Subscribe to the Podcast now on Apple Podcasts!
Register for the upcoming IES Women in Sales Leadership Forum here.
EPISODE 176: IBM Federal Capture Leader Clara Conti Says It’s the Growth Mindset That Will Set Your Sales Career Apart and Here’s Why
CLARA’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Never underestimate your growth mindset and constantly check yourself on this. We get bombarded with the media telling you there’s going to be a recession, there’s less opportunity, there’s all kinds of things. You have to tune all of that out and focus on a growth mindset, because without a growth mindset you won’t be able to embrace the new opportunities that are coming your way.”
Clara Conti is a partner at IBM and is an executive on the sales and growth team leading all capture and proposal for all large federal deals at IBM.
She’s held sales leadership positions at Source America and was the CEO at ObjectVideo, IPIX and Aurora.
Find Clara on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Clara Conti: I started my career in Washington DC almost 20 years ago or so arriving at a little known company called SAIC at the time. I was a program manager for a very large distributed simulation program and I had a customer say to me one day, “You’re really great at selling, you ought to go and start your own company.” I had $3,000 dollars in my 401K and I started my first company called Aurora Enterprise Solutions. I sold that in 1999 and then for about 10 years or so I was a CEO for hire mostly for venture capital firms, helping build organizations and raise money for these companies and growing those sales organizations.
Fred Diamond: I’m very excited to talk to you for a couple reasons. Again, my background knowledge of you is as a CEO. You’ve held some nice positions here and you’ve also been a sales leader so it’s going to be a nice interesting twist on your career path and having viewed different aspects of the business. I’m really excited about the advice that you’ll be giving to our listeners around the globe. Why don’t you get us caught up? Tell us what you offer today, what you sell today and tell us what excites you about that.
Clara Conti: IBM is really an exciting place to work simply because it’s a magnificent history here at IBM and all of the products, services and offerings that we have. I’m most excited about our cognitive technologies and AI. What is happening right now in AI and what the federal government is looking for in terms of a cognitive enterprise to me is very exciting, it’s going to fundamentally change the way the federal government works and the way that they relate to their clients and their customers as well.
Fred Diamond: Again, I’ve mentioned that you held some CEO positions and now you’re a partner at IBM, but how did you first get into the sales side? How did that come about?
Clara Conti: Sales has always been part of my DNA, so even when I started my first company I was the salesperson, I was the founder and I was the one that naturally had to figure out how to go to market with my company. Then in the CEO roles, basically they were turnaround roles so I had to come into these organizations and figure out what needs to be fixed. How can we grow this company? How can we grow the revenue here? I naturally fell into sales because of the positions that I had and then when working for Source America I ran a very large sales organization with about 70 sales reps and we also had 4 stand-alone businesses that I had to support as well as an inside sales group and a digital marketing group. It was a very broad position that had to take a look at how do we grow sales for this non-profit that basically had declining revenues over the years, and we had to figure out how to, what they called, “outrunning the bear” – meaning our incumbent contracts were coming to an end and we needed to figure out how to grow sales.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons that you learned from some of your first few sales jobs?
Clara Conti: You never take no for an answer, of course that’s always the first key and I think the other two is really understanding the space that you’re selling into and understanding what kind of competition is in that space. I think a lot of folks turn a blind eye to competition and think, “They’re just going to love me and they’re going to love our product or they’re going to love our service.” Really understanding what your competitive space looks like I think is really key.
Fred Diamond: Let me ask you a quick question. Now you’re at IBM, we have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe who are at the early part of their career, so tell us what it means to be in sales for such a monolithic, hugely successful company like IBM.
Clara Conti: It’s really exciting because you’re working for an organization that not only has tremendous technologies and products and services but also, IBM requires you to be up on your game, step up your game every step of the way. I’ve only been at IBM for about a year and a half and one of the things that I realized when I first came to IBM was that we offer thousands of online classes for every employee. You get to learn about block chain, AI, cloud computing, digital analytics, data analytics, etcetera and all of that is available to you. What that does is it compresses the timeline in terms of your experience and knowledge about these particular offerings. To me, that was very exciting coming into the role.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, we have a lot of people who are starting their sales career or they’re at the beginning stage, if you will. Would working for a company like IBM be a good strategy for them to try to do?
