SPORTS EPISODE 01: Microsoft Federal GM Christine Barger Shares Sales Leadership Insights She Gained as a Maryland Terrapin Division One Lacrosse Champion
CHRISTINE’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “There’s no “I” in team, that’s something I apply every day. I also feel like I don’t lose, I either win or I learn – that’s another thing that I apply every day. And I would say plan your work, work your plan and make sure that you’re grounded in what makes you feel passionate every day when you wake up and just enjoy and have fun.”
[NOTE: There’s a little bit of unintended background noise from the 15 minute mark on. Please ignore it. The content is great!]
Christine Barger is the general manager for Microsoft Federal where she leads a team of 85 sellers and technologists with responsibility for over a billion dollars in revenue.
She also played on the University of Maryland’s women’s lacrosse national championship team in 1992.
On this episode, she talks about the mindset of the champion and how you can apply it to sales leadership.
Find Christine on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Christine, it’s so good to have you back on the show. I really enjoyed our first conversation. I’m excited today just to focus on the sports angle, things you learned and I’m sure this is going to be of interest to the people listening around the globe but just to give a quick snapshot, tell us again what you do at Microsoft and then we’ll shift into the sports version.
Christine Barger: Fred, thanks for having me back, so excited to be back and chatting with you. I lead our sales and technical specialists in our federal market solely around productivity and cloud solutions as well as security and hardware.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Alright, so I mentioned that you were a Division 1 lacrosse player, give us a synopsis of your sports career, your journey and your highlights so people will get context for the next part of the podcast.
Christine Barger: Very interesting story about how I landed being a lacrosse player in college because I was actually recruited initially to University of Maryland as a field hockey player. I went there to start to play field hockey and started playing lacrosse and realized that I liked lacrosse better than field hockey as I moved through my career. At the time, Dr. Sue Tyler was the lacrosse coach and I went in and told her that I didn’t want to play field hockey anymore, that I was just going to play lacrosse.
I remember telling my high school coach that I was going to go ahead and move away from field hockey and I remember specifically her saying to me, “That’s interesting, because you’re not half as good as a lacrosse player as you are a field hockey player.” I remember that was a defining moment in my life to say, “I don’t really care what she thinks, I’m going to go be a lacrosse player and I’m going to do it well.” It was an interesting way to land because I was recruited to play a totally different sport.
Fred Diamond: For the people listening to the podcast, what are some of the differences between playing field hockey and lacrosse? What different type of skill do you need for lacrosse that you might not have needed for field hockey?
Christine Barger: I think a lot of the athletic prowess around eye and hand coordination still remain between field hockey and lacrosse. I think the lacrosse game is much more fast moving than the field hockey game mainly because it’s played in the air as opposed to on the ground for field hockey. A lot of the same principles around leadership and teamwork and collaboration and goal orientation is still the same regardless of sport. I guess my heart was leading me in a different direction.
Fred Diamond: Once again, for the people listening to the podcast you are a Division 1 lacrosse champion.
Christine Barger: Correct.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about that. You were at Maryland, when did you win the championship? Just tell us about that.
Christine Barger: It was such a great experience for me. My freshman year I remember playing, I started on second team my freshman year because I was not brought to Maryland to play lacrosse and quite frankly, they hadn’t even really scouted me for lacrosse. I went on to do fall ball and had an OK fall ball. The spring came and I started to get comfortable and I remember it was a week or so before our first game.
Ironically, it was against Penn State and Mandy O’Leary who’s now the head coach of Florida grabbed me out of practice and said I was the fastest person on the team. She came to me and she said, “There’s a woman that we want you to guard, her name is Diane Whipple from Penn State. You have to face guard her, your only job for the whole game is for her never to touch the ball.” I was playing second team so now I’m with basically juniors and seniors at Maryland who’ve been there forever playing and I’m tossed into the mix of this.
That was my first foray into first team or varsity, whatever you want to call it, Maryland lacrosse. Then I never went back down to the second team, I had stayed. I had a pretty good run of it, we were very good our freshman year. My sophomore year Cindy Timshal came in who is now the head coach of Navy and she came from Northwestern. Retooled the team a little bit and we made it to the semi-finals my sophomore year. Then we made it to the final game my junior year and we lost.
Then my senior year we made it back again and we actually ended up winning. Across my college career there were three pinnacle years, lessons learned throughout all of those years but very exciting times.
Fred Diamond: Who’d you beat for the finals?
