EPISODE 296: Women in Sales: Agile Selling Expert Amy Franko Explains Why the Jungle Gym Approach to Your Sales Career is the Way to Go

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the WOMEN IN SALES Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Gina Stracuzzi on October 27, 2020. It featured sales expert Amy Franko.]

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EPISODE 296: Women in Sales: Agile Selling Expert Amy Franko Explains Why the Jungle Gym Approach to Your Sales Career is the Way to Go

AMY’S INSIGHTS FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “See your career as a jungle gym versus a ladder straight up. Especially for women in sales and women in really any role, our careers take winding paths. There is almost never a straight up type of career path so it’s taking on a different mindset and then set an action that says, “I’m going to see my career as this very holistic thing, it’s not just this small slice point in time here.” You are trying out different things on the jungle gym. You might be going sideways, you might be going up, you might actually be going down, it’s a different visual and a different approach that says, “I’m going to take on different things in my career to build skills and not necessarily just be focused on what’s the next rung up on the ladder.”

Gina Stracuzzi: Thank you, Fred. As always, lovely intro. I’m really excited about our conversation here today, I know Fred has had Amy on his show before but we’re going to take this down the alley of how extraordinarily agile women are and what we can do to really exercise that talent and put it to work for us in sales. I hope you’ll stick around, we have a great conversation coming up. Without any further ado, I would like to welcome my guest Amy Franko. Amy, I have been dying to have you on the program so I can’t tell you how excited I am that you are here, welcome and please tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Amy Franko: Thank you so much, Gina, it’s great to be here with you and with everybody in the audience. About myself, I’m the CEO of Amy Franko Associates and we work primarily with professional services organizations, technology organizations, mid-market on sales strategy and sales skill development. Those are the two areas that I love to spend my time in and a little bit about my background, the first 10 years of my career I spent in tech. I grew up in technology and I worked for companies like IBM and Lenovo and I had all client facing roles and sales roles. That was the first 10 years of my career and then from there I took a pivot into entrepreneurship and for the last nearly 14 years I have run a firm and it has grown and evolved and had to be agile over the years, which is the topic of today’s conversation, what it looks like today is sales strategy and skill development. I love what I get to do every day, I love the conversations I get to have with people like yourself and it’s a real pleasure to be here.

Gina Stracuzzi: Thank you. I love hearing people say that they get such joy out of their work, all too often I think we get into ruts and we just show up and do our job and it doesn’t bring us any joy or excitement. Anything that we can do to help other people gives me a lot of fire and I get very excited, I can tell from the way you speak that you get the same excitement out of lighting people up and helping them excel their careers which is phenomenal.

Amy Franko: I do, and we’ll get into way more of that part of the conversation. Finding what it is that lights us up professionally, personally so we can show up and make an impact, I’m passionate about that and we will share lots of ideas in today’s conversation for everybody watching and listening.

Gina Stracuzzi: Without further ado, why don’t we get started?

Amy Franko: I have some slides here to show everybody and we’ll just use these to guide the conversation. Then Gina will jump in and add extra points as we go or jump in with questions.

This is what I have on the agenda for us to talk about today. For those of you that maybe caught my sales agility conversation with Fred last month, there will be a few things that I pull from that conversation. We’ll talk about what exactly agility means and we’ll put it in the context of your sales career. We’ll start there and then I’m going to talk about this approach. I wish I had coined this term, I learned this term from Pattie Sellers who was the Editor in Chief of Fortune Magazine at the time talking about this idea of a jungle gym approach to our careers. We’ll talk about that, what that means and why it’s better than a ladder approach. Then all throughout the conversation I’ll be sharing some specific ways that you can build your agility and it really doesn’t matter if you are new in your career, this is day 1 or this is day 10,000 of your career. You’ll walk away with some specifics that you can put into your sales life, your personal life to help you build agility. That’s what we have on the docket for today.

