As Head of Sales at a global software company, I’ve been in the tech and sales industry for over 30 years. And while these traditionally male-dominated fields never seemed foreign to me because I grew up around all boys and am the mother of two sons, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticeable that I was the only woman in their 20’s at my company who was working while pregnant.
The work-life balance and ratio of women in leadership roles has improved significantly during my career, but that balance will continue to be a struggle for the simple fact that significant family life stages almost always run parallel to pivotal moments in a person’s career.
So, if you’re a woman and your dream is to climb the proverbial corporate ladder, my biggest piece of advice is simple: know where you want to go so you can successfully navigate each rung. This way, if you hit a career stage that seems difficult to manage alongside personal or family goals, you can better manage both by having a long-term outlook.
1. Early career focus: high performance without high maintenance
If you’re in the early stage of your career and you want to get to a management role, you need to prove yourself as a high performer – someone who is at the top of their game as an individual contributor. This means demonstrating huge success and leadership in selling. But it isn’t just about crushing numbers. It’s about your people skills. Be good with clients. And perhaps even more critical, be thoughtful about how you treat your colleagues.
Sales is unique from most other careers because you won’t get fired for being self-centered or abrasive, but you probably will get fired for NOT making your number. Unfortunately, I’ve seen sales reps alienate other people to make their numbers, and in doing so they shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to developing positive working relationships with others. You may have a VERY good year financially, but you will not get that promotion. We call that “one and done”!
To make yourself the best at selling and be seen as a leader by others, recognize that you will need help. Take a cross-functional, collaborative approach and become a truly integral part of the organization. Put your people skills to good use internally and be a high performer with numbers and with your teammates.
2. First time sales manager focus: consistent performance
When you’re an individual contributor, it’s easier to contain and manage challenges, but it gets significantly harder when you start managing six people who think and work differently than you. Your time gets spread thin by demands from all directions, and in the midst of these challenges your focus has shifted to the larger goal of ensuring pipeline and hitting your forecast.
I see so many people get stuck here – particularly women – because this point in the career is also when adults are considering starting families and raising young children. It can be a lot to juggle.
If you want to make it through this stage successfully, prioritize your time. Personally, I do this by clarifying with my team what I consider urgent vs. what can wait. If it’s urgent, give me a call. If it can wait, we discuss it during their hourly one-on-one each week. Train your team to problem solve versus escalating every issue.
Second, don’t try to turn your team into you. Instead, respect that they are individuals, and set about understanding them so you can get them to work together on your behalf. Visit clients with them and observe how they handle the meeting. Don’t take over. For a fuller assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, seek feedback from your peers who have worked with them.
Third, be mindful of striking a balanced approached in how hands-on you are. The biggest mistake I see first-time managers make is that they swing too far to one end of the spectrum: they either micromanage (demanding daily activity sheets and take over every meeting), or they sit back at their desk and essentially become a Sales-Ops Manager. Do the due diligence in learning your team, and results will follow. Consistently hitting your team goals is critical if you want to be considered for the next level and become a Vice President.
Finally, because this is one of the toughest career transitions, I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to have a mentor who can walk alongside you and serve as a sounding board.
3. VP level focus: crossing the chasm
There’s plenty of opportunity to get to this level on the corporate ladder, which is good news because it’s an exciting stage. I also believe women are in their element here because it’s more collaborative and cross-functional. It’s when you get to interact with more executive management and higher-level clients, have greater opportunity for strategic input, and really get to see the work pay off.
To be a successful VP and put yourself at a competitive advantage for attaining an executive level role down the line, there are three things you need to do.
First, be ready to do the research. As a VP, you’ll be stretched outside your day-to-day working group, and the level of client interaction – and expectation – goes way up. They’re looking at you to be an expert. So, when you prepare for customer meetings, make the effort to get to know them at a deep level. Learn about their business and make sure you have a good understanding of the client and their needs. Also be prepared to speak beyond the deal and clearly communicate your company’s strategy and vision. Let your industry expertise shine and embrace the role as a brand ambassador for your company.
Second, if you’re looking to move beyond the VP stage, you need to be building your own brand – a brand that demonstrates your ability to add value to your customers, team, and industry. Executive roles are few and far between, but if you have a personal brand in place, it will be easier to demonstrate your eminence within your industry and what you bring to the table. Join business associations, speak at industry events, be active on LinkedIn… in other words, BE VISIBLE!
Finally, be ready to take risks and get outside your comfort zone to find the right executive role, because that role may very well be outside your current company. Oftentimes, the risk is leaving a good position at a large company for a larger role at a smaller company – particularly if you want to get a real seat at the table to drive decision making. It can also be a personal risk to walk away from the team you built and with whom you have developed positive relationships. You won’t know exactly what you’re getting yourself into in an executive role until you jump in the water, but as someone who has made that leap, I can say that it’s been a fun, incredibly fulfilling experience, and I wake up every morning looking forward to what I get to do.
And when it gets overwhelming…
If and when you hit a stage in your career where you feel overwhelmed – perhaps you’ve been in a role longer than you initially planned but you also want to start a family soon – know this: it’s ok. If your dream is still to climb the corporate ladder, you don’t have to step off it. There’s nothing wrong with staying where you’re at or temporarily moving into a position with less responsibility until you’re ready to hit the accelerator when it makes better sense for you. I’ve turned down at least two positions due to timing issues, only to have a better opportunity emerge.
Keep your long-term outlook, continue to reach out to other women in your life who have already navigated that course, and know that in following your dream you will inspire future generations of women to do the same.