Book Club: Cynthia Barnes on Climbing the Career Ladder as a Woman in Sales

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Olivia Fuller: Hi, and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

In any career, there’s a big difference between being good at your job and being one of the best. In sales, this difference can have profound effects on the success of the company and your own career trajectory, but especially for demographics that are more underrepresented in the sales profession, such as women, bridging the gap to go from good to great can seem daunting. That’s why I’m so excited to have Cynthia Barnes, author of Reach the Top 1% here to tell us some of her advice to become a top-performing salesperson and how enablement can help. With that, Cynthia, I’d love for you to just tell our audience a little bit more about yourself, your background, and your book.

Cynthia Barnes: Thank you. As you stated, I am Cynthia Barnes, a sales trailblazer and founder of the National Association of Women’s Sales Professionals and Inclusive Selling. As a keynote speaker and advisor, I help sales professionals understand, respect, and cater to the diverse needs, preferences, and backgrounds of potential customers foster stronger connections, and promote a more equitable and inclusive business environment.

You might have seen me as the first black woman to keynote a national sales conference, a LinkedIn Top Voice, or featured in the Salesforce Plus series beyond the quota. I’m here to reshape your perspective on sales, inclusivity, and success with my unique blend of humor, wisdom, and charisma.

OF: I love it. Well, we are so honored to have you here with us and so excited to dive in and just talk a little bit more about your book, because I loved it. One piece that really stood out to me was you wrote that sales are simply the best career on the planet, especially for women because it lets you call the shots. That resonated with me. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about this perspective. Why is sales such an empowering career path for women?

CB: You hit the nail right on the head, Olivia, and it is the best career for women because we get to say how much money we make based upon the amount of effort put in. Rarely do you find a career that allows you to say, I want to make X amount of dollars, and if I’m willing to make the sacrifice and put in the hard work, then I’m able to do it.

Another thing that we want to think about with sales for women, there are so many women out there who are part of a sandwich generation. On one side you have kids going to college, and on the other side, you’ve got aging parents. Imagine if you had $250,000 in the bank throughout your sales career that you’ve been able to sock away. You could get to help your kids graduate from college with no debt, and you get to choose whether or not your parents go into a home or they stay home with you.

I don’t know any woman who is of childbearing age who doesn’t want to dictate herself when she goes back to work from maternity leave, rather than her job saying, well, you get eight weeks and you need to come back. Having that money provides you with options, and options mean freedom.

OF: I love that financial freedom aspect. Sales is a primarily male-dominated industry, and so I’m curious to also hear your advice for women to keep moving up the corporate ladder and overcome some of the barriers we often face, not just in the corporate world, but sales in particular, what are some of those challenges that you see women come up against and what is your advice for how they can overcome some of those challenges?

CB: It is that we kick our own ass quite simply. We kick our own butt. I don’t know if I can cuss or not, but we kick our own butt. What I mean by that is, sure, there’s the imposter syndrome. Sure, there’s the inner critic, but nine times out of 10, you can overcome those with the right mindset, the right attitude, and the right tools. When I talk about kicking your own butt, I’m referring to not dreaming big enough.

I was interviewing a swimmer one time and I said, so how is it that you’re able to accomplish all these great things? She said I stopped comparing myself to the person in the next lane. And I said, what do you mean by that? She said, if I only compare myself to getting ahead of them or to beat them, then I’ve only beaten them, but what if I could take away the competition factor and I could see what I was able to accomplish?

So, for women out there, yes, I acknowledge there’s the inner critic. I acknowledge there’s imposter syndrome. Let’s control the controllable. Let’s call it like it is. Stop comparing yourself to others. Stop limiting your achievements based on what the leaderboard says and compete against yourself and you’ll be able to accomplish amazing things. Amazing things that you never even thought possible. Stop dreaming so small.

OF: I love that. You mentioned this a little bit there in that response, but something that I also loved in your book was that you talk a lot about the power of mindset, and I’m curious to learn a little bit more about that. How can mindset help salespeople overcome adversity or eliminate some of that self-doubt that you were mentioning to really excel in their careers?

CB: Mindset is crucial. It is the number one thing that you get out of bed in the morning. You need to get your mindset right, so whether it’s avoiding the news, which is full of negativity, or setting yourself up by journaling in the morning, whatever it is that you need to do to set yourself up for success here, then the rest of you will follow.

When it comes to mindset, a lot of us fall prey to the ‘why me’, and what I’d like for the listeners to do is to ask themselves and change that around to Why not me? When there’s that goal, when there is that seemingly insurmountable mountain, I want you to look in the mirror and say, why not me? Why can’t it be me who overcomes that challenge? Why can’t it be me who gets to be in the President’s Club? There’s nothing holding you back except you. After you do that, you ask yourself, why not me? Your mind is going to give you a whole bunch of reasons. Why not? You counteract that by saying, how can I?

Let’s say you want to get to the President’s Club. The moment you say, why not me, and then go into how can I fill in the blank, and in this case it would be, how can I get to President’s Club? Your mind automatically goes into solution mode and starts thinking about, well, if I did this, if I did this, if I did this, so that’s the formula. Why not me? And then how can I?

