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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the WOMEN IN SALES Fresh Voices Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales and hosted by Gina Stracuzzi on March 8, 2021. It featured Tricia Fitzmaurice, Director, National Security Programs, Federal Law Enforcement & Justice at Red Hat Software and Mahsa Soltani, Regional Director of Growth Sales – North America at Akamai Technologies.]
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TRICIA’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “The advice I always give to women is to support each other, especially in the IT and technical fields, where there aren’t that many of us. Support each other, help each other, promote other women, bring other women to the conversations, help them get their value out into your organization. Somebody else’s success does not mean that you are devalued. Look at other people’s successes as your success as well, as an opportunity for you to succeed maybe later in something else. Promote those successes among people.”
MAHSA’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Be your own biggest supporter instead of critic. Tell yourself “you’re doing a phenomenal job. You’re doing a great job at work. You’re doing a great job outside of work.” I feel like as women, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and a lot of times we’re our hardest and toughest critics. You’re doing great and you’re doing the best that you can and it’s incredible in every phase of your life. Believe that and be your own biggest supporter and tell your inner critic to ‘shh’ which can really help a lot of times.”
Gina Stracuzzi: Welcome, everyone. This is National Women’s History Month, we’ve got international women today coming up so it is all things women and I am super excited about our brand new segment which we’re going to be doing once a month called Fresh Voices. The idea is we’re going to be bringing in young women who are leaders in the sales area and talk to them about how they got their start leadership, how they got their start in sales.
I would like to welcome the first two fresh voices on our segment. Mahsa Soltani is the Regional Director of Growth Sales in North America at Akamai Technologies and Tricia Fitzmaurice is Director of National Security Programs, Federal Law Enforcement and Justice at Red Hat. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about yourselves? Tricia, do you want to go first?
Tricia Fitzmaurice: Thanks, Gina. To introduce myself, I run the National Security Programs and Federal Law Enforcement and Justice group within Red Hat North America public sector, so I’ve been with Red Hat about 8 years now, coming quickly on 8 years and enjoying that. I live here locally in the Washington DC area.
Gina Stracuzzi: Mahsa, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Mahsa Soltani: Thank you for having me on the show, I am currently the Director of Growth for North Americas for Akamai, what that consists of is all of our hunting efforts, customer acquisition and the enterprise space, and also our new market effort specifically around healthcare life sciences this year.
Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk right from the beginning, what did you all study in school and did you have another career in mind? Then we’ll talk about how you got into sales. Tricia, do you want to go first?
Tricia Fitzmaurice: From an early age, I had always had a love of math and science. I pretty much had it in my head that I was going to be an engineer, I think I had decided that somewhere around 13 and had only really looked at engineering programs in different colleges. I ended up at Worcester Polytech in Worcester, Massachusetts studying mechanical engineering with a minor in material science. I assumed going into college that I would absolutely be a CAD engineer, sit in a room and design parts all day long on a computer screen. It really wasn’t until I took that course that I thought, “No, let’s not. I need to be out with people.”
I started looking my senior year for opportunities where I could use my technical background but still be more in front of customers, more of a consulting role or a sales role and found myself at [Unintelligible 06:10] Corporation on their sales program that they had there within that corporation.
Gina Stracuzzi: You’re not the first engineer that I’ve spoken to that has ended up in sales, it might be where companies want to go start recruiting. Mahsa, tell us about your story. What did you study in school and how did that lead you here?
Mahsa Soltani: It’s the exact opposite of Tricia’s. I went to Georgia Tech and I did everything I could to stay away from engineering which is really hard at one of the largest engineering schools in the southeast. I ended up getting my bachelor’s in science in business management but the cool thing about Georgia Tech, because it’s an engineering school, there’s still a very large math and science focus. They make you take computer science, they make you take a lot of courses that I think I wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity to take, had I not gone to an engineering school.
I wanted to do something outside of the math and sciences, it was always my strongest subject – probably why I got into Tech – but I wanted to debate, argue and go into law and something very different. To me, technology, math and engineering was always very stringent, very bad, wrong misconception. My last year in college I got an internship at a company in Atlanta called Secureworks, it had about 160 employees at the time and they were a manage security services company. In my 10 months of interning with them, in my last year I fell in love with everything technology and I realized just how wrong my conception of “two plus two has to equal four” was. All of these ideas that everything had to fit into this box fell away and I realized how innovative it is, how different it can be and it opens the doors for you to create whatever you want.