The place I’d love to start our conversation is this idea of skills evolution. This was research that was done by the Center for Creative Leadership and it gives some really good food for thought as to how the skills that we need to be building and what we need to be bringing to our organizations, how it’s changed. If we go back about 25 years, the #1 skill that organizations were looking for was technical mastery, you needed to have your technical expertise in your discipline, that was the #1 thing that they were looking for. If you fast-forward about 20 years you see how that has started to change and you see topics like learning agility start to make its way onto the list, you see adaptability and versatility there in the #5 spot and the thing I take away from this is the idea that our technical mastery is somewhat assumed and it’s something we have to continually be focused on. Paying attention to these other really important business skills and personal skills like agility, adaptability and versatility that have made their way onto the scene. Then if we look ahead, we’re almost at 2022, my friends. It’s hard to believe but you see where adaptability and versatility has made its way to the top of the list here and this is a skill that we have to be developing in ourselves if you are in a leadership role hiring for this skill in our teams, it’s really critical.

Gina Stracuzzi: If I may jump in right now with a question, this is something I thought about when you went over this when you were talking with Fred. How do you think that the growth of women in the workplace, especially as it applies to sales, has helped drive these changes in what you see as the top skills?

Amy Franko: That’s an interesting question. I would say that the need for not just women in sales but women in sales leadership and having more diversity of whether it’s gender diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity of thought, skill, having more balanced teams and more diversity on our teams is leading to this need for agility, for some of the other skills that you’ve seen there. When I think back to my career, I probably had the anomaly in my career when I worked at IBM. I was an individual contributor, I was a seller, I had a sales quota, my first, second and third line leaders were all women at a particular point in my career. Even today, I talk to other leaders or other people in the field and that is not necessarily the case so I have to remember that my experience is probably a little different than some other experiences.

We have to raise our hands to be in this field, before we jumped on I would say this is the best field I could have fallen into and we have to really hone and be aware of the path that we want to be taking. We can’t just leave it to chance, we have to think about it strategically and really figure out what we want. When we do that and we get into these leadership roles, these things like agility, relationship building, adaptability, we bring these skills to the table. I’m not saying men don’t bring them too, but these are some of the innate things that we bring to the table that can make teams more high-performing.

Gina Stracuzzi: 2020 was going to be the year of women in sales, things went a little differently than we all planned so now, looking at this list I think we have to make 2022 the year of women in sales where we rocket the number of women in leadership.

Amy Franko: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about what agility means and I talked about sales agility, I’m going to put this definition of sales agility on the screen here which is the ability to strategically and decisively pivot so you can grow sales and best-serve your clients. Strategically and decisively are very key words here when it comes to agility because when you know how they talk about some of your greatest strengths also being your greatest weaknesses? Agility when it’s productive can have amazing results but agility when it is not done strategically or we are making strong decisions that we are willing to see through for a time, you start to feel like you’re running in circles. That’s the down side of being too agile if there is such a thing. I thing of agility as strategically and decisively pivoting in sales but also in your career, the same definition applies to our careers. As you are thinking about where you’re headed into the future, thinking strategically and also making really strong decisions about the types of projects that you want to take on, the types of roles that you want to be having in the future, the types of networks that you’re building, these are all different ways that you could be thinking strategically and making decisions about where you want to head into the future.

This is a question to be thinking about. I talk about this question quite a bit when it comes to relationship building and strategic networking, “What comes first, mindset or action?” I jokingly say that if you’re waiting to be struck by a motivational lightning bolt, it’s probably not going to happen [laughs]. In order to build a mindset – it’s a little chicken and the egg – often times we have to take action first so if this is something that is a new concept to you, taking the ideas that we talk about today and acting on them will help to build the mindset because they really do go hand in hand, agility mindset and the actions that we take.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s interesting advice, I hadn’t actually thought of it in that respect before. I think we tend to imagine that our mindset leads our actions, how we think about it will drive what we do. I like the idea of stepping back and just going with your first thought about the action and then using your mindset to support it.

Amy Franko: It’s really kind of a paradox because I believe you have to make the decision that you want to do these things. If you don’t quite have the mindset but you know that you want to build it, taking the actions and doing some things differently, seeing the results,  learning from them, what worked, what didn’t work, picking yourself back up, re-applying, trying again, those are all the things that build the mindset. It’s definitely not one or the other, they both go together but if the mindset around agility is a challenge, whether it’s for you individually or maybe you’re already leading a team, look at the action and the behaviors first because if you tweak some behaviors, it can feedback into the mindset.

