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September 8, 2011


Successful Career Paths for Women in Corporate Sales

by WICT Mentoring Blog

In 1997, when Linda Albornoz was a director for American Express based in Houston, her husband received a great job offer requiring them to move to San Francisco. Eleven years ago, at most companies that would have meant Albornoz either quit or asked for a reassignment to a desk job, effectively committing career suicide.

Instead, her boss let her set up a virtual office, giving her the flexibility that eventually helped her rise to her current position of vice president, Business to Business (B2B) Payment Solutions. In between, Albornoz and her husband had a daughter, now 7, and they continued to both succeed in their demanding jobs.

Andrea L. Hazard’s been with AT&T for 14 years, starting with its predecessor company SBC right out of college with a marketing degree. Today, she is premier client sales director, Global Enterprise Solutions. Ten years ago, she moved into enterprise sales and has worked in Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, St. Louis (three times), Dallas (twice), Minneapolis and Nashville. Along the way, she got married and, seven months ago, had her first child, a son. Her husband, who works in telecommunications sales for a different company, relocated with her when she was pregnant, but Hazard realizes that her days of living in a different city virtually every year are going to have to end, especially when her son reaches school age.

For Valerie Oswalt, a meteoric rise in sales at Kraft Foods has also meant frequent relocations. A certified public accountant, she joined Kraft in 1996 after two years at Deloitte. She started in sales finance at Kraft Foods and moved into more senior roles as Kraft paid for her MBA at Kellogg University at Northwestern. Today, Oswalt is customer vice president of business development for Sales & Customer Logistics and the mother of two children, Scott William, 6, and Lauren, 4.

“I’ve moved from Chicago to Boston to southern California to Dallas to Arkansas to Northern California,” she says, noting that this included being customer vice president for Kraft’s relationship with Walmart (overseeing more than $2 billion in revenue) and being area vice president, customer logistics, for the West Coast.

How have these three women managed what to many women seems impossible: combining active careers in revenue-generating positions and young families? The answer lies not with these particular women, impressive as they are, but with their companies—The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity that consciously provide flexibility and options for women in P&L roles. These companies understand that these positions are usually the way into the top level (CEO and direct reports) and want to make sure women are not excluded.

What the Data Shows

Their numbers reflect that effort. DiversityInc studied seven companies in different industries with strong initiatives to help women in revenue-generating roles. They (and their 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 ranks) are: PricewaterhouseCoopers, No. 3; AT&T, No. 4; Ernst & Young, No. 5; Kraft Foods, No. 9; Colgate-Palmolive Co., No. 10; American Express, No. 13; and Procter & Gamble, No. 25.

We found a significant difference in their results. When compared with the 535 companies that participated in the 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 survey, these seven companies had 15 percent more women in P&L roles, 23 percent more women in the top level (CEO and direct reports) and 22 percent more women in the top 10 percent highest-paid employees in the company.

How do they do it? What best practices do they use that enable them to hold on and promote female talent at this level? The key word is “flexibility.”

Best Practices

“We strive for clarity of business objectives and deliverables to allow managers and employees the flexibility to determine where, when and how the work gets done to accomplish these,” says Jim Norman, Kraft Foods’ vice president of talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion. ”This is especially key in field positions, where constant commute and travel is essential to a successful relationship with customers.”

In other words, if the sales goals are met, it doesn’t matter where and when the executive is physically in the office. Oswalt, who is an adviser to Kraft Foods’ Women Sales Council, an employee-resource group just for women in sales positions, put it this way: “We always like to say we can be flexible for the right people. People want to deliver and the company has shifted the mindset to focusing on what gets done, not how you get it done.”

How does that work, specifically?

  • Flexible hours and telecommuting. All of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies now offer both of these options, with 90 percent offering job sharing as well, but in many companies these are only available for certain positions. What makes these seven companies stand out, however, is that these options are available to revenue generators, people who actively must be out meeting customers. Hazard explains how it has worked for her at AT&T: “Although AT&T has a virtual policy, I need as a sales leader to be in front of customers, as the interaction is very important. The company has allowed me to do both by being accommodating to my personal life and my leadership goals.” That’s meant for her a willingness to move into more major market cities for the telecommunications giant.
  • Relocation and spousal support. All of these companies help their executives move by providing assistance on the sales and purchases of their homes (even in a very down market), moving services, interim housing, childcare and job-search assistance for spouses. Interestingly, 72 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 now offer paternity leave, almost double the percentage of five years ago. Albornoz, who was encouraged to seek a new role with expanded responsibilities when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, says of her company: “American Express really takes the worry out of executive relocation. They sell your house, find you a new one, and give you the right support services and paid time off. I have a grand piano and a wine collection and they packed it all up for me.”
  • Emphasis on cross-cultural mentoring. Studies from Catalyst and other organizations emphasize the personal importance of mentoring to women, especially when they assume leadership positions and compete in what traditionally has been a male role.  Our index of top sales companies for women averages 59.9 percent of managers participating in mentoring programs, compared with 37 percent for the DiversityInc Top 50.
  • Use employee-resource groups creatively. Kraft Foods has a Women’s Sales Council, an employee group dedicated to attracting, retaining, developing and advancing women at Kraft. The group has mentors and formal meetings and relies on advice from Kraft Foods’ female chairman and CEO, Irene Rosenfeld.
  • Focus on training and education. Eighty-six percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies have mandatory diversity training for managers, up 19 percent from five years ago—and 66 percent have mandatory diversity training for their entire workforce, up by a third more than five years ago. All individuals benefit from this, certainly women in sales positions who often need help as they grow into leadership positions. “Quite frankly, as a woman, I’ve found the company’s strong investment in individuals in training and education to be very important to me,” says Hazard.

In our benchmarking practice, we often see companies that have difficulty holding on to women as they move up the ranks or getting women out of the more traditional staff/support positions, such as HR and communications. These companies have made dedicated efforts to nurture and keep women in revenue-generating positions. Their results are measurable—and they are improving every year.

The results of these best practices also create engaged and loyal employees. As Kraft Foods’ Oswalt put it: “A lot of women feel they can’t have everything—certainly not at the same time. Women don’t have to give up on their dreams. They may not get there as fast, but they will deliver the results.”

Read more from Career Productivity
1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Mar 1 2013

    Planning the first ever Women In Sales awards, this article is great thanks for sharing



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