EPISODE 085: Christine Barger Tells How Being a Collegiate Lacrosse Champion Helped Her Exceed Her Billion Dollar Sales Goals at Microsoft
CHRISTINE’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Do what inspires you, spend time and invest the time in yourself getting grounded in understanding what you love to do and where you provide value, and realize that your path isn’t the same as the person next to you. You chart your own path.“
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.
A large part of her mission is helping the Federal customer implement Microsoft cloud solutions to help the government customer modernize and achieve their mission.
She’s a technology sales leader with over 20 years’ experience. She’s also a graduate of the University of Maryland where she played on the University of Maryland’s women’s lacrosse national championship team in 1992.
Find Christine on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about what you specifically sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Christine Barger: I’m in the cloud business today and Microsoft, we’re very fortunate to be very well positioned in the marketplace for all of cloud technologies. My specific focus for my group is on the modern workplace or productivity solutions, so what does that mean for folks?
People that are using collaboration tools in the marketplace, email, they’re using instant messaging, presents and voice technologies as well as Windows and newly added to the portfolio is our hardware offering which before this position I spent four years creating the market, me and my team creating the market for hardware, for the public sector across Microsoft so we have that added to the portfolio so you think about it from the endpoint all the way to the cloud helping make people more productive.
Christine Barger: If you’ve heard in the marketplace anything about Surface, we have a variety of form factors. We have tablets, we have a laptop form factor and then reaching to our largest form factor which is 85 inches which is called our surface hub which is a productivity tool that people use to collaborate with teams across the world, the country and anywhere that they may be to go ahead and conduct business.
Fred Diamond: We mentioned that you’re also the general manager here at Microsoft Federal. Tell us specifically who you sell to. Who actually is the customer that you’re bringing these solutions to?
Christine Barger: Historically, Microsoft has focused mostly on the IT customer within the federal government so any large civilian department of defense system integrators fall under my per view as well as our national security group practice we have as well. It spans the whole segment of the federal government. The type of people that we are traditionally talking to in the past has been IT and now we’re making a big push to go ahead and really focus on helping our federal customers achieve the mission within their organizations.
That’s allowed us to go ahead and branch out to have all kinds of great discussions with people that are specifically managing programs to help better citizen access, help secure the country, really at the heart of what this country stands for with regards to all around the missions for the government space.
It’s gotten us beyond IT. We’re getting to partner more with those types of folks and that’s really exciting because it allows us to see our solutions that we create at Microsoft come to life in our customer’s environments.
Fred Diamond: Microsoft has been selling to the federal government probably since its inception.
Christine Barger: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been here personally 20 years. I know that when Bill (Gates) and Steve (Ballmer) were around, I was around at the same time and Steve was actually one of the sponsors for one of our large Department of Defense customers so Bill and Steve spent a lot of time in DC and funny story – not funny, but interesting story – that our Exchange platform, a lot of the enhancements and security parameters that were created for Exchange came out of requirements of the federal government. Interesting story.
Fred Diamond: That’s great, we’re actually broadcasting today’s podcast from Microsoft’s offices in Washington, DC and there’s been a lot of great meetings, great events here bringing the partners together and also providing great solutions to the government customers. I’m looking forward to getting a little deeper into that. Take us back to the beginning of your sales career. How’d you first get into sales as a career?
Christine Barger: OK, you’re going to laugh but I begged.
Fred Diamond: OK, alright. Did you beg to Bill Gates?
Christine Barger: I didn’t beg to Bill Gates but way back when I was working in a human resources department at a bank in Cincinnati, Ohio and that was in the early 90’s and we were using Word Perfect in IBM systems to go ahead and input candidate data and I was not computer savvy at the time and I said to myself, “I think something big is going to happen with this whole computer thing, I got to get myself positioned.”
I had a contact with a mainframe computer company and heard they had some openings and interviewed twice and the woman who actually ended up hiring me said, “I don’t know why I’m hiring you because you don’t have any experience but you’re the most tenacious person I’ve ever met so I’m going to give you a try.”
I had no computer experience, I hadn’t gone to school for that. I actually wanted to be a sports broadcaster when I was going through the University of Maryland, I was a speech communication major and she said, “I’m going to give you a shot” so that was kind of the birth of my career in which I spent 24/7 five days a week servicing financial services customers west of the Mississippi on the telephone.
I was a telesales contributor. I spent a lot of time smiling, dialing and trying to figure out how to make a relevant message for people over the phone when you didn’t have any physical contact which is super challenging and I feel like it sets you up for great successes because you’re able to refine your messages to make them impactful in a very short period of time because if you can imagine, they would say, “You have two minutes.”