Let’s talk about some strategies here, what are some things that you can be doing to actually build this agility in your career? The first one is around building business acumen and this is really about what’s your understanding level about the business that you’re in. Are you in a business that you want to be in? Building business acumen, thinking about the industry and the business that you’re in, is it an industry or a business that you love to be in? Like I said, I grew up in tech and I really enjoy being in tech, it was fun, it was fast-paced, it was interesting, I was always learning something and then I took a bit of a pivot into entrepreneurship and that opened up a whole new set of skills that I had to be learning and a whole new set of clients that I was working with. Are you feeling challenged by the industry that you’re in?

Are you passionate about it or interested in it? Then getting to know everything you can about the business that you’re in. Do you know the business that you’re in? Do you understand the clients of the business that you’re in and do you understand what their big challenges are? Building your business acumen is an excellent way to build your agility, not just your sales agility but also your career agility because that will open up other paths of thought, it will open up other opportunities and relationships that might take you on some interesting paths in your career. Let me stop there and see if there are any questions or anything on that that you want to dig into a little bit further.

Gina Stracuzzi: Sharon wonders how not having the business acumen that you’re outlining affects your mindset and then your ability to act.

Amy Franko: That’s a great question. I think those three things are all really tied together, your business acumen ties to your mindset which ties to your actions and again, it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg. If you’re looking to build the mindset and you want something to focus on, this is an action, focus on learning everything that you can about your industry and really thinking strategically about the industry that you’re in. Do you want to grow your expertise in it? That feeds to your business acumen which can then feed to your mindset. I think they’re all three connected, it’s a great question.

Gina Stracuzzi: Sharon said thank you. As you say that it’s kind of chicken and the egg that if you’re not feeling the drive to learn more about your business and really become an expert in it, then perhaps you’re not in the right industry. The chicken never gets to the egg or vice-versa, you know what I mean? [Laughs]

Amy Franko: I would agree with that and it’s one of those things that if the industry that you’re in drives your interest, you want to keep learning more, that’s also a hallmark of agility too, is you want to dive in and learn more. You want to grow your knowledge because the only way that you are going to grow that knowledge is by diving in and learning more and I’ll talk about some other ways that you can learn more about your career, your industry, etcetera. But if the interest isn’t there then it’s really hard to make the other things go, it’s hard to cultivate the mindset, it’s hard to cultivate the behavior so they’re all very much connected.

I’ll share a couple more things here on acumen and these are all connected as well, this first one is definitely connected to the interest in your industry. To have more agility and mobility in your career, building your skills in things like go-to-market strategy, revenue generation – which is perfect for those of us in sales – or finance disciplines, these are disciplines that if you build your skills in, they round out your resume and can really open up additional opportunities for you. For those of us that are in sales that you have revenue generation as part of your tool kit already or if you aspire to be in sales – there might be some people listening today that aspire or are interested in a sales career – these are skills that will serve you so far beyond just the role that you’re in today. Take a look at where you’re at today, do you have marketable skills in these disciplines? If not, this is an opportunity for you to build your business acumen and therefore your agility.

I’ll share the last one here which is to take an improv class and this one might be a little bit unexpected and I’ll explain more. I do a lot of work or research in executive presence and there are lots of things that make up executive presence and executive presence is a big part of your agility plan as well and helping you to move in your career. Taking an improv class builds these very specific communication skills that you need in order to have that agility. One of the hallmarks of executive presence is strong communication skills, being able to speak off the cuff, being able to be approachable, being able to think quickly on your feet and formulate answers and that confidence that you know it when you see it. Somebody walks into that room whether it’s in person or virtual these days, they have that confidence, they can hear a question or hear a comment and be able to speak off the cuff, that’s being able to improvise.

