Podcast

Lauren Stiebing 01 December 2020

How Women Can Thrive in Sales with Stephanie Lilley

Sales can be a very male-dominated function and traditionally, traits like competitiveness, confidence, and aggressiveness have been intrinsically linked with what a successful salesperson should look like, which has left many women standing on the sidelines.

In this episode of the Career Success Podcast, we have invited Stephanie Lilley, Sales Director UK and Ireland for Hygiene at RB, to discuss this issue and how women can lean in and thrive within sales.

Topics Covered:

  • Being a woman working in sales and looking for a role model
  • How can senior leaders help women to feel comfortable in the sales function?
  • Where to find coaches and role models within the sales function?
  • Why working in Sales?

If you would like to check out this conversation in video, please follow this link

 

Stephanie Lilley:

– I didn’t see women in senior positions. I had no roles models. Like I didn’t, there was nobody like me, on a more senior level.

Lauren Stiebing:

-Hi, I’m Lauren Stiebing and today we have invited Stephanie Lilley to this episode of the Career Success Podcast to discuss how women can thrive in sales. Sales can be a very male-dominated function and traditionally, traits like competitiveness, confidence, and aggressiveness have been intrinsically linked with what a successful salesperson should look like, which has left many women standing on the sidelines.

Lauren Stiebing:

-So, yes, Stephanie. Why don’t you introduce yourself?

Stephanie Lilley:

– Okay. Thanks Lauren. My name is Steph Lilley. I am the sales director for the UK and Ireland hygiene business for Reckitt Benckiser and I am what is called an RB lifer. So I’ve been at RB for my entire career. I started as a graduate on their graduate program and most of my career has been in sales. So from a kind of bright high, 23 year old, through to now, I’ve worked in our sales teams. So whether that be with accounts or in our sales strategy teams, that’s been the majority of what I’ve done. I’ve also done it across a few different countries as well and working globally. So I have a relatively good view of what sales looks like across the world.

Lauren Stiebing:

– Okay great. Yeah, I know you were in Russia, which not that many people can say, so definitely been in different types of environments as well.

Stephanie Lilley:

– Yeah, absolutely.

Lauren Stiebing:

– Why don’t you tell us a bit about, you know, your journey briefly of course, through sales so far.

Stephanie Lilley:

– Yeah. And I thought one of the best ways to talk about this might be my kind of emotional journey as it were and how, how I’ve seen, how that’s changed for me and kind of what I’ve realized about being a woman in sales as I’ve gone along. So I started out, as I said quite young in my early 20s, working in sales. And it was, you know, for me when I started in my career, like most people, you know, anything seemed to be possible. And I didn’t think there were any barriers to me doing anything. You know, I have a great education. I thought I was awesome and I thought I could do anything. And then on the first couple of years, you know, that, that was my career. I got promoted in line with what I expected and, and that seemed all fine. And I didn’t really think about there being any barriers. It never occurred to me, particularly in my early career that most of the time I was the only woman in the room surrounded by men almost all the time, whether that be with retailers or within my own business. And I only really, I suppose, came to that only really occurred to me as I sort of got a few years into my career. And then I moved through various accounts within the UK predominantly to begin with. And I worked in different sectors. I worked in health care and personal care. I also worked in households and I suppose the more senior I got, it became very clear to me that I didn’t see women in senior positions. I had no role models. Like I didn’t, there was nobody like me, on a more senior level. And really I found that, you know, at that kind of middle stage of my career to be quite disconcerting and quite disappointing, and I really didn’t see anybody in my own business I could look up to and I didn’t really see that many people, you know, in other businesses in the UK that I could look up to and, and I found that really difficult. And at the same time, I also started to notice around that time in my career that I was probably treated differently to, to some of my male counterparts. And it’s only with reflection that I really noticed that, I think at the time it was, I didn’t really compute why I felt like I was maybe a bit stunted in my progression, or I was a bit stunted in what was going on around me. And I didn’t feel like I was getting feedback that reflected what I needed to do. And I found the feedback in that part of my career, very conflicting as well. So, so, you know, that was kind of the middle stage of my career, where I really started to notice that there was potentially a barrier to me doing what I wanted to do. And I definitely changed myself at that point. So I started to change how I behaved, who I was, you know, what I stood for. And I think it made me, and I’m telling you this because I know this is the experience of a lot of women in, in my industry, made me quite miserable because I, I didn’t really, I wasn’t authentic anymore. Like I wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t who I was. And then, I went on this, RB as a company, went on this incredible journey, sort of around 2015-16. And I went on it with them, which was great for me. And I did this, there was a kind of, a bit of a moment turning point in my career for me, where I went on a leadership course. And for the first time ever, somebody asked me what kind of leader I wanted to be. And I was like, I don’t know, like, I don’t know what kind of leader I want to be because you know, this business has spent the last, however many years telling me what to do. And now you’re asking me what I want to be. And I haven’t got a clue because I’ve changed so much about myself to fit in with what I think I should be doing that now I don’t even know what that means. And so then I suppose I had, probably like two years of trying to find what made me happy and what made me comfortable and then realized that I, whilst what we believe to be a highly successful person in sales is ultra competitive, super-aggressive, you know, very outspoken and definitely an extrovert. All of these things are the things that we traditionally have said are the right things for a sales person. Actually that’s, some of those are true of me, but not all of them. Like I have quite a nurturing personality. I really care about people. And I really care about my team. And when I started to put those values at the front and center of what I do,  actually found myself in my first sales director role, which is what I’m doing now. And, and you know what, it has not stopped me from being a good sales director. And it has not stopped us as a business from achieving great results. And it means then that, you know, my team see a different way of being a sales director. They see a different way of being a leader. And hopefully it means that myself and other women like me around the world are showing that, that you can be a woman and be a good sales director. You can be a woman and get far in sales. Like, it’s not a one size fits all type.