Fred Diamond: I have to imagine now, so if you fast-forward twenty years into the future to today, a lot of sales is going inside. A lot of it’s being done on the phone, and I presume Microsoft is leading the edge on that as well. How have those lessons helped you as a sales leader with a whole generation of sales professionals who are now primarily doing things on the phone?
Christine Barger: I think for me, preparation. As you noted in your intro, I was at University of Maryland playing lacrosse so I was there on a lacrosse scholarship in a very intense program. We won a national championship in 1992 and I think preparation is one of the key factors in having those types of very quick discussions.
I always encourage people to, “What’s your elevator pitch?” I know people use that kind of as a cliché but if you get someone that you need to make an impactful statement to within two minutes, what are you going to say? And I think the preparation for that in that job has done me really well as I prepare for any type of meeting. I always like to be super prepared before I have discussions with folks.
Fred Diamond: I want to address this now before – I’m not going to forget, but I have all these notes about the fact that you were on the 1992 NCAA division one national lacrosse champion and you just mentioned preparation was a big thing. We’ve had a lot of people on the Sales Game Changers podcast who’ve had some great achievement who’ve been on professional sports teams, have worked on world class project. Would you mind talking about that experience for a little bit and how it’s prepared you for where you are today?
Christine Barger: I would not change a thing about my college experience. I know a lot of people say, “I went to college and it was so fun, I got to do this or that.” My college experience was comprised of six days a week of lacrosse practice, very regimented time that I could be out and about celebrating with friends in certain things, but the greatest thing about that is that it taught me a sense of collaboration and teamwork and nobody on that field at any given time could win the game for anyone else.
There were people that performed better on certain days, but at the end of the day it was all about the team and making sure that we came together no matter what the circumstances were and I think the most riveting example of that is in the final game we were playing Harvard and we were losing by five goals and I remember coming up to the center circle because I was a defense of midi and with a group of people around me saying, “If we believe we can do this, we can.”
I said, “We’ve been here before, we have been to two runner up games for national championships the two years prior” and I’ve said, “We’ve been here before. Let’s get our head on and do this.” We came back and won 8 to 7.
Fred Diamond: Five goals, that’s a lot of goals to make up in a lacrosse game.
Christine Barger: Yes it is. It was very exciting but the collaboration, the discipline, Cindy Timchal was my coach. She’s now at Navy, the Naval Academy. This week she had her 200th win as a collegiate coach and she really taught us preparation was everything.
Fred Diamond: Good. I just have this one last question on lacrosse, we could probably talk about this for the next four hours.
Christine Barger: definitely.
Fred Diamond: Of course, this is the Sales Game Changers podcast, just one last question because I’m not sure how familiar with a lot of the people, we get listeners around the globe. Is there anything about lacrosse that – I understand that preparation, collaboration, teamwork – but is there anything else about the game, something you need to personally have as a skill to make you excel, is there some secret about lacrosse that you can share that maybe would help us understand?
Christine Barger: I think just having a full field vision and anticipation of where things are going to go next. I think that’s been really interesting because that skill of me just kind of predicting where the ball is going to go next on the field, I was a defender so my main goal was to get the ball back from the offense so things like intercepting passes and kind of reading people, plays and processes on the field have kind of translated nicely to business, too.
For me to help to think as a visionary about where things are going and think a little bit more strategically as well as execute on the tactical end as well.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer. A lot of people listening to the podcast obviously love sports analogies and one that has come up a couple times, of course, is Wayne Gretzky’s quote that he skates to where the puck is going to be as compared to where the skate’s going to be. I love that answer. You’ve given us some of the lessons you learned from some of those first few sales jobs. Tell us specifically about you, Christine Barger, general manager of Microsoft federal. What are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Christine Barger: I spend a lot of time thinking, “What do I want to be known for when I leave the workforce?” and I think when you spend a good amount of time getting grounded in what makes you happy and what you feel provides the most value to the company, it becomes a really interesting exercise.
I was able to do that with one of my mentors about seven or eight years ago and what I landed on is what I love to do and what my tagline is, is I’m a builder. I’m not an optimizer. What does that mean? I’m an expert in transforming things, I’m an expert in someone giving me a problem and saying, “I have no idea how to do this, fix this, build this, figure it out, find the right people, find the right markets and go ahead and execute.”
If you’re looking for somebody that has an existing sales territory and they need to grind out that extra point five of productivity on something, I’m probably not your person for that. It’s been interesting because being able to be grounded in things that I feel like I’m good at and where I provide value has really helped me define better my career path because great jobs will come up or opportunities will come up all the time and people say, “Oh, you should do this and you should do that. You should take this opportunity” and just being grounded in what I know and love to do and being able to kind of look at that against the opportunity has helped me really chart a pretty cool career path for myself and one that I continue to add value to the organization as well.
