Women in sales leadership: Seven steps to building your vision for success

On April 19 and 20, I had the privilege of chairing the two-day conference, Women in Sales Leadership — Visions of Success, in Sydney where we had more than 100 women and four men attend.

The attendees were given the opportunity to hear from and interact with 16 of Australia’s leading female sales leaders and three male sales leaders, and to explore how they created and charted their own visions of success.

Key topics discussed included:

• Setting goals and planning for career growth;

• Defining your why;

• Don’t let career breaks pause your progression;

• Finding the right sponsors and mentors and how to involve men on your career journey;

• Establishing your leadership brand;

• Creating a high-performance sales culture;

• Inclusive leadership;

• Being your best in times of adversity; and

• Saying YES more often. 

It was jammed packed two days. This is a summary of the key themes for how we as women can really capitalise on our sales leadership talents, capabilities and opportunities to further our careers.

Theme 1: Knowing your why, setting goals and mapping your own personal journey

Jo Dooley from Seek, Brigid Archibald from Salesforce, Kerry-Anne Turner of VMware and David Coventry of Telstra gave us great insights into understanding that our career journey is not static. It is an evolution and we need to ask for opportunities, not wait for them to come to us.

We need to say yes, be opportunistic and have courage to challenge.

It was highlighted that we need to understand our why because knowing our why helps with our own intrinsic motivation. Extrinsically, having a why helps us get a lot more out of people because they know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

We were instructed to create an intersection between what we care about, what we can contribute and what will be valued.

Knowing our why, our innate strengths, where we add the greatest value, and how we will measure our life were four important points of reflection.

Theme 2: There is no comfort in change

Some key questions were raised about how we expand our capabilities and make change. For instance:

Who do we have in our lives who can pressure us to deliver and deliver better?

How many times have we allowed someone to push us to something even better?

How many times has our team lost out because we didn’t lead, coach or push them for better performance?

How coachable are we?

We were encouraged to open our mind, expand our thinking, and take calculated risks if we want to expand and evolve into sales leadership.

A mind that is stretched to new experience can never go back to the former dimension.

Theme 3: Getting support along the way

Mark Adams, formerly of NAB, stressed the importance of knowing the difference between mentors and sponsors for career advancement.

As a member of the Male Champions of Change initiative, he said sponsors are the way to go. We all need a business sponsor who has our back and will do something for us by way of helping our careers.

Others such as Katherine Carmody of Suncorp, Becky Cook of American Express, Kylie Burchmore of Crown Resorts, Nikki Rooke of Seven Network and Simon Green of Jurlique all supported the concept of getting a personal board made up of key people from our business and personal networks who we know will challenge us and keep us honest and focused on our endeavours.

The support a board or sponsor can give us can fundamentally change our lives and accelerate our career trajectory. Mark pointed out that every decision we make can change someone’s life for better or for worse. As sales leaders we can and do have an enormous impact on people’s lives.

Theme 4: Creating high performing cultures and dealing with adversity

As I have written often, selling is still frequently misunderstood by many non-sales disciplines. This was raised again at the conference. Brigid Archibald from Salesforce made a very important point that businesses should invest in sales as a profession rather than an action.

Simon Green from Jurlique stated that creating a high-performance culture is the backbone of sales leadership. He plainly pointed out that culture isn’t Secret Santa, or bean bags or, company catering.

Here are some tips about what we look for in effective sales cultures:

  1. Competent leadership: consistent approach, speed at making decisions, proficient on the financials;
  2. Honesty and integrity;
  3. One common goal that is easy to communicate;
  4. See selling as a noble purpose;
  5. Build the team from top down and provide a framework; and
  6. Empower people to think — the team often has all the answers but are not often given a voice. 

Carla Ramchand of Avanade shared a great case study from a previous role of how she reset the standards in her sales team under immense time pressure and accompanying negativity from other leaders in her business. She completely innovated and transformed her team and achieved the desired results, which ultimately proved that her way was the correct way to do business. It was tough but with the right frameworks, ongoing support and clear vision and strategy in place, her sales team backed her all the way; even when some initial promises by the company were broken, her team believed in her and delivered.

Theme 5: Effective self-promotion

In some of the panel discussions and across speakers we agreed that women are still not as effective at promoting themselves as men. However, we did say that sales is the best place for young women to start their careers. Sales helps because it has a leader board and women can be seen and made visible. When we are at the top of the sales leader board people want to know how we got there.

To help us on our career journey we need to:

  1. Build out our network: operationally, personally, strategically (maybe only two or three people with influence and advocacy); and
  2. Take some risks and back ourselves. 

Theme 6: Knowing your brand as a sales leader

Many of the speakers highlighted how we need to know what we want first before we can ask others for help. We need to know how to introduce ourselves easily and succinctly.

We need to be aware of our own values and how they are layered.

Jo Dooley of Seek stated we can expand our brand by:

  • Understanding deeply what we want to be known for;
  • Thinking about how we show up for meetings;
  • Inserting words we want to be known for;
  • Working out how to introduce ourselves; and
  • Being interesting — which makes people interested. 

Ultimately what do we want them to say about us?

Theme 7: How to manage it all

Sarah Dinn from PepsiCo shared her personal story about having children, dealing with a major health crisis and still getting to the top of her profession as a sales leader.

Sarah said: “Don’t let career breaks pause your progression”. Instead get at least one champion who believes in you in your corner. She said women need to be heard and don’t assume the HR process always works. If you are on maternity leave she advises to make a plan with whom you want to stay in contact with at work and maintain regular communication.

Many of the women, including Ann Elliott of Virgin, Suzy Franks of Naked Wines, Katrina Lawrence of Dell EMC, Julie Newton-Werro of SBS and Eithne Freeney of Vodafone, mentioned that if we are to have children and a career, we need make sure we are clear, specific and direct about our career choices and how we want to manage work and home life. We need to make it easy for others to give us what we want. And we must play the long game and consider our choices carefully.

Many of the female sales leaders presenting had children, with almost all of them having stay-at-home husbands/partners to care for the children. An audience member asked: “how do career women with partners who have careers manage family?” We discussed the importance of having support in the form of a nanny or grandparents/family members or really effective and flexible external child support to make it work. We discussed that we need to treat the caregiver with respect and see them as a key member of our team and work with them as we would with our business teams, rather than have a procession of nannies revolving through the door and creating chaos for everyone.


In short, to be a great sales leader is an individual choice, a committed decision that is supported by a team effort. Effective sales leadership and our vision of success are driven by our own clear purpose and tangible framework, accompanied by an openness to being proactive, courageous, inclusive, accountable, respectful and supportive of ourselves and others.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

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