Clara Conti: Absolutely. IBM has a program here for recent college graduates, they’re called CBDers and they come on board, and for two years they get to experience all different parts of IBM. Again, they have all of those classes that are online that are available to them, so an early entry employee gets to sample all the offerings of such a large company and gets to understand the business as well.
Fred Diamond: Talk a little more about you, tell us your area of expertise. Tell us what you’re brilliant at.
Clara Conti: What I’m brilliant at? [Laughs] My background has always been in turning around organizations, being a sales organization or a company. My mind has been tuned to what needs to be fixed, so when I come into an organization I look for what’s working, what’s not working, I like to go on a listening tour to be able to get feedback from folks and then I take a look at the processes that are already in place. If it’s a sales process or it’s just a business process, making sure that all of those pieces and parts work together. Then I apply my sales methodologies and growth mindset to that organization, so I don’t know if it’s called brilliance but it is the thing that I do.
Fred Diamond: You’ve probably worked for some amazing people over your career, why don’t you tell us about an impactful mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Clara Conti: I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a lot of great mentors throughout my career even when I first started in Washington DC working at SIAC. Again, I had a customer who at that time was a DARPA program manager who’s Captain Dennis McBride who encouraged me to go and start my own company. Then through the years I belonged to different organizations around town, like NVTC and ACT-IAC, etcetera and within those organizations what you find are folks that are willing to help you in your career along the way. For me personally, I was lucky because Washington DC offers all of those types of networking events.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. Again, you’re a woman CEO, now there are some companies that are being run by women CEO’s like Raytheon for example. On the mentor question, what are some things that you would mentor? Do you mentor other women and what are some of the things that you would mentor them on specifically in sales to take their career to the next level?
Clara Conti: I do mentor a lot of women. Here at IBM I actually run the women’s book club and it’s mostly for the younger female employees here. We usually do a lot of business books so every month we get together and next month we’re going to be doing Sid Fuchs’ book on Get Off the Bench which is about networking in the Washington DC area. It’s actually a pretty insightful read, I would encourage readers to take a look at it simply because it helps people understand that it’s never just about you sitting behind the desk. That’s not your career, your career is relationships and working with others.
I also have done a lot of mentoring with Springboard Enterprises which is a nonprofit that helps women start their own businesses here in Washington DC, but I’ve always found it very impactful for these young folks to have these mentors. You started the question off with the CEO of Raytheon being a woman, 20 years ago that would have never been thought of and it’s one of the reasons why I started my own company out of SAIC 20 years ago, because I didn’t see those role models. I became my own role model, so to speak and now you can look at, I guess there’s maybe 4, 5 women CEO’s of large defense contracting firms right here in this area. That to me has made a great impact in my life and to me personally, it reaffirms what I’ve always believed. I’m the great-grandniece of a suffragette, so it was in my DNA to always push the envelope, so to speak in terms of women and their roles in society and their roles in business. Now I feel like everything has come full circle in my life.
Fred Diamond: Again, we talked about how you’ve run sales for a nonprofit, you’ve also been a business owner with your own company, you’ve been a CEO for a couple turnaround type situations, if you will. Now you’re a partner at IBM, you’re an exec on the sales and growth team, you’re in charge of all the capture and proposals for IBM large business in the federal side. How do you think of yourself? Do you think of yourself as a sales leader, as a business leader, as an entrepreneur? I’m just curious how that fits into your makeup and how you go about your business day.
Clara Conti: It’s a little bit of everything because I’m a mentor to a lot of young people here. I’m business adviser to some senior folks here because I can bring all that kind of experience, CEO and restructuring experience and transformation experience to some of the senior executives here. I’m a little bit of all of those things which I really enjoy, because it’s a little bit like a mini CEO role in that I’m moving from different disciplines all day long. From an engineering solution meeting to a marketing meeting to a sales meeting and bringing all of that experience to bear to a large organization.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back to sales for a second. What are the two biggest challenges you see sales leaders face with today?
