Guide to a Career Path in Sales [+ 6 Options for Growth]

Your career path in sales can follow a common trajectory…or take you on a wild adventure. It's all up to you.

Will you specialize in selling technical products? Train a team of 50 reps? Or maybe become a Chief Revenue Officer someday?

Starting your career in sales opens up a world of potential for new life experiences and high earnings. (And all of this potential makes the downsides of cold calling and cold emailing people totally worth it.)

But with so many different industries and roles at your fingertips, it can be hard to know which way to turn.

If you want to take your sales career into your own hands, then keep on reading.

We've got a list of common sales positions, the main options for career growth, and tips to help you advance your career at any stage.

Graphic showing various sales related graphs and metrics

Common sales positions

To help you understand the direction your career path in sales could take, we've got a list of some of the most common roles across all industries.

Note that income averages are from Glassdoor user data and include base pay plus commissions.

Sales Development Representative (SDR)

Sales development reps doesn't touch the middle or end of the sales funnel—only the beginning. They are in charge of prospecting and vetting leads to fill the pipeline of the account executive that they support (who willl then work and close these leads).

Depending on how the sales team is organized, an SDR might only do outbound prospecting (cold calling, cold email, LinkedIn, etc.) or they might also vet the leads that come through inbound channels. Some SDRs might also be in charge of live chat conversations to turn new website visitors into leads.

Business Development Representative (BDR)

A BDR is a very similar role to an SDR. They provide the leads that account executives will later close. The distinction between a BDR and an SDR is blurry. For the most part, the terms can be used interchangeably. Software and tech companies tend to use SDR while more traditional industries like construction and finance tend to use BDR.

But at some companies, both roles are employed. In this case, BDRs will usually handle outbound prospecting while SDRs will vet and enrich inbound leads.

Account Executive (AE)

An AE communicates with interested leads and closes deals. The ideal sales process depends heavily on the industry and the solution being sold. In some cases, AEs will process a high volume of leads and will only need one to three phone calls to close deals. In other cases, AEs might work a smaller number of deals at one time because they require a dozen calls with different teams and stakeholders, cybersecurity and legal vetting, complex ROI calculations, and other procurement requirements.

New to being an AE? Kristen Twining, the SVP of Global Sales for Illusive, shares her advice for successfully making the leap:

Enterprise Account Manager (EAM)

An EAM plays a similar role to an AE. The difference is that while an AE could be working with small business customers and mid-market customers, an EAM will only close deals with enterprise accounts. The higher deal size explains the higher average income.

Inside Sales Representative

Inside sales refers to sales that is done remotely, without the need to travel and visit accounts at their office or factory or go knocking door to door. This term is used in more traditional industries that still have an outside sales team. An inside sales representative is someone who closes leads provided by a BDR. They help the company grow in regions where they lack a physical presence, or with customer segments that prefer remote communication versus in-person meetings.

Outside Sales Representative

On the flip side, an outside sales representative engages with and closes leads in person. This could look like door-knocking, office visits, and pre-scheduled team meetings. Medical sales, construction, manufacturing, and IT are just some of the industries that still employ outside sales representatives. Because the accounts tend to be larger and the deals more complex, outside sales reps can earn more than inside sales reps.

Sales Engineer

A sales engineer is someone who uses their engineering knowledge to sell technical products like manufacturing equipment, heavy machinery, special materials, or architectural solutions. because of their specialization and the high cost of the deals, this is a deal-closing, non-management role with a high-income potential.

Regional Sales Manager

A regional sales manager is in charge of business development representatives and account managers in a geographical region. This role is more common in traditional industries that have a physical presence (like fiber optics, medical device sales, etc.) but is not used by digital-first companies like software and ad agencies. Regional sales managers might close some of their own deals in addition to managing a team, or they might only serve a management function.

Sales Operations Manager

Sales operations managers are tasked with keeping the sales team running smoothly. They implement, set up, and manage software like CRMs and lead intelligence tools. They also train team members in the tech stack and provide ongoing support. Aside from software, sales operations managers also communicate with the sales team regularly to spot any collaboration snafus and resolve them. This could be anything from organizing project meetings to restructuring teams.

Director of Sales

A director of sales is a role that typically only exists in mid-size or enterprise organizations. It's a step between being an account executive and a VP of sales. In smaller companies, there might only be a VP of sales and no director. As an in-between sort of role, a director of sales will offer both team management and strategy. They might manage a certain team, customer segment, or aspect of sales.

VP of Sales

Depending on the structure of the organization the VP of sales might be the top leader of the sales team and Report directly to the CEO, or they might report to the Chief Sales Officer. In terms of the downline, they might manage directors of sales who manage account executives and SDRs—or they might manage and train the sales team directly.

No matter who they manage or are managed by, a VP of sales is in charge of making data-driven decisions, setting customer targeting strategies, and continuously upskilling their teams.

Chief Sales Officer (CSO)

The chief sales officer leads the entire sales organization. The VP of sales will report directly to them. Compared to a VP of sales or director of sales, a CSO spends less time managing reps and more time on market intelligence, company strategy alignment, and data analysis. The CSO is in charge of ensuring that the sales team is executing the CEO's vision.

Typical career path in sales

The most common career path in sales looks like this. First, you become an SDR or BDR for 9 to 18 months. Then you work as an AE for 2 to 5 years. Then, you move on to managing a team. Depending on where you work, that could mean managing a small team of SDRs or AEs or managing a whole region of representatives of different levels and functions.