Fred Diamond: That is great. Obviously, we were talking before about how you’re bringing cloud technologies to the federal government marketplace specifically to help them achieve their mission and that’s an ongoing process and that will continue to go. You did mention a mentor that you had interfaced with a number of years ago. Can you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career?
Christine Barger: I have three I’ll mention. My first, Kim was the woman that gave me probably the best sales advice I still gleam onto today and I try to coach a lot of people too. I went into her one day early in my sales career and I slapped down this piece of paper and I said, “Look at all the meetings I have this week, look at all the things that I did” and she looked at me and she called me, “Chrissy…” she said, “Chrissy, that’s great, you have a lot of activity but you have zero results from that?”
That was the first impactful message that everyday, everyone’s inundated with information and things to do and people can never feel like they can get everything done so I think it’s really important as I think through how I prioritize it that and things, activities that I take on and projects that I take on, I think about is it going to make me busy or is it going to really have an impact to myself, to my team, to the organization, to the market, to my customers, etcetera. I keep that in mind.
The second one, great advice, the first leadership job I ever took. One of my still very close mentors and friends told me that he gave me the autonomy and the freedom to run my business the way I wanted to because he trusted me and he said, “Chris Barger, you are the CEO of your business. I will only hold you accountable for the results, how you get to the results is your path to choose.” I thought that was a very insightful thing and something that I continue to coach my people on to.
Since I am a builder, I feel like I’m an innovator so I’m always asking how can we do it better? How can we do it faster? How would it delight our customers more? How would it help them achieve the mission more quickly? I never settled for the status quo, I’m always pushing. My third one would be career advice from still a good friend and mentor, my friend Karen. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next and it was at the time before I went through the exercise to really get grounded in what made me happy. I was a manager at the time and I was thinking about going back to be an individual contributor for a little while because it was Microsoft’s first entree into productivity solutions for cloud and way back when if people are listening, if people remember our cloud solution for productivity like ten years ago. I said, “Look, I think I really want to do this, this business is going to be big” going back to where the hockey puck’s going to go.
I said, “I think this cloud thing is going to be really big. I want to be on the forefront of that and learn but how I need to do that is I need to go back and be an individual contributor again.” And I was doing great as a manager, I was exceeding my numbers, my people were happy, they wanted to promote me and she looked at me and she said, “Sometimes you just need to feel like the rules don’t apply to you so if people are giving you specific career mentoring advice, you don’t have to listen to everyone. You should take everyone’s opinion but at the end of the day it’s your decision and just because someone else took a certain path doesn’t mean that you have to.
Fred Diamond: Those are three great examples. I love the middle one, that’s come up a couple times before. Again, you’ve worked for Microsoft for close to 20 years. Obviously the company supports you, they train you, this is a beautiful facility, they give you great devices, obviously world-class software to do your job on the world-class productivity tools but at the end of the day you are the president of your career, it’s up to you to achieve, it’s up to you to think about your vision and where you’re going to. That one comes up frequent.
I typically love that you are truly the CEO of Christine Barger’s career and you’re the CEO of whoever career is listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast. Christine, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Christine Barger: I think just making sure that people have clarity around goals. There’s so much information and different priorities that come from every which way. It’s very much a priority for me. I’m a simple person, I like three to five things to be good at, I feel like that’s the best way to show impact and the greatest impact is to make sure that you figure out what your three to five things are that are important and you just hunker down on them and be the best at those things.
I spend a lot of my time trying to distill down messages and priorities that come from fourteen different directions into the top three to five things to provide clarity for my people so they feel like they’re making impact. The second thing I would say is generating energy for my folks. I try to make sure that the environment is fun yet competitive and fulfilling for their careers, so those are the two top challenges that’s a daily thing for me. I think about that as I prioritize and think about what kind of impact and activities I’m going to take on. I say those that provide clarity for my folks, for my customers and will it generate energy across the organization?
Fred Diamond: Christine, why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Christine Barger: When we chatted just a second ago about me taking that turn from being a manager for four years and as pretty successful manager back to just reverting to an individual contributor again, I went back to the cloud and I think what that allowed me to do is really focus on what was important for my customers in a very deep way and I tend to build pretty deep relationships with my customers.
A lot of them will call me and say, “I don’t know who can help me fix this and I know you can’t but you probably can find me the person who will and I know that you’re going to take care of me”. It was pretty great but we executed on the cloud opportunity for a customer and at the end of it we decided that we were going to have a celebration as part of one of the implementation expectations for the project.