If this is something that you’d like to get better at, that confidence and speaking off the cuff, this helps you to build agility and build your communication skills, taking an improv class will do wonders for you. This was many years ago now but I actually took an improv class at Second City in Chicago and it was really cool, they had an improv class for people in business and it just caught my attention. This was probably a decade ago that I did this, I went to Chicago and got to spend the day at Second City learning different types of improv techniques and we had to get on the stage with our workshop buddies, we had to do improv. It was so far out of my comfort zone, Gina, not something I was ever used to doing but it really changed my viewpoint and helped me to be so much more confident and to be able to process things quickly and to share my ideas. I highly recommend it if this is something that you’d like to work on, that communication.

Gina Stracuzzi: Gene S. asks if you know of any improv classes online.

Amy Franko: That’s a good question. I don’t have any that come to mind online but I know that improv has become much more mainstream even in the 10 years since I’ve been practicing it. I don’t have any that come to mind online but I think probably with a few searches you can find quite a bit out there.

Gina Stracuzzi: Second City might even have something online at this point.

Amy Franko: That’s what I was just thinking, yes, you might check that but it’s much more mainstream than it was a decade ago.

Gina Stracuzzi: A lot of different trainers will suggest improv for a number of reasons, stage fright or just anything to get over ourselves, have fun and get more relaxed. It’s good advice and it’s fun.

Amy Franko: You reminded me of a statistic, Meridith Elliott Powell – I know she’s been on this show before as well or at least part of this whole programming – she has been doing some research in how to adapt and thrive in uncertainty and your comment just reminded me of something that she shared recently on LinkedIn. I’ll paraphrase it here but the idea being that business leaders and CEOs, they would rather know that something bad is happening versus having to live in uncertainty of not knowing what’s happening. That was so fascinating to me because part of agility is being able to have a comfort level with uncertainty and a confidence in the fact that even though things are uncertain and they always will be, that we have the capability and the relationships and what we need in order to make a good go-forward plan. Your comment just reminded me of that which I thought was so fascinating.

Gina Stracuzzi: It makes me think that everyone should go out and take an improv class right now because we certainly have a lot of uncertainty, it might help us all deal with it and just have a laugh while we’re doing it.=

Amy Franko: [Laughs] great. Are there any other questions or any other comments? I’ll just take a pause here before I share a couple of other things.

Gina Stracuzzi: Lacy would like to know, “When it comes to executive presence, how do you get started or how do you know if you’ve got it or don’t have it, and what can you do about it if you feel like you don’t have it?”

Amy Franko: That’s a good question. Executive presence is one of those things when you know it when you see it but it’s a little hard to define and put concrete terms around it. There’s some great research that was done by the Center for Talent Innovation. Sylvia Hewlett, I believe she’s retired now but she founded and led that organization for a number of years and she does quite a bit of research in the realm of executive presence. That’s a resource to learn more about executive presence that I would definitely recommend but I think of executive presence, it’s this combination of things and when I’m talking with my clients about it, I put it into a few buckets. The first bucket which we’ve talked about a little bit is that business acumen bucket, there is a communication bucket and then there’s also what I call vitality and then there’s impact.

Vitality being the energy with which you show up and do you show up in a way that says, “I am able to take on any of these elevated challenges”? Your impact being, “What are the results that I’m creating? What’s the legacy I’m leaving and how am I actively creating that right now?” There are a lot of things that go into executive presence but I think a short answer to that question is if you want to be honing that set of skills, working on your communication is a great place to start. Like we talked about, taking an improv class or any other type of communication class. Even right now, agility with having to be confident on video, we were talking about that before we went live. Confidence on video, confidence in these virtual environments, those all play into executive presence too but I would say if you’re looking for a place to start, working on your communication skills whether it is in front of people like what we’re doing right now, it is your written communication skills – so critical in the age of texting. That’s where I would start, I’d start with your communication.

Gina Stracuzzi: We have three requests to repeat the name of that book.

Amy Franko: It’s actually an organization, it’s called the Center for Talent Innovation. Actually, Sylvia Hewlett was the founder of it and she does have a book on executive presence. [Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success] If you Google Center for Talent Innovation or you Google Sylvia Hewlett, you’ll find her work on EP.

Gina Stracuzzi: I have my own question that came to mind while you were talking about executive presence. People who perhaps have a great deal of executive presence in person, are you finding that some of those people are suffering a little bit in the virtual environment? If any of our listeners are one of those people, do you have advice as to how people can get back their mojo, so to speak?

