Meet Brenda: 40+ years in sales; top performer driving double digit growth leading inside sales organizations for Fortune 500 IT companies. One of the most compassionate leaders I’ve ever met! Has amazing work ethics—graduated high school at age 15, took college courses while in high school, started working full-time at 16, and hasn’t stopped since. “For my first job, I had a paper route at 4 in the morning, 7 days a week, 12 months a year. I grew up in Ontario, Canada, so imagine going up to the dark cold footsteps, slinging papers with dogs jumping on you. It wasn’t easy, but I never thought of giving up! During college, I worked full time as a retail manager and took 21 college credits per semester. I had one day off a week, and I would literally sleep for 24 hours. I had this amazing work ethics that was instilled in me by my parents.”
Learn to listen and build trust. “Customers will tell you a lot in a 10-minute conversation, but if you’re thinking about your sales hook or the next question and not listening, you’re not going to hear them. They are going to tell you their problem areas, and they need reinforcement from you that you heard them because that’s what builds trust and creates a credible relationship. When you have the fabric of trust, it doesn’t matter if there’s a flaw in the product, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lead time, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the lowest price. I can’t tell you the number of times, whether while working at American Airlines, Dell, or Insight, we weren’t the lowest cost and at times we didn’t even have the best features, but the trust and relationships were there, and that’s what won us deals!”
Develop organizational agility. “I tell my people, ‘you have to be on your toes not on your heels.’ You don’t want your customer to call you and say, ‘hey I haven’t heard from you in a week around status.’ Understand your business, organize yourself, know what you need to accomplish that day, and be proactive! Our best people have a line of sight. They know where they’re at, where they need to be, and have a plan to get there. Don’t get stuck on hope, ‘hoping your customer will call you back, hoping the PO will get cut!’ Hope is not a strategy! (This I learned from a profound leader, Erik Dithmer). Be on your toes, be organized, drive your business, and don’t let your business run over you!”
Have broad shoulders. “Don’t ever box yourself into, ‘this is my job, this is my team, this is my segment, my my my…’ You need to lift, help, and collaborate! Reach beyond what your specific sphere of responsibility is and help. It will position you as a leader and help you grow!”
Be honest. “If there’s a problem, don’t hide it, don’t sandpaper it, don’t blame someone else! Just own it and be transparent because it all comes back to trust and relationships. If you are caught twisting the fact and not being direct and transparent with your colleagues and your customers, it will come back to you, and it will absolutely compromise your ability to be successful in life and in your professional endeavors.”
Be okay with rejections. “Especially with acquiring new customers, you’re going to get lots of no’s before you get a yes. Our best sellers look at ‘no’ as feedback. Some take it as a challenge! Don’t view rejections as a personal thing. Stay politely persistent and keep going. Don’t let a ‘no’ shut you down!”
Take time to share with your stakeholders how you’re doing, your team’s success, and where you need help. “I struggle with self-promotion. I’ve always been of the mindset that your results speak for themselves. For many years, I felt like ‘I’m driving 17 points of growth! Of course, they’ll see that!’ But what I saw is that there are lots of folks that talk about themselves and get in front of the right people and do things that give them the bright shiny light, and they move up. Sadly, some of them are poor performers! As a woman and in the industry we’re in, the results are really interesting, but they don’t speak for themselves. And we have to do a better job of stating and restating and getting in front of the right people to say, ‘here’s what we’ve been able to accomplish.’
Take risks. “When I took over Nashville and built Oklahoma inside sales sites for Dell, there were many folks that passed on this opportunity and some for very good reasons. Sometimes you have to say, ‘you know what, let’s do this. It’s going to be hard, but it’s an opportunity!’ You get to meet people, have amazing experiences, and learn so much! I know that it’s hard to leave something behind that is precious to you, but what I learned is that you really take it with you. You take the experience with you, you take people in your heart, and what’s really meaningful actually never leaves you!”
Advice for a Person Starting their Sales Career:
Work hard and be open to new opportunities. “I started working at American Airlines in 1981. This was back in the day of DOS! We had 8 weeks of training, and we had to memorize formulas and formats. There was an FAA component to it, and we needed to pass to keep our jobs. Only 20% of folks that started the training class actually succeeded. I studied and passed it. Shortly after, I was placed in an entry sales reservation position. I gave it all I’ve got—came in early, left late, received raving reviews from my customers—and within 90 days, I was moved into the international program working with global customers. Then, I had the opportunity to work on a special program. They told me that I needed to sign an NDA and that it was a big deal! Little did I know I was a small part of a design and launch team for the American Airlines Advantage Program, the first loyalty program in the airline industry. I was a kid given this opportunity to be part of this industry changing program. While it was scary, I jumped into it, worked really hard, and learned so much!
“A few years later, our trainer for the 8-week training program was pregnant and had to go on bed rest. They came to me one day and said, ‘we need you to take over training.’ I never trained a class, let alone an 8-week class. They literally handed me a book, about 15 inches thick, and they said ‘you start tomorrow at 6 a.m.’ I stayed up all night reading the book. I was terrified, but this experience changed my life! I found my happiness in training and developing people. It is one of the few jobs that you see the fruits of your labors as it progresses. Work hard, take chances, and explore opportunities!”
Advice for a Person Promoted to First Line Sales Manager
Set the vision, create shared goals, and keep it simple. “Whether you are leading 10 people, 100 people, 400 people, 1,000 people, you need to set a vision and expectations of what good looks like and simplify it. In every role that I have, I set a vision and make it as simplistic as I can, and then as a team, we identify two to three areas we need to accomplish to get there. Once you have that, you must inspect what to expect, but you have to do it in a motivating way and emphasize collaboration.
