How to Get More Women in Sales Leadership Roles

The lack of women in sales leadership positions is concerning and also surprising given that in the modern world of sales, where consultative selling is now the norm, women have a distinctive edge. We recently spoke to Lori Richardson of Score More Sales and WOMEN Sales Pros, for her insights.

What specific things can companies do to attract more women?

The first thing I tell CEOs who say they can’t find any female candidates for sales roles is to review their recruitment ads and job descriptions for gender bias. While not done intentionally, they often contain many words that are more male-focused than female-focused. Examples include: competitive or competitor; strong; assertive; ambitious. I even found the word “cutthroat” in a recent ad. I’ve been in sales for over 30 years, often as the top or one of the top sellers, and I’ve never sold that way.

Companies also need to get creative and look at different areas to find women. For example, there are a lot of women in retail sales who aren’t in business-to-business selling because they simply don’t know what that career might look like. One of the things I’m doing is speaking to young women in high schools and universities about B2B sales as a flexible, high-paying, often overlooked profession.

It seems that far fewer women than men ascend to senior-level positions. How can we change this dynamic?

DiscoverOrg recently did a survey on gender diversity in sales roles with 30, 000-plus sales team members. The numbers are concerning. Of their data set, 31% of the individual contributors are women and slightly less, 26%, are in middle management or a frontline sales manager position. When it comes to executive management, such as a VP of Sales, only 12.8% of those roles are held by women. A female Chief Revenue Officer is even harder to find – and I’d like to see that change.

There are multiple reasons why we’re losing women along the way up the sales ranks. If I come to a company with aspirations to ascend to a leadership position and I don’t see any women on the executive team, I might think this isn’t the company for me. Maybe I’m going to end up changing companies eventually because it might seem impossible to attain that leadership role. Keep in mind, going from sales rep to sales leader is not a smooth transition for anyone, male or female. The traits that make you really strong as a sales rep don’t always translate well to a leadership role. So, first and foremost, you have to make sure that you have the right DNA to be in a leadership role.

Another contributing factor is the direct supervisor. Multiple studies have shown that more people leave companies because of their direct boss. I’ve had a lot of conversations with female reps who think that their manager doesn’t believe in, or support, them. Of course, women themselves have different reasons for staying or leaving a company, but women tend to stay longer than men in roles. That’s a big plus for hiring women because it means there is potentially higher return on investment for having more women in those roles.

Are there ways in which men and women approach their jobs that has an impact?

I’ve heard many times, from different sources, that a newly onboarded female seller voices her concerns. She’ll say what she’s worried about like, “I hope I get this meeting this time” or “I hope I don’t screw up my pitch.” I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, but the new male rep counterpart has the same concerns, he just doesn’t share them. So, there’s a perceived confidence factor at play that people talk about but I don’t buy it. I don’t think that new women reps are less confident than new male reps, I think they just share more and sometimes that can work against them.

I don’t want women to refrain from saying anything, to be just like the guys. I know that’s probably what I did when I was a sales rep and yet the best thing you can do is be yourself and have a manager who says, “We hired you because of your skill set and we know you can do it.” Often times managers will say, “You know what? I think Julie is just too nice to sell” or “I don’t think she’s a closer” because women go about things differently. We don’t necessarily “close” people. We have conversations and we share compelling information and we share our passion about our products and services and that gets people excited and they see a vision of how the future could be. This is what modern selling is all about.

Modern selling requires having consultative conversations versus product pitches and scripted talks. Can you elaborate on what women can bring to the process?

I’m a firm believer in assessing sales reps before you hire them to make sure that they not only can sell but they will sell and that they have a high level of what we call “Sales DNA.” With that said, women bring some great skills in terms of communication, listening, empathy, and team building. It’s not that men don’t. The great men sellers do this too, but women as a whole bring a lot of these skills to the sales process. It’s amazing to me that there are a lot of younger women who don’t know that these great skills can be applied to a fantastic career in professional selling, where the money can be unlimited and the hours can be flexible depending on the opportunity. I’m trying to overcome that disconnect and help more women realize the strengths they can bring to a sales role.