Christine Barger: Harvard.
Fred Diamond: Harvard? Good for you.
Christine Barger: We were losing in half-time by 4 goals.
Fred Diamond: That’s incredible, that’s a large margin.
Christine Barger: I remember going back, we had scored one goal to get within 4 and I remember coming back to the circle getting ready to take the draw again, gathering my teammates around and saying, “We can do this, I know we can do this. We can win this game” and a different kind of energy generated on the field and we came back and we won in overtime.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about that moment. How much time was left in the game? You’re down by 4, was it?
Christine Barger: 4 and a half.
Fred Diamond: 4 and a half, and when did you have that moment? When did you gather the team together to say, “We can win this game”?
Christine Barger: I think it was 8-4 and when we scored our fourth goal and we came back to get the draw to try to get possession for the next sequence of events, I remember gathering everyone around the circle and just looking at everyone directly in the eye and saying, “We can do this. We have been preparing all year to do this and we can do this. We haven’t gotten this far the last two times. As a senior, I’m not losing.” [Laughs]
Fred Diamond: Did you believe that?
Christine Barger: Absolutely, 100%.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely, 100%. Could you see something different from the young ladies of Harvard that you were competing against? That you saw something that you knew that you could do it or did you just have confidence in the women who were on your team and how far you’ve come in this journey?
Christine Barger: I think quite frankly it was one of the only times over that whole year. Actually, I don’t ever think during my senior year we were ever trailing to anyone. We were very well coached and well prepared. Cindy was very meticulous in game preparation for the team both from a competitive perspective like scouting our other teams but also in our own preparation about what we were good at and focusing on what we were good at as our strength. We had never been in a deficit situation before, but I think the best thing that came out of that is that we knew that we were so prepared, that it was just a lag of execution for that brief moment and then we knew we were going to rally and come back.
Fred Diamond: Very good. You also mentioned Penn State a few moments ago without passing, congratulations, your daughter recently was accepted and committed to Penn State.
Christine Barger: She is, she’s going to play. She’s a senior at Notre Dame Prep this year and she’s going to play lacrosse at Penn State next year, so very excited about that.
Fred Diamond: Lacrosse has obviously been a big part of your family, your husband was also a player as well.
Christine Barger: My husband was a two-sport college athlete as well; he played soccer and lacrosse at Towson University. Then my son is also a lacrosse player for Crabs in Baltimore and then my little one plays for school.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got one quick question before we ask you some of the lessons that you’ve learned from the field. You mentioned that you went back to your high school coach and said, “I’ve made the decision. I’m going to go lacrosse versus field hockey” and she said, “I’m surprised because you’re not half as good at lacrosse” and you said you just shunted that aside. Do you still think about that or did you ever go back to her? Was that something that you held onto or was it just a passing comment on the way?
Christine Barger: I think it was a defining moment for me. As an individual – and I think I still carry that along – for people that I come to encounter in my life whether it’s business or professional to say that I can’t do something, if I really have a burning desire to do it, it just gives me the fuel and the fire to say, “I’ve done that before. People said I couldn’t do something and I continue to do what I want to do.”
A really good friend of mine is a mentor to me and she always says, “Just because it’s someone else’s path, doesn’t mean it has to be yours.” I keep that in the back of my mind and when people are nay-saying saying I can’t do something, I just reflect on all of the great things that I have been able to accomplish when people haven’t believed in one of my skills.
Fred Diamond: You’ve worked for Microsoft for a large part of your career and obviously it’s one of the most successful companies in the history of the planet, world-class at everything that it does and no one needs to know more about the history of Microsoft. Do you feel like an elite athlete working for Microsoft as a sales leader? Does that translate as well how you felt yourself on the lacrosse field, do you feel that way about representing such a strong, powerful brand like Microsoft?
Christine Barger: Yes. There’s a lot of pressure everywhere in this world and I feel like I dealt with that early in my life – pressure to perform, pressure to prepare and then an expectation of once you’re on top, how do you stay there. I would say perfect planning, plan your work, work your plan was always something Cindy was very big on. That’s something I coach all my folks, so you have to have a plan and then you’ve got to work your plan and if your plan’s not working you divert and do something different. You try different things and I feel like those experiences on the lacrosse field about having to morph and change so frequently based on game time situations have really helped me become the sales leader that I am because as market conditions change or skills change or come in and out of the organization, it gives me a platform to adapt quickly because I’ve had to do that my entire life.