Lauren Stiebing:

– Sure. Yeah.

Stephanie Lilley:

-And I guess coming down to the actual diversity and leadership styles, I think more and more companies are as well, seeing that you do need diverse styles of leadership that it kind of used to be like, “Hey, this is our corporate culture “and this means we have this type of leadership style, “but really opening that up to different types of styles.”

Lauren Stiebing:

-How do you think that senior leaders, ’cause senior leaders, meaning both men and women can help to support women to feel more comfortable and really be their authentic selves?

Stephanie Lilley:

– I think there are a couple of ways that you can really do that. The first one is around showing the way and what I’ve noticed in my company in the last kind of two years. And it’s been incredible when I know that it’s something that, you know, will be familiar to a lot of people. Is that senior leaders, and I did it all the time as well, show their vulnerability. Like they talk about what their development areas are. They talk about what they’re not comfortable with. They talk about the failures that they’ve had in their career. And they talk with humility. And it’s one of like, I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s such a huge, it makes people so much more confident. Like, if you look at leaders and all you see is this like unbreakable super-confident person who you think is perfect. You’ll never, you never think you can, like, how can you ever possibly achieve that? Like how? Whereas, if you see leaders who are, who say, “You know what, this, I need to work on this “because this I’m not great at.” “But over here, I’m really good at this.” “So you want to talk to me about this, please.” “Let’s let’s have a conversation.” “I think I can help you.” So that’s the first thing. The second thing as well, is all around making sure that people, that we never shut people down. And then I’m a massive believer that this starts with personalities, like starts with personality types. So we, you know, in, sales, in particular, as I was saying before, we, we in the past have recruited for a particular personality type. We’ve recruited for super confident people who are highly competitive because we believe that’s what we need in sales. Actually, if you look at a negotiation, which is one of the key, the key skills that you need to have as a sales person, you don’t want somebody who’s highly competitive because negotiations in our industry are not about winning or losing. If somebody loses, everybody loses. So actually, you know, when you start to break it down, is competitiveness what we really want? And then, you know, confidence, confidence is great, but it can very quickly straighten into arrogance, which makes it very difficult to build relationships with people, which is another key, core strength that you need in sales. So, you know, making sure that you have balance in the type of people, the type of personalities that you have in your team will naturally lead to having a more diverse team. And it will make both men and women feel more comfortable. So I’m a huge believer that those are the kinds of the two key things as a leader you can do to improve diversity in all sorts of ways within your sales organization.

Lauren Stiebing:

– Sure. And I mean, I think overall, like looking at sales is, is one area. And I think that role models, as you had mentioned before, like that you didn’t see a role model. I think that that’s key. And a lot of times when we were approached by different companies that really want to encourage diversity, all types of diversity or gender diversity, and then you look and all the senior leadership is one specific type of person. The board is one specific type of person. And they say like, “Yeah, we can’t get women to stay here.” And that’s always one of the, for me, the first thing is to recommend is like, you need to have senior women so that they can see a role model. What types of role models or coaches, or what types of people kind of supported you along your journey when you started realizing that, did you look to get that help outside or did it timing wise come right at the time when they started that  developmental program or?

Stephanie Lilley:

– Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. So what’s super interesting as well is it’s not just about having women in like more senior roles, it’s having women in roles that, what’s the phrase I’m looking for. Like, it’s basically put women in charge of the P&L. The biggest difference you can make is not just having women in senior roles, which by the way is great, but commercial decisions are largely what drives FMCG, which is the industry I work in. And therefore, you know, if you put women in charge of a P&L, you automatically provide a role model for people. So that’s the first, the first thing. What I did actually, yes, I did look externally for guidance. I’m very fortunate to know, you know, some, some women who work in quite high pressure environments, not necessarily within FMCG, but I have friends from university, particularly who are, you know, lawyers and teachers, and who do all kinds of things, which are very high pressure and, and who I look up to. So there’s, there’s, that is the first thing. But actually I, I found a couple of, within our HR community at RB, I found, you know, one or two women who are in very senior positions who whilst they weren’t necessarily a natural role model for me because they don’t do a similar kind of job, if that makes sense. They had some fantastic insights around my behavior, you know, how I could feel more comfortable around, you know, helping me to get over some of my development areas. And really, suppose the big thing was around being comfortable with the fact that if you’re the first, it doesn’t matter. Like somebody needs to be the first, right? We’ve had women do senior roles in this business. We’ve had CMOs who were women. We’ve had, you know, very senior women in finance. We’ve had very senior women in HR, just because we haven’t had a senior woman in sales doesn’t mean we won’t. It just means that there hasn’t been one yet. So, don’t worry about it basically. And now I’m, you know, I’m pleased to say we do. I mean, our chief commercial officer in the U.S.is a woman. And, you know, we have two female regional directors in the UK, in fact in the UK, in the hygiene business, we now have, you know, almost half of our management team is now women. So, you know, marketing and sales and regional director, all women, same on the health side. You know, we have a regional director and a marketing director who are both women. So, you know, flood gates kind of opening up at my company, which is great, but it was, it was more about me becoming comfortable with the situation, to be honest and going about going about that by talking to people that already were comfortable with the situation.

Lauren Stiebing:

– And I, myself really loves sales. I think it’s very interesting. And I would say to encourage other females to also go into the function, what would you say to them? Why do you like sales?

Stephanie Lilley:

– Oh, wow. Why do I like it? I mean, I like sales because I… Now I like it because of my team. I mean, I love my team. I like working with them on a day to day basis. They are great to work with. They always pick me up when I feel down. Like they’re a fantastic bunch of people who are achieving incredible things. When I first joined sales, when I worked on, you know, in accounts. And then when I worked in sales strategy, there’s an element also of liking, you know, of loving the people that I work with. And just enjoying that and enjoying being with people who, who wanted to make a difference for the business. That was one thing. But what I like about the function generally is no two days are ever the same in sales. It’s a massive cliche. A lot of people say about what they do, but genuinely it’s not the same. Like you come into work one day and you think you’re going to do this and your account phones you, and suddenly you’re not doing that anymore. You’re doing something completely different and you can, you know, more than any other function in, in, in, as a supplier, more than any other function, it has a direct impact on the numbers of the business. And you can see that tangibly, if you’re somebody that likes to like, see tangibly the results of your work, like you can really see that when you work in sales, because you have a P&L, and you have, you know, sales in the market and all that kind of stuff, and new products on the shelf that you can tangibly look at and say, I did that. Like I made that happen and I’ve always found it to be fun. Like I have a few values I try and live by. And one of them is to make sure I have fun because I spent too much time at work not to have fun.

Lauren Stiebing:

– Well, Steph thank you for your insights. I’m sure that there’ll be a lot of females listening to this and males as well, that will get excited about coming in to sales. And hopefully, you know, we all work together to, to make the function more equal. I’m sure it will be even more successful.

Stephanie Lilley:

– Absolutely.

Lauren Stiebing:

-Thank you very much.