Amy Franko: There are some people that are just so phenomenal and so engaging in person and then they get into a virtual environment, I see a lot when they have to be on camera, there’s something about that little light coming on on the camera that just freezes them right up [laughs] and it’s like they’ve lost their mojo in that moment. I would say that right now us being forced into these virtual environments a bit and having to build our comfort level with video not having a choice to do it has been fantastic for building these skills. When you have a choice you’re going to do the stuff you’re comfortable with, that’s just our human nature but just by having to be in these virtual environments we’re having to get comfortable with being uncomfortable so I’ve seen improvement by virtue of that. In terms of things to work on, if you’re someone who really excels in in-person, it’s always my personal preference, I love to meet with people. If you’re someone who excels like that but now you’re finding yourself feeling challenged in a virtual environment I would push yourself as much as you can in any meetings that you have to turn the camera on and to use those technology tools and get comfortable with them because they’re here to stay. They’re not going to go away even when we are back in person so this is mindset versus action, you’ve got to make the choice that says, “I know I’m really uncomfortable with this but I’m going to do it anyway” and then you’re going to see that you make it through, the only way out is through. That’s going to start to build your mindset. That’s one thing that I would suggest, you’ve got to get comfortable with the camera and just do it.

I’m doing a quick time check here and I had a couple things I wanted to make sure that I hit on. I want to hit on this jungle gym versus ladder concept so let me flip back over to my slides here.

Gina Stracuzzi: The first time you and I spoke and we talked about that, the visual just worked for me.

Amy Franko: I heard about this phrase, like I mentioned, from Pattie Sellers who was the Editor in Chief at Fortune Magazine at the time, I bet you I heard this phrase a decade ago, Gina and it has always just stuck with me. The idea of seeing your career as a jungle gym versus a ladder straight up. Especially for women in sales and women in really any role, our careers take winding paths. There is almost never a straight up type of career path so it’s taking on a different mindset and then set an action that says, “I’m going to see my career as this very holistic thing, it’s not just this small slice point in time here.” When you look at it as a jungle gym, when you’re playing on the jungle gym you are trying out different things on the jungle gym. You might be going sideways, you might be going up, you might actually be going down, it’s a different visual and a different approach that says, “I’m going to take on different things in my career to build skills and not necessarily just be focused on what’s the next rung up on the ladder.”

I think about myself as an example, very early on in my career I was in tech and I had a role where I was a database administrator and I did some programming. While I could do the job, it wasn’t something that I loved to do, I was not passionate about making this my career. I loved technology but I just did not want to be doing that type of role. A good example of a jungle gym is I actually left my IT consulting job and I took a lower paying role to get into IBM to start my career there. Had I thought about just taking the career ladder on up, I wouldn’t have taken that role but what I saw was the bigger picture of opportunity so I said, “In order to grow my career in the bigger picture I’m going to take this role, it’s a little bit of a lower paying role but it’s going to help me build the skills and it’s going to help me get my foot in the door.” That’s just an example for my own life of taking the jungle gym philosophy and making choices today but thinking big picture about where I wanted to be in the future.

Gina Stracuzzi: Just thinking about it, you have to be much more agile to make your way around a jungle gym than straight up a ladder.

Amy Franko: Yes, that’s awesome.

Gina Stracuzzi: This works for your analogy.

Amy Franko: [Laughs] thank you, that’s perfect. You do have to have agility and maybe some athletic ability on the jungle gym and to delve a little bit further on that, there has to be a little bit of a sense of fearlessness. When you see kids playing on a jungle gym or on a playground like in this image, they’re not worried about who’s watching them, they aren’t worried about trying something and falling down if it doesn’t work, they just get back up and they go right back up the slide, they’ll climb up that slide backwards. I think we can learn something from this jungle gym analogy, a little bit of fearlessness and having to set aside our discomfort of what we should be doing versus what we want to be doing.

Gina Stracuzzi: And I think we get caught up in the “I should be going just up.” It really makes a difference between what you’re trying to achieve, what your life is presenting. I love this analogy.