What are some of the biggest sacrifices companies make when they don’t focus on recruiting more female sales leaders?

It’s costing their bottom line. The statistics we’ve seen show that companies do better financially when they have a mix of men and women in their senior leadership. Part of corporate senior leadership is senior sales. Sales is the lifeblood of a company and a lot of great CEOs have come from sales roles. So, if we can get more women into sales and sales leadership, we can see more women in the C-suite.

Many industries are making a sustained effort to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce. Are there companies you see as doing a particularly good job?

I love what Microsoft is doing and their inclusion efforts are paying off. They most recently reported 27% of women in senior leadership roles, the highest it’s ever been. Salesforce.com is addressing the lack of women in tech, too, with “Women Surge” which identifies female employees with executive potential and makes sure they’re included in all of the important things going on in the company. They have a mandate that important meetings include 30%-50% women. And their annual Dreamforce event features a large number of female speakers from all different backgrounds and cultures, young and old. I’d love to see more organizations model these initiatives.

Within sales teams, what role can coaching play in improving the leadership trajectory of women?

My opinion is broad-based in that I think all leaders need better coaching. That’s an area I’m very passionate about. We need to coach leadership, especially in sales, on how to be good leaders to their sales teams, so that sales reps can grow and prosper. Every sales person deserves a great manager. In my selling career, I had 23 managers and some were awesome and some were awful. If you’re going to work hard at sales, your company needs to provide you with a leader who cares about you, helps you get better, and helps you solve the issues that come up internally and externally.

I think we’ll see more and more tools that can clearly show us the data indicating we’re not hiring enough women or that we have lopsided teams and we’re suffering because of it. A diverse team brings the diversity of ideas and more creativity and that’s what it takes for sales teams to succeed.

Are there industries that you see as having a better representation of female sales leaders?

There are some industries that have been good at hiring women from the start. I would say healthcare is one, as well as the advertising and marketing industry. In tech companies, we’ll often see women who’ve been in areas like inbound marketing move over to the sales function. Many people I’ve spoken with over the last year or so have been women who went into marketing because they could get a marketing degree, whereas colleges offering a degree in sales are harder to come by. Women can tend to feel they need official learning and training, resulting in them going back to school to get another degree of certification, whereas a lot of men are comfortable flying by the seat of their pants, saying “Hey, if I can sell, I can sell. It doesn’t matter what my specific background is.”

What are your top three tips for women looking to advance their career in sales?

First, it’s important to really know what you want. If you define your career goal as one day becoming the CEO of the company you’re at, you’ve set a clear path. The more you know about your path and the clearer you are about your goals, the easier it is to get people to support you on your journey.

Second, you need to understand the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. Mentors are great. They help pump us up and they give us valuable ideas. Sponsors, however, will walk you into the meeting that nobody else on your level would get into because they see your potential. Or they say in a private meeting, “You need to consider Mary because Mary has these skills, too.” Sponsors are going to step up and go to bat for you – and they have power. They’re not your immediate boss, typically they’re higher up. So, think about sponsorship and take note of what the more successful people in your company are doing and what their paths have looked like.

My third tip is to evaluate your environment and if it’s not supportive, move on. I spoke at a conference recently and some young women in the audience said their sales team environment was hostile and “locker room-like.” I told them, “You don’t need to put up with that because so many companies are looking for good women in sales.” It’s a fantastic time and you should absolutely find a company that appreciates what you bring to the table, will help you develop your skills, and groom you for that sales leadership role.

About Lori Richardson

Lori is the founder and CEO of Score More Sales, and a thought leader on B2B front-line sales growth. She also founded WOMEN Sales Pros with a mission to get more women in B2B sales at tech, telecom, distribution, manufacturing, and other B2B companies. Follow WOMEN Sales Pros on Twitter @WOMENSalesPros

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