression plan for your SDRs is hard work.

It’s going to take a great deal of time, dedication, and funding to do it right.

But it’s worth it.

Promoting from within and nurturing talent in-house has a slew of business benefits that can’t be argued with.

Let’s briefly cover five of them to assure ourselves that we’re on the same page.

1. A stronger, more cohesive organization

When you promote your SDRs internally, knowingly, or unknowingly, you’re leveraging the mere exposure effect.

As humans, we’re hardwired to seek out constant experiences and prefer people we know over those we don’t.

And that’s a big part of why SDR progression plans are so effective — they take a group of people that have worked closely together at the start of their sales careers and spread them across various teams, both inside and outside the sales department.

Their bond and shared experience stick with them, and collaboration skyrockets, even across departments that have traditionally been hotspots for siloed thinking.

2. More ambitious, motivated SDRs

Talented SDRs are by nature highly driven and ambitious individuals.

They strive to hit their quotas and be number one in whatever type of sales game you throw their way.

No wonder a clearly planned out sales career path is one of the best methods for attracting and retaining top SDRs.

They know what to expect and how to achieve their goals, and you get a team filled with people that won’t plateau in the SDR role.

3. Shorter ramp periods for new hires

An SDR that has progressed their way up your career ladder already knows pretty much everything worth knowing about your company.

They’ve mastered things like:

  • General policies
  • Internal processes
  • Your sales tech stack
  • Co-workers’ personalities and preferences
  • Product knowledge
  • Office politics

And this means that they’ll be able to focus on their new roles from day 1 without worrying about information overload, long induction periods, and a slow ramp-up.

And you’ll be able to…

4. Lower hiring and training costs

Great news, right?

Who could possibly complain about better hires at a lower cost?

No one, that’s who.

Relying on SDR career paths and progression plans over external recruitment saves you money by helping you:

  1. Cut your hiring costs (bye-bye expensive recruiting services and travel & accommodation costs)
  2. Slash the need for training and onboarding
  3. Reduce your failure rate (the research says its 26% for internal SDR promotions vs. 41% for external hires)
  4. Avoid long handover periods

Conclusion: Go out and build an inspiring SDR Career Path

The SDR role can be grueling. It can also be the “keys to the kingdom” of exciting roles – to quote SDR-come-Community Architect, Zoë Hartsfield.

By building meaningful progression plans and showing your team where the SDR career path can take them, you’ll light a fire in your SDRs that’ll see them smashing their targets and embracing the pressure of this intense but exciting role.

For more advice and insights, check out our blog on sales leadership for more tips and tricks about running a high-performing sales team.

Building out your sales team this year? Check out our sales capacity planning tool to accurately predict how many and when to hire to smash your growth targets.

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