OF: That is wonderful advice. I love that it’s just a little bit of reframing in your brain and that can help make all the difference. Your book is titled Reach the Top 1%, and I’d love to hear your advice for women that want to go from maybe being a good or a great salesperson to be in that top 1%. What really makes the difference there?

CB: First, we need to define what is the top 1%. Is it top of the leaderboard? Is it the President’s Club? Is it the VP of Sales? Whatever your top 1% is at that time, because it can change year to month, you’ve got to clearly define it with granularity and specificity.

What are you going after? If you don’t have a solid target, then you really can’t hit anything. You’ve got to be, number one, crystal clear on what it is that you want to accomplish. Then you’ve got to reverse engineer the goal and say, what is it on a daily basis that I can do to get to that top 1%, i.e. that goal?

Then you have to reframe your mindset and say, what are the controllable? You can’t control whether or not prospects pick up the phone. You can’t control whether or not they respond to email. You can’t control whether or not they buy. You can control your activity. Find out what those daily activities are and master them.

OF: Fantastic advice. I love that advice about controlling your controllable. That’s so actionable. A lot of our listeners are sales enablement professionals and their job is really to make sales reps more successful to help them get the resources and the tools that they need to be more effective in their jobs. I’m curious, from your perspective, what are some ways that enablement practitioners can help replicate the behaviors of those top performers across the sales organization to help elevate sales reps?

CB: I know this is probably going to sound cliche, but it starts with mindset. Be curious. If I’m a sales enablement professional, there are a multitude of ways that I can formulate any type of sales approach. What if I went into it or approached it with an attitude of curiosity to ask what makes a good sales rep in this area? Not everything works the same for everybody. People are as unique as the fingerprints on their hands. When we paint sales approaches with a broad brush, we miss out on the ability for someone to think critically and to create their own process.

I’m a firm believer that as long as it’s legal, moral, and ethical, it doesn’t matter how you get the deal closed as long as you do. Too many leaders will tell a sales rep, you’re doing it wrong just because they’re doing it differently than everybody else. When did the difference become wrong? As long as it’s legal, moral, and ethical, why can’t it be different?

To those sales enablement professionals, I would love for you to go to some of your high-performing sales professionals and shadow them for a day. Ask them open-ended questions. Why did you do it this way? Tell me about your process for doing it this way. If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently? Develop an attitude of curiosity.

OF: You’re so right, there are unique qualities in each individual and not every technique will work for the same person because part of sales is building meaningful relationships with your clients and your buyers, and being able to do that is also about being authentic to yourself. So I love that advice. That’s fantastic.

I’m curious how enablement can help support salespeople from underrepresented groups. Maybe not just the sales team as a whole, but maybe those reps that need a little bit of extra support to overcome some of that adversity that they might be facing?

CB: I would ask them, what is it that you need to overcome the unique challenges you are facing so that you can thrive in your role? It’s a simple question, but yet it’s so loaded. Most people haven’t been asked, what do you need? When you ask that question, you may be hit with some resistance because they may have never thought about it because they’ve never been asked.

Keep asking because the message may change from Tuesday to Thursday to next month to next year, but keep asking, ‘What is it that you need to thrive in your role?’ They need more training, they may need more support, they may need coaching, but you gotta ask.

OF: That’s great advice. Asking and listening and being open to those new ideas and maybe new ways that you haven’t even thought of supporting your reps. You’ve really spent the past two decades studying what it takes for women to rise through the ranks in the sales industry. Along with your book, I’d love to hear what other resources you’d recommend women looking into to excel in their sales careers. What are some places that our listeners might be able to go to learn more?

CB: Oh my gosh. There are so many resources that I can recommend, and they all start with, what is my biggest challenge at that moment? When I first started out in sales, I had no idea what I was doing, so I got every single book I could, every audio program I could, every course that I could take, every single bit of knowledge I could find and I dove in because I thought of it like this.

If I were to be charged with a crime and my life was on the line, would I go to a lawyer who didn’t study legal theory, who didn’t know what the current laws were, or who didn’t know creative ways to get me out of a jam? If I’m sick, I’m not going to go to a doctor who doesn’t read the New England Journal of Medicine, who doesn’t go for continuing education credits. I want the best of the best. If I want to be seen in my buyer’s eyes as a credible resource, one who’s qualified to help them with their greatest needs, one who they pay to help them solve problems they can’t Google, then I need to become an expert at sales, that’s what I would do.

I would help with prospecting, lead generation, closing conversations, and inclusive selling, and I would dive into as many books and programs as I could, and then I would find someone who has exactly what I want, who has the accolades, who has the network, and I would say, how can I be like you? How can I get into your space? I would emulate what they do because success leaves clues. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s somebody else that already has what you want? That’s what I would do.

OF: I love that. You mentioned a multitude of resources there from just diving in and learning more, reading more, and listening more. I love that advice around personal connection and networking though, too. That’s fantastic, Cynthia. Thank you so much for taking the time to share all of your wisdom with our audience. I learned so much from this conversation, so I’m so excited for our listeners to hear it.

CB: Thank you so much for having me, Olivia. If someone wants to connect with me, I am all over LinkedIn, so please don’t hesitate to reach out. Let me know if you heard me on the Sales Enablement PRO Podcast so I know how to make the connection.

OF: Fantastic. To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit SalesEnablement.PRO, and if there’s something you’d like to share or a topic that you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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