Fred Diamond: I have a question. As a woman in sales, as a female sales leader – and obviously, you’re an elite sport performer – do you use sports analogies much when you lead your team? Quote Vince Lombardi or something or, “It’s the fourth quarter guys, we need to do this”?
Christine Barger: I think guiding principles for athletics I use, weaved into every message. I try to stay a little bit away from sports analogies just because in this type of world where diversity and inclusion is important and every perspective is unique and different, I never want to feel like I’m alienating anyone because maybe they didn’t play sports or maybe they don’t like sports, or maybe they don’t understand, they don’t know who Vince Lombardi is.
I would say definitely the guiding principle that I have for execution in my team and leadership principles that I feel are important, but I would say day to day sports analogies not so much.
Fred Diamond: When you’re out there on the field, take us back to your college days. Again, you had a great career in lacrosse all the way to the division 1 championship. Tell us what it feels like, because most people listening to the podcast today are successful sales leaders or they want to become Sales Game Changers, sales leaders. Tell us what it feels like on the field. You’re at that championship game, you’re down to 4 goals, what are you thinking? Are you present in the moment? They say that Wayne Gretzky used to always go where the type was going to be, type of a thing. Tell us what it feels like to be on that field in a championship game. What’s it, a 60 minute game, lacrosse?
Christine Barger: Yes.
Fred Diamond: What is it like? Then I want to know how does it translate to yourself as a sales leader. How has that presence, if you will, translate into what you need to do as a sales leader every day?
Christine Barger: I would say #1 is focus, being in the moment and being able to get really dialed in into the task of what you need to do. Not just me as one of the team members, it has to be everybody dialed in because it’s not like I could have won the game by myself but the diligence to remain focused and the passion to be successful. Just being dedicated to the craft, whatever your craft is you want to be successful at whatever you’re doing, to be dialed in and focused on that was probably the most important thing for me.
Then I would say the belief that your team member to your left and your right is supporting you 100%. If you missed a ball, if you missed a check, if someone had to drop off of another plan, play defense on someone else. If someone was tired, is someone was hurt, just remaining really present with your teammates to know that they have your back. I feel like I try to run my org like that, too. If someone’s not having such a great month or needs some extra help, it should be another teammate to come pick them up to make sure that we’re focused and that we’re supporting each other.
I would say those two things were super important to me.
Fred Diamond: That’s interesting, I always wondered this about elite sport performers. You’re at the top of your game – were you the captain of the team, by the way?
Christine Barger: I was one of the captains, yes.
Fred Diamond: One of the captains. Obviously you were a leader, you talked about your ascent. If someone doesn’t perform, let’s say somebody misses an assignment or they’re out of position or something like that, how do you feel as that’s happening? I’m curious as a manager, too. Obviously as a manager it’s a longer game, there’s ways to correct but how do you feel if you’re on the field and someone just flat-out misses an assignment or something?
Christine Barger: First of all, everyone’s going to make mistakes and it’s not so much the mistake that you made but it’s how you correct it and how you rebound the second time. We were never a team that if someone missed a ball or missed a check that we would get down on the other person, mainly because it’s the way that you respond to those types of adversity that really matters. We knew that if someone’s having a bad game or someone missed something we had the confidence in our team, in our teammates to say, “They’ll figure it out, they’ll adapt and they’re going to make it better for next time.”
Fred Diamond: I know that you’re obviously a tremendous preparer and that you wouldn’t have gotten to this level without that. Can you take me through your regimen before a game? Let’s say a typical game, I’ve always wondered. Let’s say the game starts at 7 o’clock at night, from 3 o’clock to 7 just tell us what you do. Did you have to get yourself psyched up, did you eat a certain meal? Then I just want to see how you could apply that to what you do as a sales leader.
Christine Barger: Our game preparation started several days before with competitive information about the team that we were playing and Cindy always did a very good job of making sure that we had our assignments a couple days leading up to the game. For example, if someone needed to guard their leading scorer and they were a left handed attacker, that they knew how to defend that person. Or if someone had a specific move that they did going to goal or a specific expertise that we are well prepared from a competitive perspective.
From an internal team perspective, how we got ready, the day before she was a big imagery person so we did mental imagery although when you’re in college and your coach puts on soothing music and they’re walking you through imagery exercises, we did spend a good amount of time laughing. That was humorous, but nonetheless that was a principle that she was very much into, guided imagery and imagining yourself executing what you need to be executing on the field that had a time in your mind.
