Recently The Institute for Excellence in Sales’ (IES) Women in Sales Program hosted the first annual Selling Edge Conference to provide women sales leaders with advice and strategies for growing their careers and managing their sales teams. Wedding Wire Vice President of Sales, Kara Delvecchio, was the keynote speaker and spoke about the history of female leaders in business and sales and the lessons their stories can teach women in sales today.
1. Is there a female leader who has inspired you, and why?
I found so many women that inspired me as I was writing my speech for the IES Women in Sales Selling Edge conference. Anna Sutherland Bissell, for example, was the first female CEO. And yet I hadn’t heard her story. She was born in 1846 and worked with her husband at his factory where they made Bissell vacuums (the factory originally produced crockery but the machine they used to clean the factory floor actually had much more potential). She was Bissell’s top salesperson, traveling from town to town to sell the sweeper for $1.50 each. She also persuaded major marketplaces, including Wanamaker’s (one of America’s first department stores), to carry the product.
When her husband died, Anna took over as CEO. She ran the company as a widowed single mother of 5 and took the company international. She was also known to be one of the first business leaders to take a progressive approach to labor, providing her employees with pension plans and workers’ compensation. There are so many women like this who really paved the way for the modern day female sales leader.
2. Is there anything that women in particular should be aware of in the sales profession?
Women can’t and shouldn’t ignore the statistics that talk about where we are today relative to our male counterparts. From CEB to LinkedIn to the most recent study published in the Wall Street Journal, we still aren’t treated equally. For example, from CEB: “Women represent 4 of 10 entry level sales employees, 3 in 10 first and mid level management roles, and only 2 in 10 department head or general manager roles.”
A similar report from LinkedIn about the top management levels in the field: “Only 1 in 5 women in sales hold VP titles or higher. Even worse, the percentage of female executives in sales is growing slower than in other industries; women earn just 64.4% of what their male counterparts earn in the sales function.” The Wall Street Journal study done by Lean In.org and McKinsey takes a broader view of women in the workforce (not just sales) and tells us that C-suite women are 1% of the total workforce. Maybe that’s because they also report that men are 30% more likely than women to be promoted to management roles. I think women who are starting their careers in sales or leading sales functions like me need to ask themselves what they are doing to help solve these challenges. Are we mentoring young women to help them negotiate for what they deserve and build their skills for the next promotion? At our own companies, are we treating men and women equally, even at the highest levels? If not, is the company committed to hiring, listening to and learning from senior women?
3. How can the industry help more women become sales leaders?
Given the statistics that I mention above, women have to continue to challenge their companies and other senior women leaders to be aware of these issues and think about how to make things more equitable. While books and conferences are often places where you can learn about the latest trends in the field, there are almost no books written by women for women and there are still too few conferences focused on women or featuring women speakers. There are not enough places for women to look for role models, so to me it means we all have to take on as many leadership roles as we can. We should push ourselves to attend industry events focused on women, be advocates for each other, support and mentor each other and write about the skills women can focus on for success.
4. What is the biggest lesson that you were happy to learn early in your career?
I was really fortunate to have a colleague early in my career (a male colleague in fact) point out some speech patterns that I used that he believed were not effective to articulate my ideas and opinions with confidence. I would be in an important client meeting or in an internal meeting asking senior executives for resources, and I would apologise before I would begin. I would start with statements like: “I’m not sure if this is a good idea but…” or “I know you all are the experts but I was thinking”... it sounded a lot like second guessing myself before anyone else might do so!
Once I started researching this, I realised that this was unfortunately quite normal for women. Deborah Tannen talks about male and female speech patterns and how detrimental this can be for women, especially in the workplace. And my experience bore out what she said: men, especially senior executives, rarely caveat or apologise before speaking. They don’t wonder if their ideas are worth stating before they state them. So women, please note your own speech patterns and make sure you say what you need to say with confidence. It makes a huge difference in the way other executives will perceive you as well. It really taught me how to stop apologising and also to over-prepare for big meetings so that I had the confidence I needed to take charge and get deals closed or resources allocated.
5. How can women sales leaders develop a management style?
I had to learn a lot of management lessons the hard way. I didn’t have bosses who taught me how to manage; I was a great salesperson so they assumed I would figure management out. Getting people to like you doesn't work. Molding people to be like you doesn't work either. So I had to learn what I needed to exhibit to get the most out of my team when I was managing reps, and then I had to adjust my thinking when I began managing managers. The best advice I have is to really observe the executives you respect and figure out what it is you admire and then bake that into your own style. I would be in meetings and write down three words that described how an executive was acting that I wanted to emulate. After some time, I realised everyone I admired, male and female, has similar qualities. For example, for me, fairness is a core value of mine and something that I think really defines my management style and something that really made me admire and follow others. People know I'm tough but fair, and I think I earn a lot of respect and loyalty with my management methods.
Learn more about the Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales programs here.