Typical career path in sales mind map

While that's the most common career path, it's not the only one. Below, we dive into all of your options for advancing your career through sales (including but not limited to management).

Sales career path options

A career in sales can open up so many doors. You might one day become the CEO of a company, or consult VPs of sales in implementing smart strategies to improve their results.

Here are the main ways that you can earn more and grow your career.

Career path options in sales

Close bigger deals

Do you like working leads? Do you hate managing people? One surefire path to higher income in sales is to keep closing bigger and bigger deals. Make the transition from account executive to enterprise account manager. You'll be selling the same solution but to larger companies at larger prices.

Industry specialization

Another way to advance your career in sales is to make sure you are learning a lucrative industry, like medical devices, cybersecurity, or civil engineering. Due to the technical nature and value of your growing expertise, you'll earn much higher base pay while reaping in big commissions too.

Management and training

If you're interested in management, there are several different paths you can take. You can get a role managing a small team of BDRs (where you'll get to focus more on training and less on team structure) or continue advancing until you are managing multiple teams across several different functions or regions of sales.


If you're interested in keeping everything running smoothly and solving problems, then you can steer your career toward operations. You can segue into a role as a sales operations manager, and from there seek out higher roles within operations all the way to COO.


Someone with leadership and management experience in sales can transition into several different c-suite positions, including Chief Revenue Officer (CRO), Chief Operations Officer (COO), and Chief Executive Officer (CEO).


You can set up your own small business to consult companies on their sales. This might mean training small business owners on how to do sales or advising large organizations on the use of specific technologies or strategies.


When you know how to sell, your own scalable business. For example, if you've been in software sales, you might feel confident founding your own SaaS business since you already know how to prospect for leads and run demo calls.

8 tips to help you advance your career in sales

Try these smart tips to guide your sales career path.

1. Keep prospecting even when you graduated from being an SDR

Drift updated their SDR team organization to a pod structure so that each AE is supported by three SDRs. This makes AES less vulnerable to low pipeline.

SDR to AE mind map

But at most organizations, AEs are supported by a single SDR. This means that you could run out of pipeline when your SDR quits, advances to another role, or is out on sick leave.

So you should never rely solely on SDRs to do your prospecting for you.

“You have to continue to prospect, and you can’t just say ‘I’ve got an SDR who’s going to do that for me’. You’ve got to be able to make connections with new people and sell different pieces of your portfolio.” - Kristen Twining

Even if your organization uses a pod structure, you should still remain in the habit of prospecting. As an AE, prospecting might make up 10% of your day instead of 100%.

As long as you keep exercising that muscle, you'll make sure that you stay on top of prospecting best practices, learn what messaging works to attract leads, understand your market sentiment better, and always have new pipeline coming in no matter what.

Doing so sets you up for more success in your current role and makes you a better choice for promotions.

2. Give specific examples in interviews

When you are interviewing for a new role, be specific. For example, it's not enough to just say that you want to mentor others when interviewing for your first management role.

Offer a specific way you plan to help, like training SDRs on getting used to rejection and not letting it take the wind out of their sales for the entire day.

3. Know that management requires data

If you do hope to grow into management, know that in the digital age being in a managerial role isn't just about working with people. You need to be comfortable analyzing data and making data-driven decisions. So make sure you are continuously learning how to use various analytics platforms and keeping on top of best practices.

“To be the one who sets the strategy and the vision, you’ve got to have data and trends. You've got to understand where to take the business based on where it’s been before, and a lot of that gets missed when you think about going from an individual contributor role to a leadership role.” - Kristen Twining

4. Always be working on operations

Even if you are not a sales operations manager, you need to always have one eye on operations. There's always something to improve, whether that's how you track your productivity, how you communicate with others in the same role as you, or what your team achieves during weekly meetings.

5. Write down your career goals

The neuroscience of writing things down is clear: it makes you more focused and motivated. So make sure to jot down your career goals in a notebook or in a note on your phone. And update those written goals as they evolve and change.

“I write my career goals down. You have to have something concrete and know what you’re working towards. Then you can almost control your destiny and know what you want to say ‘no’ to and what you want to go after.” - Kristen Twining

6. Cultivate your network of mentors

It's impossible to have a strong network of mentors without doing the work. You need to stay in touch with the people that could help you advance in your career.

Here are some ideas:

  • Send Christmas cards or Christmas gifts in the mail

  • Set up by annual catch-up calls

  • Share a life update, GIF, or insightful article on LinkedIn messages

  • Visit your mentors’ social media profiles quarterly and engage with some of their content (so you're not dependent on algorithms serving it to you)

And keep in mind that advancing in your career doesn't just mean getting introductions and interviews. Success comes from doing the very best in your current role, so make sure you are asking your mentors for advice when you get stuck.

7. Ask for help as soon as you feel like you need it

Don't be shy when it comes to asking for help. No matter where you're at or what you're dealing with, there's someone who knows the answer. So reach out to your colleagues and network. the sooner you get used to asking for help, the better prepared you'll be to take on more challenging responsibilities.

8. Try out new sales roles before diving in fully

Save yourself a lot of heartache by testing out your career goals before you enact them. Do you really want to go into management? Ask a manager on your team if you can shadow them for a day. Maybe you can set up a training workshop and troubleshoot metrics that didn't reach the benchmark. Make sure you actually enjoy the work before you take on the role.

The sky is the limit. Start building up experience in the aspects of sales you love most and see where it takes you.

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Guide to a Career Path in Sales [+ 6 Options for Growth]

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