Through that internship, I fell in love with the company. It was 2008 so the market was crashing, IT was one of the only recession-proof vectors and within that, security was one of the vectors in IT that was actually growing because everyone was dealing with hackers and breaches and things like that on top of a bad economy. I fell in love with their mission and helping companies out through that. As a marketing intern, went to the CMO, spoke with her, she was wonderful, to this day, one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked for.
I said, “I think I want to try my hand in sales” and we had an inside sales team and a demand generation team, so she allowed me, my last two months of my internship to actually go intern over on the sale side. The VP told me that that two months was my trial period because a lot of amazing salespeople had lost their jobs and were just trying to get back into any kind of sales team and were willing to take a step back here. I was still in college being like, “Give me an opportunity” and they did, they gave me two months to prove myself and I think it was at the end of the first two weeks that he came to me and told me that I could stop looking at other jobs, that I had the job.
That’s how my career started in sales and how it started in technology, both. It started with an opportunity, they were willing to give me a chance.
Tricia Fitzmaurice: I think that’s really great, what Mahsa is saying because I don’t think it really matters what degree you have. When you’re approaching sales, and especially a technical sales area, it really is about an individual that can problem-solve and look at a problem that a customer may be having from multiple different angles, so it really doesn’t matter. Do you come from an engineering background? Do you come from a marketing background? If you’ve got that mindset to be someone who can approach problems from multiple different ways of how to get to a yes with that customer, then I think that you have the ability to be successful in sales.
Gina Stracuzzi: Both your backgrounds really prove that, that you can come at it from whatever education and history you’ve got but it’s the enthusiasm for the job that really makes or breaks you in terms of where you go with it. This leads nicely into the next question and Tricia, we’ll start with you this time. How did you get into your first leadership opportunity? Give us a little bit of history from your first job into your sales career and how it led to your first leadership opportunity.
Tricia Fitzmaurice: I honestly have really approached leadership in maybe a different fashion because I truly don’t believe that you have to have a title to be a leader. I’ve had a lot of great advice given to me which is in order to be a leader, you have to have people who are willing to follow you. So whether or not you’re an account exec and you’ve got a support team underneath you that you need to organize a strategy around, or you’re in an operations role and you’ve got a team of people that you need to organize on a particular internal function, I think that you have that ability to lead.
In my career, I’ve gone back and forth between sales roles and consulting roles depending upon where I was at in my career or what I really wanted to do. Did I want to be closer to mission and be more in a consulting role? I’ve had different leadership positions, I’ve project-managed from a consulting point of view, I’ve been a sales leader from the sales point of view. Recently at Red Hat, I mentioned I’ve been here about 8 years, I’ve spent the first 4, 5 years here at Red Hat in a direct Account Executive role here at Red Hat and loved everything about that. Loved the fact that I was down with the customers and I was really problem-solving with them and understanding the missions and really getting to understand what my products were doing for the Department of Homeland Security at the time.
When I went to management and leadership and said, “I think I’m ready”, I think they must have asked me about five times, “Are you sure?” because they knew I loved being down with the customer, I loved being down in DC visiting customers, that is absolutely my happy place at work. The advice that I was given was moving into leadership becomes more about the people and not necessarily just about the customer mission, so you really start focusing around how you help solve problems for your account execs that now report to you. That started my journey here at Red Hat as a leader, taking over the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice sales teams. Last year they rolled National Security Programs underneath me as well.
As soon as I said I was interested in management, they definitely ramped me up quickly, but it’s been fascinating because I’ve noticed that even as a sales leader, you still have that ability to be out there on the frontline, it’s just in a support role with your account executives and making sure you’re enabling them to have everything they need to be successful.
Gina Stracuzzi: You’re right, leadership comes in many forms, in many shapes and we even have individual contributors that go through the forum and they just want to lead their vendors and their relationships, that’s their form of leadership, to just make sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs correctly, efficiently and effectively. I really admire that, to know what it is you want to do and go to be the very best at it.
Mahsa, tell us about your trek into leadership.
Mahsa Soltani: I could not agree more with Tricia. I know, Gina, I promised I wouldn’t say I concur, but I completely concur with everything Tricia is saying. I know even at Akamai today I can name many individual contributors that I think are some of the biggest leaders in our company and they lead from the front line and their voice and their brand, the trust that they have garnered at every level of the organization really carries them as a leader. So I agree, I don’t think the title is very important but I’ll let you know my track through to when I got to be a manager.