Little beknownst to me, Dwayne Bell stood up and provided some awards for some of his team members which I thought was great for them to get the recognition for doing this and then at the end of the award ceremony we’re clapping, I’m thinking, “Now we’re going to get out of here” he asked me and a teammate of mine to come up and they presented us with a plaque from the American Red Cross as a token of their appreciation for all that we had done for that big project.
I think being recognized by customers and just being looked at as someone calling you ten years later saying, “I know you’re probably not the right person, Christine, but you took such great care of me I know you’ll be able to help me or try to figure out who could” that’s kind of the reward in itself.
Fred Diamond: We talked about a lot of things, we talked about some of the lessons she learned from the lacrosse field pitch. Is it lacrosse pitch?
Christine Barger: It’s a field.
Fred Diamond: From the lacrosse field about preparation, collaboration, teamwork. About having a complete vision, understanding where the ball’s going to go next and how did that vision to build into it. We talked about how she’s utilized her skills as a builder and how she’s worked very critically with her team and her customers and her leadership to transform things and help her customer achieve their mission. We’ve had a couple great things here about activity is not the critical thing, it’s the results. Are you doing the right thing? Are you putting the right priorities in place to truly have an impact?
We also talked about the fact that she sat down about five years ago and thought about what are the three to five things that really made her happy so that she could then shift her career and focus on what really was going to be impactful not just to her and her family but also to her customer and to Microsoft, the company, as well. Christine, you’ve given us some great insights into a great career in sales. Of course, you started your career selling or supporting mainframe customers.
Christine Barger: Yeah, financial service’s main A series and Sperry, if anyone remembers Unisys.
Fred Diamond: Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Christine Barger: Ironically most people probably would say, “Yeah, there was these fourteen times.” I think my sports career and being focused on that going through times that we won, times that we lost and times of adversity really set me up in a great way to manage the ups and downs of sales so for me, my whole life has been on the competitive athletic field.
I have three beautiful children, my oldest is going to play lacrosse at University of Oregon as a division one lacrosse athlete, my son aspires to play in college as well and my daughter is competitive in her own way. She does plays and plays lacrosse for school and she has it different in her grades, she’s super competitive with her grades. I think that competitive spirit for me is one of the things that if I think about what makes me happy, I’m a competitor.
My tagline on my instant messaging right now is, “I don’t lose, I either win or I learn.” I think I’m grounded in the fact that I want to be in a sales environment because I get that competitive rush so I don’t think there’s ever been a time. Sure, there’s times I’m discouraged, right? But give up? No, that’s not me.
Fred Diamond: I have one quick question before we go to break. We’re going to listen to one of our sponsors in a second here. Do you still keep in touch with your teammates from the 1992?
Christine Barger: I do!
Fred Diamond: How does that go, frequently?
Christine Barger: It’s very interesting because until the recruiting rules had changed, my daughter’s very blessed to be skilled in lacrosse and we were going through her recruiting process so she was being recruited as early as from 9th grade year in high school. Ironically a lot of my friends, a former coach who coaches at University of Florida was recruiting my daughter and then Cindy Timchal would always say, “Yeah, Brooke’s coming to Navy, right?”
Several of my friends are coaches. My friend Kirsten is the head coach at Duke so there are all teammates and coaches and people that I get to see through the recruiting process and then my friends who now have daughters that are playing lacrosse, we’ll see each other at tournaments and stuff so it’s great. It’s a special bond when you go through some of the things that we went through as a team, so it’s great.
Fred Diamond: Especially reaching the pinnacle of the sport. I tell you, again, we’re talking here about your sales career. I think I’m going to start a podcast talking to high sales achievers who’ve also had high sports achievement. I could talk to you for the next hour about that, it’s just fascinating. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them take their careers to the next level?
Christine Barger: I think perfect practice makes perfect is something that was instilled in me through athletics. You can practice a lot but unless you’re putting 100% of effort into your practice, you’re not going to get better. That would be the first thing and I would also say just as a general career tip, we talked a lot about this, be grounded in what you know and what you love, what makes you happy.
All the events across the US as you see on a daily basis just makes you appreciate every moment that you have and you want to spend every moment that you have in a fulfilling way. Be grounded so you can be happy in what you’re doing.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you do today to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Christine Barger: I have to get better at this, quite frankly. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about to get better, I was reading a LinkedIn post by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates about the time investment that people need to make in themselves in order to keep their skill sharp and it was both of those two leaders spend an average of five hours a week reading all kinds of different things, it doesn’t have to be just business type of books but spanning all kinds of books just to make them more well-rounded and I think for me, that’s one thing that I want to get better in for that skill.