“I remember my gig leading Dell’s Nashville site. This was a massive investment for Dell. It was their first North American expansion from headquarters. They opened the site, and they were struggling. When I got there to lead this team, you could see a clear divide. You had the local Nashville hires who were brought in because of their experience and background and then you have Dell transplants. You could literally build a river between these two groups as they each sat on opposite sides, and they were competing against each other. To address it, I set a vision, integrated folks, and gave them shared goals. People began working and talking with one another and celebrating each other’s successes. And instead of the divide between legacy Dell and local Nashville employees, it became Dell Nashville. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen! We transformed the organization; grew it from 100+ too 500+ and crushed our numbers! We actually ended up exceeding the Austin numbers.”
Have a balance of understanding the business protocol (what the data represents and means) with the human factor. “Particularly in today’s world of BI and AI and dashboards, we tend to bias toward what the data is telling us. While the data is absolutely critical, and we need to lead with it, we also must find a balance between being able to tell the story of the numbers and understand how the human capacity collaborates and weaves into that. I’ve watched people that literally look at spreadsheets as breathing things, and they’re not! There’s heartbeat and blood running through the veins of the people behind the numbers that are generated. If you don’t understand that, and you don’t make a connection with your people, then you’re just a spreadsheet pusher.
“To find that balance, as a leader, you must set expectations with your direct reports. I usually ask my direct reports to bring their stats and their team roaster to every 1×1 meeting. Typically, people come in, and they bias toward the stats. ‘Here’s how I’m doing on quota, here’s how I’m doing on close rate, etc.’ After I give feedback on the data, I turn to the roaster, and I ask specifically for the managers to tell me about each person on their team. For some, as we go down the roaster, it becomes more and more painful because these folks don’t know anything more than the names of their employees. By setting the expectations, my team knows not to walk into my office unless they know their team and their data. It doesn’t matter if you’re 100% over your number, if you don’t know your team, there will be a discussion.”
Treat each rep as unique individuals and understand what motivates them. “I’ve seen this dozens of times, where newly promoted sales managers think everybody is wired like them. Typically, top sellers are type A, are assertive, demand excellence, and they are champions in their own right! They don’t come into leadership thinking, ‘Hey not everyone is like me.’ They expect and command everybody to be like them: ‘I want my reps to talk like me, walk like me, and do exactly what I’ve done to be successful.’ This doesn’t work! You’re trying to slam a square peg into a round hole. Time and time, I’ve seen people fail doing just that.
“You have to take a step back and listen and understand where people are coming from and what motivates them. Some people are motivated by money; some people are motivated by taking care of their family; some are truly motivated by learning and development. It’s different for everyone!”
Take the higher road with those who deceive you. “One of the hardest lessons I learned as a leader is how to react when I care and invest so much time with individuals—when I look into their eyes, listen to their struggles, and genuinely help them—and they end up being untruthful. It’s a powerful lesson when you know you have been deceived, and the way you handle it defines you as a leader.
“You can do two things; get angry and retaliate or you can reflect on it. Ask yourself: ‘what could have I done differently, how did I allow myself to be deceived, what can I learn from this, and how is this going to make me a better leader?’ I’ve seen managers react in both ways! I choose to be wise, be open, and compassionate but also learn from my experiences. Yes, sometimes people lie and sometimes people do deceive! They may have some really troubling things happening in their lives that compels them to make poor choices. It’s how you handle it and what you learn and take from it that helps you grow as a leader.”
Develop and grow your people: “Everything begins and ends with people! Your brand is your people, and your people are your brand! If your people are not fulfilled, are not feeling genuinely supported, are not developed, etc. it doesn’t matter how great your product is, performance will be impacted.
“Many years ago, I was flying from Puerto Rico after a big sales leadership meeting. As a GM for American Airlines, I automatically flew first class. As I was sitting winding down, I heard someone calling my name ‘Brenda!’ I turned around, and it was Penny! Penny was one of the employees I trained years ago. She was struggling in the class but never gave up. I spent lots of evenings and weekends with her, and she passed. This young lady was now a female pilot deadheading on my flight back to DFW! We had an amazing discussion, and she left it with: ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.’ She has touched me in ways that I can’t explain. As leaders, we can change lives, we can impact generations, and we can change history! Make it one of your priorities to develop your people!”
Recognize your people and celebrate their wins. “Many years ago, Dell rolled out a product Network Attached Storage (NAS). At that time, I was running the Nashville Sales Organization. I will never forget the time when we had an unexpected call from Michael Dell. He was enroute to Austin from a Board of Directors meeting in NYC and had time to stop by to visit our site. My comm director came running down the hall asking ‘what are we going to do? Do you want me to set an all hands meeting, do you want me to set up a podium?’ I told him ‘just bring him to my office.’ Our customers were loving NAS, our reps were loving the product and were passionate about it, and we were crushing it! So once Michael arrived, I said ‘excuse my informality, but I really would like you to get input about NAS from our people and hear firsthand what our customers are saying.’ His eyes lit up. And we walked up and down the row. Not only were our reps over the moon, but our managers also got to share with Michael how they’re working with their teams and what the customers are saying. It was like having Mick Jagger in our building! Think about what that did to our sales results and to our morale! Take time to recognize and celebrate your people!”
Thank you, Brenda, for your time. It was insightful, authentic, and inspiring! And to all, happy selling!