Like I said, I started at Secureworks, we called it inside sales but it was demand generation, it was a kind word for demand generation. Moved from that to direct sales, direct sales to enterprise sales and I had been there at that point, including my internship at about six years when I made the move over to Akamai. A really big reason for that is all my background had been in security and I was passionate about security but that’s all I knew. When I met with CISOs or CIOs, I could really talk deep about this one piece that they care about, but I really didn’t understand all the other pieces they cared about and how that all came together. Akamai, who’s been around for 22 years making the internet fast and secure was this perfect next step for me to learn all of the other things that the CIO might care about, the revenue-generating things rather than the risk-based stuff. It also let me leverage my security because Akamai had just started getting into security the last few years, so it was a really good opportunity for me. I made the move over to Akamai and I started as a hunter and little by little grew in the sales organization. My last role as an individual contributor was covering our largest hospitality groups and largest airlines and hospitality companies before I moved into management.
How I moved in was a little different. I had never led a team before, I had never managed a team and probably a year and a half prior to getting the management role, I went to our VP and I told him, “I’m really interested, here are my strengths.” He was very open to this idea which helped, but on a monthly basis we would do a SWOT analysis of me and we would talk about what my strengths are, what are the areas where I really need to lean in? What are some of the things that I can learn in the current role that’ll help compensate for things that I can’t bring to the table without the experience? At the end of the day, experience is experience, you either have it or you don’t and as a leader or a manager of people, either you’ve done it before or you haven’t. For a year and a half, he met with me monthly and these were very blunt transparent discussions. They were very vulnerable discussions, but I knew that’s what I wanted and to all the reasons that Tricia said, I cared so much about the people on my team and what made them successful, I wanted to have a bigger role in that and I wanted to have a bigger part in that.
We talked for a year and a half. I, six months into that discussion, decided to do probably the most selfish thing I’ve done for myself and go back and get my MBA. God bless my husband because I had a one-and-a-half-year-old at home and I wanted to get my MBA and I was doing the weekend executive program. I wanted to get my MBA before she was old enough to remember that I was gone on the weekends so I told them, “I’m going to go get my MBA.” They’re like, “But we’re investing in you, we want you, is this the right time?” They were very supportive, they sat me down, had very realistic conversations of what kind of a workload I’m taking on, on top of a very heavy workload at Akamai already. About 8 months into my MBA is when an opportunity came up for a management role, the tenure at Akamai is really strong and opportunities don’t come up that often.
It just happened that a leader moved on, a leader moved up and now there was this regional sales manager role open. I will tell you, I was going up against someone that I respect so much and who had run his own recruiting company, he had so much experience and know-how that I couldn’t bring to the table, he was just an ace all around to this day. I still have all the respect in the world for him but I had already checked all the boxes. Over the year and a half, everything that was important to the VP and was important to the Director I already knew because I had asked them and I had checked it off and I had taken steps to show that I may not have this experience, but here’s the experience that I have that I can relate to it.
I think I had an easier time going through the interview process because of that, and advice I was given very early on, be vulnerable. Ask for the opportunity, worst thing that can happen they tell you you’re not ready and then they tell you what you can do to get ready and you can take those steps. Have those conversations because you don’t want the opportunity to come up and it’s something you really wanted and it’s the first time they’re finding out that you’re interested in this and you haven’t had any chance of showcasing your strengths towards that opportunity. I took that to heart and up until now into my current role that’s exactly what I’ve done. I was a Regional Sales Manager for our core east business managing a book of business of about 90 million and about 7 to 8 reps depending on the year.
In September, an opportunity came up for me to lead the Growth Organization which is a new organization for Akamai, it’s bringing together all of our hunting, it’s putting an emphasis and a focus on a go-to-market, specific to healthcare life sciences. Same thing, I went to them, they knew I was interested, they knew I wanted to continue to grow and it felt like the conversations were all a progression of previous conversations rather than these new conversations. It’s really helped my career and I can’t say enough about the sponsors and mentors that I’ve had. All of this is great but if you don’t have the opportunity and if your employer doesn’t create that safe space for you to be able to have that vulnerability and have those conversations and they don’t make that investment in you, it comes back to the opportunity. Employers have to invest in women, have to invest in these conversations and these conversations can take years.
Gina Stracuzzi: Tricia was telling us an interesting story about how sometimes you have a very nurturing opportunity and then sometimes you have bizarre cards that fate hands you. It’s knowing how to take advantage of those opportunities that are important. To whatever degree you feel comfortable, Tricia, why don’t you share a little bit about how you ended up getting the kind of background that’s led to where you were able to take on the position you have now with confidence?