Fred Diamond: Good, so what’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Christine Barger: I’m spending a lot of time coaching people because I enjoy that piece of my job a lot and I’m trying to teach folks that in your career you’re going to have people that are going to sponsor you, meaning they’re going to say you do a good job and talk to others about what you’re doing and then you’re going to have advocates that when you have to go to the mat for someone or they want to pull one person in the boat and only one person in the boat so it gets across without it sinking, they’re going to advocate for you to be in the boat.
Really having a voice to make sure that people are advocating for you so I think that the whole mentorship thing is important but I’m convinced as I get later in my career that’s only half of the battle. You can get really great career advice from people that are advocates for you and have seen what goes on across the industry but you have to have that network of advocates that when you want to go for that next job, when you want to be promoted the people are going to stand up and say, “Christine Barger’s the best thing since sliced bread and she needs to move on” or “She can take on this big challenge.”
As I mentor and coach people, I tell them that as they think about grounding themselves and what they want to do next and what makes them happy they also need to surround themselves with a group of people that will advocate for them and stand up for them when they want to move on and draft under them for their next career moves.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you about that, if you don’t mind a quick follow up. One of the favorite quotes that we sometimes hear as well as the Jim Rome quote that you’re the average of the five people that you spend the most time with. In a corporation like Microsoft where obviously there’s different levels and there’s different goals, agendas if you will, I love that advice but what are some of the things that you would tell your people to do? Is it to spend time figuring out who those people would be? How do you tell them to build those relationships?
Christine Barger: It’s so funny that you ask that question. I was at a mentoring lunch yesterday with a young woman, she asked me the same thing. I just love being around people so my natural tendency is to just reach out and meet as many people as I can even if I don’t feel like they necessarily will help me at that space and time, but maybe I’m interested in something, they know someone I know, any kind of connection, a business challenge that we’re working on, I’m never afraid to reach out and I typically will reach out via email but then I will always pick up the phone because if you go back to the first set of questioning, “What did I do and what did I learn and how did I get started?”
It was over the phone. I was able to hone in on that skill making a connection with someone if I can physically speak with them. I will make a virtual contact and then immediately say, “Hey, I just need” – and I never say 30 minutes because then people are like, “Oh, 30 minutes? That’s a lot.” I always say, “I just need 10 minutes of your time, 10 quick minutes I could use your thinking, your coaching, your support on something and that’s what I really do but it’s really just making sure that you’re making as many personal connections as you can and never judging like, “Oh, I don’t want to talk to that person because they’re not a VP” or “They’re not a general manager” or “That person doesn’t have a high enough title in my customer.”
There’s always something you can learn or some kind of nugget you can get from any kind of conversation that you have with people.
Fred Diamond: Very good. One thing that you just mentioned, people ask me all the time what have we learned from the Institute for Excellence in Sales. I always say that the #1 tip is the phone. I called someone yesterday and they were shocked to get a phone call, it’s like, “Oh, old-school.”
Christine Barger: Right? Everybody says that to me. They’ll say on instant messaging, “A call?” question mark, and I’m like, “Yes.” And then the second later I’m on the phone.
Fred Diamond: People love getting called, they really do. It’s such a pleasant distraction.
Christine Barger: Distraction from the email, looking at the screen, you can actually speak with someone.
Fred Diamond: You told us some great stories here today, Christine. Sales is hard, though. You talked about things that come up, people don’t return your phone calls or your emails. Of course, when you’re representing Microsoft you probably get a lot more of those calls answered and of course you’re dealing at the highest levels of some of the customers that you service but why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Christine Barger: I think the value that we add and working jointly with our customers to achieve their mission. I worked on the commercial side of the business as well and while commercial customers have their own financial goals and big, bold aspirational goals – and that’s great, I’m not trying to judge – but when we’re working with federal customers, there’s a mission for this whole country to be successful and being able to align with that and provide value to our customers in that way is just something that’s completely differentiated from any other selling job that I’ve ever had. It keeps me going to know that when we partner with a customer we can see their mission come to life throughout out technology, it’s really amazing.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great answer and we’ve interviewed a bunch of sales leaders in the federal space: Anthony Robbins at nVidia and Gary Newgaard from PureStorage come to mind and the conversation like yours always goes quickly to the mission. The fact that the federal customer is definitely trying to achieve a mission to make the world a better place.
Give us one final thought to inspire the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast around the globe today.
Christine Barger: Three short bursts: do what inspires you, spend time and invest the time in yourself getting grounded in understanding what you love to do and where you provide value and realize that your path isn’t the same as the person next to you, you chart your own path.