Women in Sales: Common Challenges and Common Sense Solutions

What many successful companies are discovering and exploiting is that getting more women into sales leadership roles is not only good for business, but is critical for paving the way for them to ascend to the highest executive ranks.
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In my previous installment, I discussed some of the qualities that make a great sales leader. Now I'd like to talk about some of the challenges faced by women in sales. These are concerns I've heard from women not just at Thomson Reuters, but from those I've met at various women's forums all around the world.

The biggest issue seems to be the perception that men have a greater opportunity to connect with customers on a social level. I hear time and time again the unfortunate lament "Men can hang out after work at the pub, or play a round of golf. Women tend to have commitments at home that hamper their flexibility to participate in these gatherings." The other big issue is the notion that companies are "boy's clubs" that make it difficult for women to rise to the next level.

One of the remaining challenges for most companies seeking diversity and balanced leadership is getting past "unconscious bias." Fortunately, most high-performing companies have moved beyond the days when overt discrimination was tolerated; they rightly base hiring and promotion on business performance. But the "invisible" challenge of male leaders continuing to hire in their own image still persists as an obstacle to building diverse leadership teams.

What many successful companies are discovering and exploiting is that getting more women into sales leadership roles is not only good for business, but is critical for paving the way for them to ascend to the highest executive ranks. A McKinsey study found that sales experience is a must for people seeking the so-called "line jobs" -- those with profit and loss accountability -- that are a pipeline to the C-suite. Though 62 percent of the women in large corporations are in staff jobs, many of these provide service and assistance but don't directly generate revenue -- and thus don't lead to top jobs in senior management. In contrast, 65 percent of the men on executive committees hold line jobs, a fact that may explain why so many more of them are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, of which only about 3 percent are led by women.

So what can women do to boost that three percent?

Removing Unconscious Bias

When it comes to eradicating unconscious bias, enlisting a male sponsor is one of the best approaches. A sponsor, as opposed to a mentor, is an avowed supporter willing to use his or her connections and political capital to help advance your career. Women can also seek a female sponsor, but think for a moment how effective we can be at tackling the problem of unconscious bias if we can enlist as many of our senior male colleagues as possible in the cause.

It's important to remember that the most effective sponsors come from natural relationships. So don't sit back and wait for a corporate sponsor program to miraculously appear -- take action on your own to find one. A former manager with whom you've had a productive relationship is a great place to start.

Leveraging External Networks

Another opportunity is to leverage external connections with other women. There are many incredible senior women in our customer firms, and while they may not directly be our clients, it's still worth the effort to forge relationships with them and use that as means to build a broader, more holistic relationship with the customer. In most industries today there are a number of women's organizations that nurture the formation of solid business connections, and I highly recommend this as an important extra-curricular activity. On a personal level, I have been a longstanding member of the Women's Bond Club and today some of my most valued friendships come from the connections I made through that organization.

Client Engagement Isn't Just About Golf

Finally, when it comes to entertaining clients, I believe the notion our male colleagues have an advantage is an outdated myth. If you're in sales you have to accept that a certain level of entertaining is beneficial to your relationship with your customers, and to keeping them engaged. With the right amount of planning, most of us can manage to schedule the occasional social event with clients. From my experience, male colleagues are just as concerned about time away from home and their family commitments as women. And I know many top sales women who are as effective, if not more so, than their male colleagues at building client relationships.

There is nothing to stop women from playing golf. Those who feel that not doing so is a career impediment should simply get out there and learn. I'm an avid golfer, and becoming good was really worth the effort. Spending a few hours on the golf course with a client is an amazing way to build a relationship. Last year I was the only woman in a golf tournament with our clients. This year I've challenged the organizers to field at least two women on each team, hopefully doing my bit for breaking the stereotype.

That said, sometimes I feel as if socializing with clients is overplayed. It isn't that it's not valuable, but my experience is that people higher up the executive ladder in the C-suite place more emphasis on service than on corporate hospitality.

At the end of the day, I think the real issue is a matter of confidence -- or lack of it. I've spoken before about the "imposter syndrome" in which women feel they're not qualified to be in higher positions. Male colleagues also experience this -- but because they typically have a higher risk tolerance than women, they power through these feelings of being out of their depth. What I say to women (and men) is that the "imposter" feeling is a natural one if you are really stretching yourself. So I would be more worried, in fact, if I weren't feeling at times a little "over my skis."

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