Tricia Fitzmaurice: In my career, something that I’ve stuck to from a mentality standpoint was if an opportunity arose in a given area that I thought seemed interesting, I would definitely follow it. Years and years back, a little bit before even the story that I was telling you earlier, incompetence [laughs]. I was at IBM and I had joined IBM because I had wanted to get into IT and IBM had these solutions groups at the time and Lou Gerstner was there, and Lou Gerstner decided the company’s going to be more of a services company, and therefore our solution groups are going to go away. So they took my team and they said, “Go learn about supply chain management, go get an understanding of this and come back to us.” That was where my supply chain management background started and I followed that career through to a couple of different software companies then at the time for secure supply chain management.
I was telling Gina and Mahsa earlier that it was soon after 9/11 where I received a phone call that just gave me the opportunity to move into the National Security program space and I took it both feet in. After 9/11, it secured in my head that I really want to be tied to a particular mission and National Security was a mission that I really wanted to invest my career in. That led me to where I am today but it was because I was open to that opportunity, I didn’t close myself off to say, “I’m really only focused on civilian” or, “I’m really only focused and comfortable with an NIH or the postal service.” I said it’s an opportunity, they have a problem that needs to be solved and I absolutely am interested in helping, so how can I help?
Those decisions that you make in real time that you don’t necessarily put too much thought into, it’s amazing how in your career that catches up to you at some point and opens doors that you didn’t even think were going to be open to you. My advice always to the women that I mentor is to keep yourself open to that, don’t close yourself off from an opportunity because you think, “Maybe my skill set doesn’t really fall into that category” or, “Maybe my background isn’t that yet.” Open yourself up to a challenge and say, “Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but I know I can do it.” Have faith in yourself that you can do it and take that step.
Gina Stracuzzi: I will ask you the same question in just a moment, Mahsa because one of my next questions was, “What advice do you have for younger women?” and I do want to talk about the challenges that you’ve encountered. We’ll stick with you for just a second, Tricia and then we’ll go over to you and get both pieces together, Mahsa. Is there anything you would have done differently along the way?
Tricia Fitzmaurice: I don’t think that there is anything necessarily that I would have done differently. I think that maybe what I didn’t necessarily do was branch out into different areas a little bit sooner, I stuck with single-track for a pretty long time but like I mentioned, I did toggle back and forth between consulting and sales which I am very grateful for having done. From an advice standpoint, I think that finding mentors – Mahsa talked about it – find mentors, find advocates for you in the workforce. The reality is as women, Mahsa talked about it, she had a one-and-a-half-year-old. I have four children, at any point in time in your career you may have to take different steps to make sure that all the life that you have going on outside of your work can still be accomplished.
As women, I recommend being a little more calculated on, “I’m going to take this step, it’s got the ability to give me this new experience and I’m willing to stretch it because I can see myself being more multifaceted than just what I may find in my comfort zone today.” Find those advocates and find those mentors that can really be there for you throughout your career because you will call on them. I still call on mentors that I’ve had from previous companies on, “This is happening, what do you think?” to get that advice because it’s very helpful. It’s absolutely critical in finding your way and determining where you want to take your career and ultimately where you end up.
Gina Stracuzzi: Mahsa, why don’t you briefly tell us too your advice for young women coming through and if there was anything that you might change along the way?
Mahsa Soltani: I’ll start with if there’s anything I would change. Nothing as far as the steps I’ve taken, but I have gotten really comfortable with how much I can take on and I’ve gotten way better at saying, “Hold on.” I think even maybe a year ago, I’m a, “Yes, I can do it. Yeah, I’ll have it to you tomorrow.” I’ve gotten way better and that’s something I would change. If I could go back, I would have done that earlier and gotten better at setting expectations that didn’t make me work through the night and saying no if I didn’t feel like it fit my top goals, how I could drive value for the company. I’ve gotten way better at discerning what those things are and having the confidence to set very realistic expectations. If I could go back to a younger me I’d be like, “It’s okay, nothing in the world is going to change if you complete that by the end of the week rather than by the end of the night.” You set expectations for what people can expect of you and I’ve realized that setting expectations that you might be a little delayed on vacation or not available at all on vacation, those things are okay. If anything, as a leader I’ve realized the more I set those boundaries, the more comfortable my employees and my team feel in setting the same boundaries. The more I’m a workaholic, the more they feel like they have to be and that’s not a fair expectation for anyone. That’s the thing that I would change.