Then game day was all about music for us, music and that’s how our team got pumped up. The game day we walked into it feeling prepared so then it was all about how do we raise the energy.
Fred Diamond: Thinking about the competition, not to date you but today, obviously there’s tons of video that you could see every game any of your competitors every played. You’re playing Harvard in the championship game as a senior, did you know the tendencies of everyone on Harvard? Again, this was before the prevalence of video all the video and smartphones and YouTube and things like that. Were you prepared at that moment from a “you know everything” about the ladies on the Harvard team?
Christine Barger: I would say for our specific assignments because not everybody can cover everyone but for my specific assignments I felt completely prepared where we would have a little bit of tape that we would watch, we would have other people go and watch their games. Depending on where you were on the field, what position you were playing and who you were guarding, you had your one or two people that were around your area that you felt prepared to take on.
I wouldn’t say I knew everyone, we knew the goalie, if the goalie liked to save high or low or if they were weak nonstick side hip or where we should put shot placement, we knew that. The whole team knew that, the whole team knew. Pretty much people that would take the draws which is how we started the game, people would know where the opponent would go ahead and normally target the draw as they did the draw so that would be a common theme. Then it was down to brass tacks of who you were guarding and what their strengths were and how to defend them.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you were exceptional at. Obviously you reach the pinnacle of your college lacrosse career and you played in the championship game which you won. Tell us what you were specifically amazing at and then relate that to sales. As a sales leader, what is something that you’re particularly tremendous in as a sales leader?
Christine Barger: That’s an interesting question. I would say what I was known for on the field was speed #1 and defense of technique would be #2. I would say how that translates into my professional experiences day to day is I am a person that does many things at speed. This isn’t very good, but I don’t have a lot patience for sometimes slowness which could be a detriment to me as well, it’s a little bit of a blind spot because I’m used to doing everything at speed.
Sometimes you’ve got to slow down to speed up as well, so I always keep that in mind. That’s been a blessing and a curse a little bit from the speed perspective. Then I think the defender part of that is all around competitiveness I think, for me. The mindset of that person can never get the ball, they will never get the ball, they won’t beat me, I will dominate them [laughs] on the field and I feel that pulls through a results oriented for me. A little bit of perfection which isn’t always a good thing either but definitely the competitiveness.
Fred Diamond: Curiously, are there any women that you played with that you also have encountered in your career? Have any of them gone into sales leadership or have any of them become competitors?
Christine Barger: Yes. I have a couple of points. It’s been interesting because like I said, my daughter is a senior in high school so a lot of my friends who I played with over the course of my career are now college courses. During my daughter’s recruiting process I got to visit with a lot of my friends and my daughter always used to joke, “Is this about you, mom, and your social hours is about me?” That would be the first thing. Then interestingly enough I just ran into my friend Deb Cupp who I played against, she played at Richmond and I played at Maryland and we also went to a little bit of rival high schools. Our paths have just crossed and she works at Microsoft as well.
Fred Diamond: Very good.
Christine Barger: It’s been great to encounter some other top performing female athletes.
Fred Diamond: How did you improve over time as a lacrosse player, how did you keep getting better? To reach the Division 1 championship game as one of the captains of the team, you made the transition from originally being invited to University of Maryland as a field hockey player. Of course, you shifted over to lacrosse, you continually progressed your career. How did you improve and how do you work with sales professionals to get them to make continuous improvements so they can move up from entry level positions to account management to first line management to eventually senior management?
Christine Barger: How did I improve? I think as you start to mature as an athlete, your mindset flips from “I” to “we” and it’s not all about just your performance on the field but it’s about your performance coupled with how do you make your other teammates great. I think that translates nicely from a leader perspective because as you’re an individual contributor the results are all about what you’ve been able to achieve and then as you move into a leadership position you’re empowering others to be great.
I think that experience translates pretty directly from what I specifically experienced on the field and how I embraced going from the, “It’s all about me” to, “It’s all about we” and we collectively achieving a goal. I think that type of coaching for any type of teammate is important, even if you’re an individual contributor because you’re always going to need a supporting staff around you at any time or teammates to accomplish your goal. I think it expanded for me even outside of just the teammates on the field but the “we went to our coaching staff”, the “we went to our equipment managers”, the “we went to our trainers”, the “we went through people that would make sure that we were fed well, strength and conditioning coaches.”
The “we” as you start to elevate your career and elevate your knowledge or comfortableness of being in the situation, you can see that the “I” goes away and the “we” that you even though could have been just team related starts to expand as well. Those people all working together helping to push towards a common goal is pretty much the coaching that I give most of my folks.
Fred Diamond: One thing that we know is that sales is hard. Of course, you work for Microsoft, you’ve been at Microsoft for a long time and obviously hugely successful and you’re running a hugely successful organization now, but it’s hard and you don’t win every gig. You have some tremendous competitors right now, obviously we all know who they are and you’ve dealt with various competitors over time. You won the championship as a senior which means you didn’t win it as a junior, sophomore or freshman.
Christine Barger: That’s correct [laughs].
Fred Diamond: Very few teams have had perfect records. Of course, the last team in the NFL was the Dolphins in 1972. How did you deal with break down? How did you deal with not just the loss but a heartbreaking loss? Then curiously, how have you related that to the business world, where you’ve just lost a big deal? Tell us about what you learned from the sports field and how that applied to the business world.
Christine Barger: I think what translates pretty nicely is the type of coaching style that Cindy had at Maryland was not one of if we were doing something wrong – I’m not saying she didn’t yell at us, because we got our fair share of getting yelled at – but it was more around creating that environment to learn why we weren’t performing our best. I think Satya (Nadella, Microsoft CEO) has done a really great job over the last couple of years of transitioning our culture. We’re still very results oriented, don’t get me wrong, but when things aren’t going the best way that they can go, focusing on what we’re learning, what’s the business outcome and what are we learning from it in order to transform doing something different, doing something a better way.
I think it translates pretty nicely is the way that I was coached and brought up on the athletic fields during my college career and how that translates over to my selling career because obviously you’re not going to win every deal but it’s about what you learn from it, what’s the experience you learn from it and how do you package that up and make it better for next time.
Fred Diamond: You’re obviously up to some great things at Microsoft. Again, you could go back and listen to our original podcast with Christine at www. salesgamechangerspodcast.com/christinebarger but why don’t you tell us about one or two things that you’re working on right now that excites you? Do you get the same passion working on the stuff right now that you’re focused on as compared to the ascent to that Division 1 championship game?
Christine Barger: Yes, I think my personal tagline for myself is I’m a builder, I’m not an optimizer. I love to build things, I love to transform teams, I love being the thick of new technology, I love to develop people, anything that I’m doing to build something whether it’s someone else’s individual career or building a relationship with a customer or partner or getting a deal done. That’s my sweet spot.
My passion for right now is all about security, I am super passionate about that. I feel like it is the anchor to Microsoft success both in the present and in the future. I personally am not the strongest in security right now so I’m in a immerse myself learning mode for that which is how I thrive and where I feel most passionate about. That’s where I’m really focused right now, trying to make an impact on the security space.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought or two or anything else that we might have missed over the course of the interview that you think is pertinent to the Sales Game Changers around the world to understand?
Christine Barger: I would say a couple of things. I’m kind of goofy, so I do things in three’s. I would say there’s no “I” in team, that’s something I apply every day. I also feel like I don’t lose, I either win or I learn, that’s another thing that I apply every day. Then I would say plan your work, work your plan and make sure that you’re grounded in what makes you feel passionate every day when you wake up and just enjoy and have fun.
Fred Diamond: I’m going to follow up on that one quick time. Whenever someone says, “I’m a big planner as well” but a lot of times…
Christine Barger: My family would say that I’m a huge planner [laughs]. That I need to release a little bit on the planning, I’m very scripted but…
Fred Diamond: What would be some of your advice along the way for the sales leaders or sales professionals listening if things don’t quite go as planned?
Christine Barger: I would say the athletic analogy transitions really nicely into the professional analogy which is what I talked about, the team. The team isn’t just your immediate teammates, it can be your trainers, etcetera. One of the things that I’m very diligent about even in my career and I coach others to think about is who is in their network similar to “who is on my team”. Not just my teammates, but who are all the people that I could tap into for help to be a high performing athlete, and I try to coach people the same way making sure that you’re reaching outside of your immediate network of people that you could reach out to touch to get feedback or thoughts or diversity of thought on what you’re trying to do.
It’s always been super successful for me because it’s amazing what you learn from different types of people that aren’t even in your industry but you can get some really interesting knowledge and things to apply to help you be more successful.