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Let’s Keep Talking
women in sales
By John Barrows | October 17, 2018

The feedback from the recent “We Need to Talk” webinar was so positive that we wanted to summarize some of the key points we discussed, share the resources we’ve compiled and keep the conversation by introducing the Slack community we’re building called Sales Done Right.

The focus of the webinar was about elevating the profession of Sales for everyone by having an open and honest dialogue around issues and challenges we all face in the workplace, specifically related to sales with a focus on the women in sales. In my initial Linkedin video that sparked this, I talked about stopping the “bro culture” I saw creeping back into sales. Even though “bro” is obviously a reference to men, it wasn’t about male bashing. It was about the mentality and actions related to the aggressive, ultra-competitive, win at all costs approach many companies and sales reps take to their customers and how they treat their teammates. The movies Glenngary Glen Ross, Boiler Room and Wolf of Wall Street are all examples of the type of sales cultures I was talking about and that I think to represent everything that is wrong about selling.

Trish Bertuzzi, Lori Richardson, Kasey Jones and myself sent out a five-question survey to collect questions, scenarios, and examples we could use to drive the conversation. I highly recommend you read through them to get a sense of the issues we’re facing and how blind some of us are to them (including myself).

Find the survey results and additional resources here.

After reading through all the results, we chose three areas of discussion around women in sales: Double standards, hiring and promotion, and how to stand up, lead by Kasey, Lori, and John, respectively, with Trish as the host. For this post, we’ve summarized a key part of the transcript of each topic, some tactical quotes, and highlighted other key takeaways.

Double Standards for Women in Sales

Kasey started the conversation talking about double standards. When we talk about double standards, it’s this idea that some of the qualities, personality characteristics, and behaviors that men are praised for, women are criticized for. This is particularly true in Sales.

Men are often rewarded and praised for their aggressive, assertive, and bold behavior as a salesperson, but when a woman exhibits these behaviors, she is often called a bitch or hard to work with. This type of double standard holds true with teammates, leadership and even from the customer’s perception.

A few years ago Sheryl Sandberg was speaking at Dreamforce, and she asked the audience, “Okay men – how many of you were called bossy or pushy when you were a kid?” Very few hands went up. Then she asked “women – how many of you were called bossy or pushy when you were a kid?” Practically every woman in the session raised their hands.

Bossy is an insult for many women, which is why they’re constantly told to be kinder, nicer, sweeter or friendlier when men are rarely told to be these things. Men are sometimes ridiculed for being too nice or kind and encouraged to be more aggressive. One of the comments in the survey was from a man who said there were rumors in his office that he was gay because he didn’t want to participate in many of the aggressive activities and approaches the rest of the team was doing.

In the resources at the bottom of the post, there is a link to a study where the results of 300 performance feedbacks were analyzed. Words like assertive and aggressive were applied almost exclusively to women.

A female mentor gave Kasey some great advice when it came to ensuring you aren’t holding women to a double standard.”

“If you’re ever criticizing a woman in the workplace for her personality, not results or quality of work or even the interactions she has with others in the workplace, and you’re focusing on her personality, you’re holding her to a double standard.”

A good thing to do before providing feedback or criticizing a man or a woman is to ask yourself if you would give them the same feedback if they were the other sex.

Think about your unconscious biases when communicating. Whether you’re male or female, and just try to be human.

Additional Key Takeaways:

  • The language you use can have a tremendous impact. It’s not only the words you use when talking to someone, but it’s also how you use them.
  • You don’t need to write someone off immediately after saying something inappropriate. Often it’s more appropriate to address a coworker one-on-one. It gives your team the opportunity to save face, but more importantly learn for future interactions.
  • Fear is real, but it doesn’t need to be. Treat women, and men, like human beings.
  • What is appropriate to say has changed. There is a lot of stuff we said 50 years ago that isn’t appropriate today.

Hiring, Promotion, and Career Advancement

As we shifted to talking about hiring, promotion and career advancement for women, Lori drove the conversation. She talked about how and why she loved sales because in sales, unlike many other positions, you’re judged by your performance. That’s why she wanted to get into sales; she wanted to be paid based on her accomplishments and paid the same as her male peers based on those accomplishments. Numbers talk. If you’re hitting your numbers, and exceeding your goals, you’ve earned the right to say something. Until then, you need to learn to keep your ears open and learn from others.

In learning from others, the topic of mentors versus sponsors came up, which many people commented on in the survey. Each panelist cautioned about reps who were searching for a (single) mentor. Instead, people should be looking for different mentors who had different areas of strength they could learn from. Also, many successful business people don’t have time to truly mentor anyone so it becomes a frustrating search for those who are looking to be mentored, not to mention what happens if you choose the wrong one who may give you bad advice or direction.

Instead of mentors, Lori talked about the importance of finding sponsors. A sponsor is someone that can go into one of those closed-door meetings and say, “You know, Trish is really good at this. In addition to looking at John, you should consider Trish.” A sponsor might also say something like “If we don’t have anyone, let’s see who we can develop. Trish has a lot of those capabilities, and I’m going to speak on behalf of Trish.” Sponsors have some amount of power to help you, and they’re one of the best allies you can have.

Specific to women trying to navigate their career in sales, there are plenty of men and women who can and want to be sponsors and help you grow. It’s important to find these people and earn their support.

Success leaves clues. One way to find a sponsor is to have coffee, lunch, or a meeting with those who are successful in your company. That can lead to sponsorship.

If you’re a woman and you want to be in leadership, which not all people do, it takes the support of the people around you. You need a mentor or sponsor who can speak on your behalf in a meeting because we all know that a lot of decisions are made in a company where you’re not present.

Additional Key Takeaways:

  • One of the best things men can do is roll up their sleeves. Don’t assume a woman needs a female mentor or sponsor; you can help directly as well.
  • There are many resources, more than ever before, for women and they’re positive for organizations. Many aren’t exclusively for women.
  • Make sure that your job descriptions are not biased to one gender. Textio is a tool that can help you find out any biases you’re unaware of.

Speaking Up at Work

I rounded out the conversation addressing the topic of speaking up. One of the things that stood out to me when reading through the survey responses was how the scenarios and examples were rarely about the overt sexist comment or action by a man or group. They were almost all about the small comments and actions that are so consistent and ingrained in our culture that many men don’t even consider them offensive or think they are that big of a deal.

Many women shared that if they commented on every little thing they felt was inappropriate they would be labeled as difficult or too nitpicky. I think Kasey or Lori was the one who labeled this as “microaggression.” However, if you add up all of these “small” comments, actions and events they end up being a huge deal and have a significant impact on how they feel about their colleagues, employer and even themselves.

I admitted during the conversation that I considered myself a pretty empathetic man towards women but realized how narrow and ignorant my view was until I had my daughter. After having my daughter, I started noticing how different the world treats and approaches men and women. Then, reading through the comments on the survey I realized how ignorant I still am, despite all my good intentions. I guarantee I have done things in my 20 years of business that I thought were harmless or didn’t even think about, that I know put the women around me in an awkward or uncomfortable position. Not because I meant to, but because I do not and cannot have the same perspective a woman does. I’m a 42-year-old white man who has never been discriminated against in my life. How could I know the nuances of how women feel and how they are treated?

One of the best pieces of tactical advice that came from this part of the conversation was for anyone who is feeling like the little things are building up and doesn’t know how or when to speak up, is to write them down. My advice was to write down all the negative examples, but Trish chimed in with a great addition, which was also to include all the positive examples as well. By documenting the positive cases of inclusion and support along with the negative examples of “microaggression,” you can sit down with leadership and have a constructive conversation of how to create a culture that continues the positive and reduces the negative.

Additional Takeaways:

  • The three strike rule. People get three chances. The first time they screw up, address it but give them the benefit of the doubt. The second time, address it but put them on notice. The third time it’s time to get serious and say something to someone else.
  • Sometimes the little things add up and the one proverbial ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ will seem minor and insignificant. Have a list of all the positives and the things that take away from that.
  • Sometimes people have no idea that something they said may have been offensive or crossed a line. This is where that three strike rule is effective.
  • You don’t have to put up with a toxic environment. You can change your job a lot easier than you can change a person.
  • The statistics show that when an environment is inclusive, the team performs better.

Conclusion

We know we didn’t change the world with this webinar, but we hope we were able to bring this uncomfortable conversation to the forefront and shared some ideas so we can all try to improve. Kasey and I are are going to try to continue this conversation positively by starting a new community called Sales Done Right. You can sign up for early access here. It’s going to start as a Slack community with different channels addressing different topics related to sales. This conversation is going to continue on the “Culture” channel, where we’ll be developing additional resources including a webinar series around it.

As a final thought, there is more than enough research and evidence that shows how sales teams that are more inclusive and diverse are more successful. We all need to do our part to help improve this profession because Sales is the greatest profession in the world when done right, but it’s the worst when done wrong.

Let’s do it right. Make it Happen!

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