Clara Conti: I think a lot of it has to do with the signal to noise ratio. How do you get your signal out there and rise above all of the noise that’s out there with your customers? You have to be fairly surgical about it. You’ve got a number of companies that are offering cloud solutions, a number of companies that are offering AI, what is your unique value proposition and how are you going to message that specifically to your customers? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have.
Fred Diamond: You’ve had a great career, you’ve worked with some great companies, you’ve had a bunch of wins. Why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Clara Conti: I’ve had a lot of them and I’m very grateful for all of those opportunities. When I was the CEO of ObjectVideo, we won one of the first contracts to secure the northern border with our technology. That was a huge win for us and really an affirmation of what we were doing there. The other that I’m most proud of is I came out of a very large two and a half billion dollar nonprofit as head of sales, and this nonprofit was responsible for finding jobs for people with significant disabilities. One of the things that we were able to do during my time there was to secure a contract with Macy’s, it was a staffing contract to essentially supply folks for them for all the Macy’s distribution centers and all of their stores up to 80,000 people with disabilities, which doubled the size of the number of people we had employed at the time. It was a huge win for the organization, I’m most proud of that.
Fred Diamond: People listening to today’s podcast have heard us mention this non-for-profit you’ve worked for before. Sales and non-for-profit don’t typically go together, is going to work for a non-for-profit in sales a good career decision for someone who’s looking to take their sales career to the next level?
Clara Conti: Yes and no. It all has to do with the mission of the nonprofit and if you are connected to that mission, I believe that it can be a very rewarding career as a salesperson, if you are connected to that mission. It may or may not be financially as rewarding as some other sales positions, but certainly there is a great reward in helping an organization accomplish its mission.
Fred Diamond: We’re going to take a short break in a second, listen to one of our sponsors. Before we do, did you ever question the position of sales? Did you ever think to yourself, “Sales is just too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Clara Conti: “What am I doing”? [Laughs] Did I ever think it was too hard? No, I never thought of it as too hard because I’m a person that likes to solve puzzles, so to me it’s always been very intriguing and it’s sort of a softer side of engineering if you agree. To me it was very exciting to do.
Fred Diamond: Again, this is the Sales Game Changers podcast, we’re talking to Clara Conti. Again, she’s a partner at IBM, she’s an executive on the sales and growth team leading all capture and proposal for all large federal deals at IBM. Clara, before we take a short break I just mentioned capture and proposal. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe who may not understand what that means. Can you explain that before we take a short break?
Clara Conti: Capture is fairly unique to the federal space and a capture manager is someone that works with the business development folks to shape an opportunity prior to it hitting the street. They have to be a jack of all trades, they have to understand the technology, they have to understand how to sell, they have to understand acquisition policy and they’re a fairly unique role in the federal space. Our proposal folks are the folks that pull it all together, they look at the requirements, they look at the RFP and make sure that we provide a compelling and compliant response.
Fred Diamond: Clara, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Clara Conti: This is really going to speak to the younger folks in your audience, and that is never underestimate the power of one-on-one networking, and not to rely solely on electronic networking alone. Sometimes I see a lot of young folks that at the end of the day they turn off and go online and basically don’t go to networking events and aren’t meeting folks one-on-one. Maybe that’s a generational thing where they rely solely on social media, but they really do need to understand the power of one-on-one networking.
Fred Diamond: Just meeting with people, just getting to know them, just talking, just building that relationship base. Especially in a market like you serve, you’re dealing with people you’ve probably been working with for 10, 15, 20, 30 years.
Clara Conti: That’s right, and they remember you. They remember being introduced to you, they remember that you cared about them, you cared about their concerns and their problems and that is really important in sales.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about some of your selling habits that have led to your sales success?
Clara Conti: I like to go to weekly events and sometimes specially in Washington DC it’s a snowy evening or a rainy lunch time and I think, “I don’t want to leave the office” or, “I just want to go home after work, I really don’t want to go to these networking events” and in Washington DC there’s a networking event every night of the week. There is something that you can go to and you will meet new people, and you will meet new potential customers. It’s a habit that I’ve developed over time, it wasn’t easy for me at first because I would go to these network events and I didn’t know a soul and then over the years I would end up going and say, “Yes, I haven’t talked to so and so in 10 months and now we can re-engage.” It has been a very valuable thing to do.
Fred Diamond: What would be your advice if you were to go to a networking event? You said in the beginning you didn’t quite know how to optimize those, what would be a tip for some of the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast to optimize the 6:30 to 8 o’clock meeting of something?
Clara Conti: Understand the art of small talk. Don’t just stand there with a business card and introduce yourself and expect something in return. Have something to offer, be a good listener and be able to say to yourself, “How can I establish a relationship with this person so that way they will trust me and they would want to know a little bit more about my business?”
Fred Diamond: That’s a great bit of advice. A lot of people also are introverts or they’re apprehensive, they don’t know what to do. I make it a point, if I see someone standing by themselves I go right to that person. I also don’t talk too much to my friends because we can meet all the time, and also, don’t grab a plate full of food. That’s one of the first rules, right?
Clara Conti: [Laughs] or too much wine.
Fred Diamond: Don’t even drink wine.
Clara Conti: Right, exactly.
Fred Diamond: You don’t need to drink wine at these networking events.
Clara Conti: Right, and you can be very efficient. You would be very surprised at how many connections you can make at some of these events and you follow up the next week or so and your network starts to expand exponentially doing that.
Fred Diamond: Curiously, when you said you mentor a lot of young professionals, young women in business and in sales, what are some things that they ask for your advice on?
Clara Conti: A lot of the advice that the kids ask are really about leadership. How do I handle a particular situation? How can I be recognized as a leader? How can people take me seriously? Which has always confounded me whenever a young person ask me that, because we have to go back to the fact that you are a leader, you are a natural leader. If you’re here and you’re asking for this advice and you want to move your career forward, you already have it within you. That’s the kind of question that I get asked a lot.
Fred Diamond: Clara, tell us a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success.
Clara Conti: I think Warren Buffett said it best, the best investment you can make is in yourself. For many years I was very hard-charging and working many hours and I still do that, but I also set aside time for learning. I have found that the more time that I spend doing that, the greater my contribution is in my role. I made a deliberate effort the last couple of years to educate myself on the latest technologies and offerings, leadership thinking and what is current in today’s society.
Fred Diamond: Not to put you on the spot, but what’s something you’re trying to learn today? What is top of the list?
Clara Conti: Top of the list right now is really focused on AI and the cognitive enterprise. It’s a fascinating subject, if you get this month’s Harvard Business Review there’s actually a great article in there that talks a lot about the cognitive enterprise and talks about why the basis for a success is really cultural change. We talk a lot about how AI can be applied in businesses, how we need to have digital transformation but the truth in the matter is a lot of organizations are stuck in time. There’s this cultural transformation that has to happen and you have to have leaders that understand how to deliver that cultural transformation.
Fred Diamond: Clara, before we ask you for your final thought to inspire our listeners today, you’ve given us such great insights and great information throughout this podcast. Why have you continued in sales as a career? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Clara Conti: I am a natural extrovert. Sales is just like a great position for me to be in simply because I love working with folks, I love meeting new folks and I love help growing organizations. A lot of discussions online these days about a growth mindset, it’s something that I’ve naturally had my entire life. Sales just naturally became a career path for me.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire them today?
Clara Conti: My final thought today is never underestimate your growth mindset and constantly check yourself on this. We get bombarded in the media telling you there’s going to be a recession, there’s less opportunity, there’s all kinds of things. You have to kind of tune all of that out and focus on a growth mindset, because without a growth mindset you won’t be able to embrace the new opportunities that are coming your way.
Fred Diamond: Of course, the classic book on that by Carol Dweck talking about mindset, we’ll put a link in there as well, it’s a fantastic book. You were speaking about Warren Buffett before, Bill Gates always speaks highly of that book, it’s a classic.