My advice to women, very humble advice and purely based on my experience. I concur, Tricia, I absolutely agree. Take the opportunities, you don’t know what you don’t know about it, you don’t know how it can bring out your strengths and if it ends up being something you just like, it’s okay. There’s a reason that you were even considered for the opportunity, you learn so much about yourself, the company and what areas you like by taking different opportunities. My two biggest ones and as I mentor women at Akamai or I mentor women that I’ve worked with in the past, know your value. You are valuable exactly as you are, you don’t need to be someone else, you don’t need to fit a mold. Know that your company recognizes your value and if you work for a company that doesn’t, you’re in the wrong place. There’s a very unique value that any one individual can bring and the more true you are to yourself and the more confident you are in that value, the better the opportunities will be for you and the more authentic those opportunities will be to what you need. That would be my first one.
Taking it a step more tactical, know your value and be comfortable at compensation discussions. Get comfortable with compensation discussions early on, get comfortable in that super uncomfortable 30 minutes because it’s a compounding effect. If you can feel comfortable enough to know your value in the market, to know your value for a company and ask for that or ask for an open discussion around where you are against that early on, you get more comfortable with those discussions every single time. That 5K, that 1K, that 500 in the beginning, every single bump you get after that, every single advancement that you make is a compound on top of it. It can make a vast difference, for me 12 years, 20 years, 30 years down your career that little thing can make a major difference.
I read this a lot and it’s advice I was given very early on and it’s something that I’ve taken to heart and they’re not comfortable and they don’t always go well. You’re like, “I could have probably done that one a little better” but I’ve gotten better at them because I’ve had them and it’s always from a humble place and not a, “I expect this.” It’s a, “This is my understanding, help me understand your point of view.” Half the time it helps reset your expectations and you’re happier in your role, but the other half it can secure you that little bit more that you deserve, that you should be demanding. That would be my tactical one, it’s a hard one but if you can, know your value and have those compensation discussions.
Then lean on people, anyone listening to this, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn. Gina can share my email, lean on people, let’s rise up together not just as women but as a community where we foster inclusion. Gina and I talked about this, we talked about this yesterday with Tricia as well. Now my daughter is five and a half, I want to help foster a community where when she’s this age, these aren’t the conversations anymore because there’s no need for these conversations. How beautiful would that be?
Gina Stracuzzi: That’s all really fabulous advice, learning to say no which is something that I preach to every woman I can because that is one of our biggest challenges, learning to say no because we’re afraid if we say no, it’s going to put the end to something or someone else is going to get an opportunity because we said no. Then knowing your value both from a strategic and a technical standpoint and what it can bring you, understanding what your value is and what you want from that value. Having that knowledge and not being afraid to own it is probably the best piece of advice that I’ve heard in ages so thank you so very much for that, Mahsa.
Tricia, what are the challenges that you still see for women and what do you think that we all can do to help ourselves? Tricia Fitzmaurice: Listening to Mahsa talk, it had me thinking. I think that women come from a place of not necessarily knowing their value or not being able to say no because maybe that’s the perception that we put on ourselves that women have to say yes in order to be viewed in the workplace as equal, as somebody that would be someone to get promoted. I think that we do still have a bit of that bias that we have to get over and whether that’s out of the workplace or just internally within ourselves, I think that is currently a challenge. I always give the advice to women, which is support each other. Every woman out there, especially when we talk about in the IT and technical fields, there aren’t that many of us. Support each other, help each other, promote other women, bring other women to the conversations, help them get their value out into your organization. Until there are more of us and until that perception is gone, that maybe women, their value isn’t seen in the best light, then we still will continue to have these preconceived notions. My advice is always, in order to get through the challenge of those preconceived notions, to support each other.
Similar to what Mahsa said, always an open door to any other individual that wants to learn more, get an understanding of how to get ahead in their career, I’m always happy to talk and I think that really is so critical for women to support other women in the work force.
Gina Stracuzzi: Not looking at each other as competition.
Tricia Fitzmaurice: Right. I read once that somebody else’s success does not mean that you are devalued, you need to look at other people’s successes as your success as well, as an opportunity for you to succeed maybe later in something else, but you need to really promote those successes among people.
Gina Stracuzzi: If there’s any last parting thought that you would like to share, maybe something that the women listening could put into action today to help themselves or elevate more women, please share it. Mahsa, do you have anything you’d like to close with?
Mahsa Soltani: Be your own biggest supporter instead of critic, like, “You’re doing a phenomenal job. You’re doing a great job at work, you’re doing a great job outside of work.” I feel like as women, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and a lot of times we’re our hardest and toughest critics. You’re doing great and you’re doing the best that you can and it’s incredible in every phase of your life. Believe that and be your own biggest supporter and tell your inner critic to ‘shh’ which can really help a lot of times.
Tricia Fitzmaurice: I’d like to throw one concur back to Mahsa and say I think she was spot on, know your value.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo