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Talent & Recruitment
Movin’ On Up: Sales Experience lays a Solid Career Foundation
Aug 1, 2009 | Deena Waisberg lock

You like your job but there may come a time when you’d like a new challenge – an executive position or to head an entrepreneurial venture. If so, the good news is sales can be a stepping stone to further career options.

Perhaps you’d like to become an independent manufacturer’s representative? Sales experience will be valuable. In 1992, Craig Lindsay decided to start Pacesetter Sales and  Associates, which sells safety and industrial products, after his employer of 15 years (a safety equipment distributor) downsized. Immediately, his ability to sell became crucial to getting clients. Similarly, Rob Kowal, who was working as general manager at an ingredient manufacturer, was downsized in 2005. The following year, he started Kriscor, which sells ingredients to food and beverage manufacturers, and discovered that the “people skills” he developed in sales (he had managed the sales team and handled a few of the international accounts) assisted him in reading potential customers and finding solutions to interpersonal issues.

If you’d like to climb the corporate ladder instead, sales experience will be beneficial. With 29 years of sales experience, former CPSA chairman, Bruce Andrew took progressively senior positions to get to his current post as Vice-president of Sales Strategy for the Home Services Division at Direct Energy. While his job encompasses various duties, including helping the division take advantage of strategic opportunities in the marketplace and developing a sales culture within the organization, he says it really comes down to problem-solving and influencing, skills he learned while in sales.

Experience and Education

So you’ve already got a great foundation. But whatever route you choose, you’ll still need to build on that and develop additional skills. These can be acquired through experience, education or a combination thereof. Lindsay acquired financial skills in his previous role as marketing manager. Kowal learned management skills on the job and took courses on management, finance and leadership in . Andrew took an MBA part-time through the . Many employers will cover part or all of MBA or EMBA tuition costs for an employee. Andrew’s previous employer paid for his courses and when he switched jobs, he reimbursed that employer and Direct Energy paid for the balance of the MBA.

Sales managers and directors from a variety of industries, including financial services, computer technology, packaged goods, telecom, manufacturing, government and healthcare, comprise between 10% and 15% of the current EMBA class at Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario and Toronto, and approximately 15% of the EMBA class at Queen’s University, which runs a national program with classes across the country.

The benefit to them? “The EMBA program will help salespeople broaden their skills and perspective,” says J.D. Clarke, Director of Program Services, Ivey Executive MBA. “Salespeople may have a lot of depth in sales and marketing, but perhaps not as much experience in operations or financial,” he continues.

Though an EMBA is a commitment – the Queen’s University program is 15 months and requires about 25 hours a week, while the Ivey program is 17 months and requires between 20 and 25 hours a week – the universities try to make working and studying feasible. Queens’ has classrooms in major cities across the country so if a salesperson is on the road, he can take a class in or . Similarly, Ivey holds classes four consecutive days a month, so schedules need not be rearranged as often.

And, yes, there is a payoff for all this hard work. After taking an EMBA, graduates of both programs have gone on to secure more senior and strategic roles in their organization. “They often move into more of a general management role,” says Gloria Saccon, Director, national EMBA program at Queen’s. In fact, the number of Canadian CEOs who came from a sales or marketing role has increased 2% between 1996 and 2006, according to research conducted by executive search firm SpencerStuart. And there were more CEOs with MBAs in 2006 (26%) than in 1996 (17%).

Bruce Andrew believes that to be competitive within an organization, it’s necessary to have advanced educational credentials. He could have done his job without the MBA, but it gives him more confidence to contribute to problems outside his primary areas of experience.

Still, some people feel an MBA or EMBA is overrated. “When I’m hiring people, I’m more interested in someone who has practical experience and applies it well,” Craig Lindsay says. Additionally, Lindsay outsources functions that he doesn’t have expertise in, such as IT and accounting.

What else do you need? If you’re going out on your own, industry experience is crucial. Without it, Kowal wouldn’t understand what type of ingredients his clients want and Lindsay wouldn’t have had a huge network of potential customers that he’d made connections with over the years. As a startup, that affects the bottom line. Andrew moved into an executive role without sector experience, switching industries from coffee to energy, but he was working with others who did have sector experience and committed to learning about the business, industry and company culture on the job.

Staying In-tune with Sales

Once you get into a more senior role, you will inevitably get further away from the selling function because you’ll have other responsibilities. This might create ambivalence. Though it can be stressful, many salespeople enjoy their jobs. In a recent survey conducted by, 70% of participants were happy with their sales manager/management while 58% cited their job as high stress. However, you need not abandon selling altogether. Andrew still goes out on sales calls with Direct Energy salespeople once a week to see what customers are saying. And while Lindsay spends more time working on the business than in it, he still goes on sales calls.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to put yourself on your path. “I think people sense that career development is like a popularity contest. I choose you. It doesn’t work that way. The bigger onus is on the employee,” Andrew says. Offer to act as team lead, take on extra projects, read a book or take a course to fill in knowledge gaps. Work in other areas of the business to round out your experience. For example almost one half of the CEOs worked in operations prior to assuming the top job, according to the SpencerStuart study. And volunteer to gain experience you don’t have and give back. You’ll advance, but more importantly, as Kowal says: “You’ll be in control of your own destiny.”

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