Amy Franko: Sometimes you have to take a downward step or a sideway step in order to grow upwards and it just opens our eyes maybe a little bit differently to what the opportunities are, we’ll learn something that maybe we didn’t even think that we’d be learning.

With the few minutes that we have left here, let me share a few ideas for everybody listening on what are some things that you can do to build your own jungle gym. One is strategic side projects, are there projects – in your organization ideally would be great – that can help you build skills that you want to be building? Give some thought to what the skills are that you need to be building. Back to our earlier conversation about go-to-market strategy, revenue generation, finance, some of those major skills for building business acumen. Are there some side projects in your organization that you could raise your hand for or side projects in a nonprofit that you volunteer for that you can raise your hand for? Give some thought to what strategic projects you might be interested in taking on and I’ll use myself as an example here in just a moment and it ties to this second point about board service.

I didn’t share this in my intro but I’m the board share for Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartlands and we serve 18,000 girls in central and southern Ohio. I’ve been a part of this organization for 6-7 years now and I’m in my first term as board share. This is a strategic side project and board service all wrapped up into one because it helps me to give back to something I’m really passionate about, we talk about impact when it comes to executive presence. It also helps me to build some really important skills that I want to be building for the future because private company board service is something I want to do more of so I’m laying the foundation now to do that for the future. I’ve had an opportunity to serve on committees that I would not have had, finance being one of them, I don’t have a finance background but being on the finance committee of this organization has helped me to hone some skills. That’s just a quick real-life example for me about blending things I’m passionate about and want to make an impact with, with what I’d like to do in the future and the skills that I want to be building. We all have a finite amount of hours in the day so we have to choose very carefully about where we’re investing our time.

The other one is your relationship building, what relationships are you building inside your organization and outside of your organization? When I left IBM, Lenovo to start my own firm what I realized was I had great relationships inside the organization but what I lacked were community relationships and other types of relationships in my network. I had some big gaps to fill in order to build the right relationships and to advance my new endeavor. I always love to share with people, “Don’t make my mistake, build relationships that you need in your organization and outside your organization now. Always be cultivating that because you will serve your network and your network will serve you in the future.”

Gina Stracuzzi: There’s so much great advice these days that I wish I had starting out my career.

Amy Franko: I know, me too.

Gina Stracuzzi: There are so many things I would have done differently [laughs] but I wouldn’t be sitting here having this great conversation with you so it all ends like it should.

Amy Franko: [Laughs] for sure, and I often get asked, “What’s the one skill that you think has served you really well throughout your career?” and the answer is so easy, it’s my sales skills. Having been in the sales field and continuing to be in the sales field, it looks different today than it did 15 years ago, the type of work that I’m doing but that ability has served me so well in so many capacities. If you’re someone here who’s listening that has an interest in a sales career, I wholeheartedly encourage you to pursue that interest. If you’re in a sales career now, continue on the path and find those things that really light you up about the career because you’ll be so successful with it.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think we have just two or three minutes left, we did have a question along those lines. Carrie wanted to know what you did to help build your career from the beginning and I think you just answered that question. You stayed with sales which offers women so much flexibility and freedom, which is one of the things that was always attractive to me. One of the things that always made selling interesting for me is that if you’re inquisitive – maybe nosy is a better word [laughs] – like, “What are you doing? Tell me about that, are you happy there? Are you making a lot of money?” That’s how I moved into different organizations and different industries, because I just would ask questions. Pretty much what you just laid down there a minute ago, it’s keeping your interest alive and figuring out what lights you up, as you said. It really makes all the difference.

Amy Franko: Curiosity, being curious, asking questions, “What if…? What would this look like?” and always having that curiosity.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. If you could leave our audience with one or two actionable items that they could do today or this week to really get their agile juices going, what would you recommend?

Amy Franko: From our conversation here today, the first thing I would recommend is to think through which of the ideas or strategies really struck you the most. Is there one that really stood out? I would start there with that one that stood out.

The second thing that I would say is look for those strategic side projects or board service opportunities that can help you hone the skills that you want to hone for the future.

Gina Stracuzzi: And it gives you greater exposure too.

Amy Franko: For sure.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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