I started in sales in my early 20s. I was a single parent, and felt like sales was the best option to help build a life for me and my son. Turns out, I was right. Today, I’m the president of Women Sales Pros, the CEO of Score More Sales, an award-winning podcaster, an author, and a sales coach at Harvard Business School. After working my way up in a male-dominated industry, I’m now able to help other people build their own sales careers.
It wasn’t all wins, though. I had to learn the hard way to succeed in sales. But if I had to start over, here’s what I’d tell myself to do earlier: Find a mentor, earn a sponsor, and hire a coach. (Yes, those are all different things.)
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1. Look for mentors who focus on motivation
My grandmother Mimi was my first mentor in business. She ran women’s apparel stores and taught me how to work with customers – when and where to add value, and how to deliver top-notch service. I learned so much from her, but it was B2C, not B2B.
Then, I started following the teachings of author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar to learn B2B sales. One of his quotes hit home: “Motivation is not permanent. But then, neither is bathing; it’s something you should do on a regular basis.” Mentorship isn’t about showing someone how to sell. It’s about offering ongoing reinforcement and ideas that motivate and inspire.
I heard Zig speak in person a few times and met him briefly once. Even though we didn’t work together directly, I consider him a mentor. He inspired and motivated me constantly, while also teaching me new sales techniques.
Here’s how to find your own mentor:
- Identify one thing you want to learn. I once reached out to a colleague in finance to learn the ins and outs of reading profit-and-loss sheets and annual reports. That knowledge helped me better understand my buyers and the sales process.
- Search for mentors on LinkedIn by topic, keyword, or company. Look for a seasoned and approachable sales leader who has a history of mentoring less-experienced professionals. Consider professionals outside your company. Some of the best sales experts are found across industries.
- Ask your potential mentor to meet for coffee or a virtual chat. Gauge their interest and expertise, as well as your level of comfort. If you’re not feeling it, thank them and start looking again.
One of my colleagues, Senior Account Manager Kristina Kerley at Fireclay Tile, found mentors who helped her succeed in sales by building long-term client relationships. “My mentors showed me the importance of starting with compassion and empathy in order to build a trusted client relationship,” she said.
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2. Find an executive sponsor who advocates for you when you’re not in the room
In my last corporate role, my company got acquired. Many of you know what comes next: The company downsizes to lower costs.
I thought I was safe. Everybody liked me. But I didn’t have a high-level advocate saying, “You can’t let her go. She’s indispensable.” Sure enough, the company laid me off.
An advocate — or sponsor, as they’re commonly called — might have saved my job. That’s why you need someone in power to represent your best interests.
Here’s the catch: You can’t really ask someone to sponsor you. You have to earn it. You have to show you’re engaged, focused, and in it for the long haul. That’s when you get noticed.
Here are some tips for finding a sponsor:
- Identify someone in the C-suite who specializes in your field. In an enterprise-sized company, this might be a senior leader, but ideally, not someone you report to.
- Make sure to share your big wins, whether that’s emails, reports, or meetings.
- Once you’re on a potential sponsor’s radar, approach them with a specific request and see if they can meet for a quick coffee to discuss. This request should be related to strategic goals for your department and how you fit in.
- If the first meeting goes well, ask if they’d be willing to meet regularly. Schedule a time that’s convenient for them, at least once a quarter. When you meet, share recent accomplishments and goals they can help you with.
3. Find a coach to help you succeed in sales
I’ve always resisted the idea of Inbox Zero. Lucky for me, I hired a sales coach who agreed. “You don’t have to get rid of everything, you just have to organize it,” they said.
Adopting this concept has completely changed how I manage my email. It really helped me manage all my messaging effectively, and avoid any loss of business or damage to relationships.
This is the genius of coaches. They can focus on tactical issues or help you find your career blind spots. They can help you with anything from skill development to leadership strategies to goal achievement.
To find the right coach:
- Identify areas in your day-to-day work that could be stronger. Focus on core job responsibilities, like prospecting, follow-up, or building key relationships.
- Ask your manager or HR team to help source coaches. If your company doesn’t offer coaching or have any recommendations, take to LinkedIn and ask your network.
- Schedule at least three sessions with a coach to make sure you’re allowing enough time to see some progress, and identify other areas to potentially work on.
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And a note on AI: If you’re worried about it making your tactical coaching irrelevant, there’s no need to. Yes, AI can save time by identifying where you need to improve, just like software for pre-calling and call coaching does. But it’s not so great at helping you build and strengthen relationships. You still need the human touch to make connections and build your network.
Bottom line: Your career is built on relationships
I wouldn’t have achieved 30 years in sales without the mentors, sponsors, and coaches who guided me every step of the way. Ideally, you’ll find all three for yourself, but I know that’s not always possible. If money or time makes it a challenge, try working with at least one of them.
Whoever you go with, commit wholly to the relationship to maximize its impact. And don’t worry about it being one-sided: When they see you do big things, they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing they helped someone succeed in sales. That’s a win-win.
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