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EPISODE 175: 3Pillar Global CRO Heather Combs Says These Three Strategies Helped Her Thrive as a Woman in Sales Leader
HEATHER’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Continue to learn, grow, evolve and improve every day and so will you. Find the places that you’re willing to learn to work hard, to continue to get better. Just keep on working at it and enjoy the journey.”
Heather Combs is the Chief Revenue Officer for 3Pillar Global and is passionate about the role that women play in leadership and sales.
If you recognize her name, we previously interviewed Heather on her career journey in sales and sales leadership. You can find that episode at here.
The Institute for Excellence in Sales will be holding its second Women in Sales Leadership Forum starting on October 11.
We wanted to take this opportunity to talk to Heather about some of the opportunities facing women in sales and some ways that they can direct their career.
Find Heather on LinkedIn!
Heather, it’s great to have you on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Once again, you’re truly a leader, you’ve written a lot of great articles, you’ve spoken about women in leadership and women in sales. I’m excited to talk to you at length about that. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your journey as a successful woman in sales?
Heather Combs: Thanks, Fred. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you again. It’s true, this is my passion project both internally here at 3 Pillar where we host a Women in Leadership support educational opportunity as well and then of course in the broader DC market with IES. We sent an individual to the first class and we have a couple of women joining the second class so we’re excited to see what continues to evolve there. Thank you for providing that.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about some of the opportunities and challenges that do face women in sales today. What do you think are the two biggest challenges that women face today as sales leaders?
Heather Combs: I think probably one of those is how difficult it can be to be the only woman in the room. I recently went through a straight string of meetings where for 9 meetings I was the only woman in the room. I thought I was going to make it to 10, but I didn’t, the 10th meeting did in fact bring a woman. I still even in 2019 have these experiences where I am alone in my ideas, in my attire, in my presence and I think that continues to be something we want to evolve. We want to get purposeful about having more women in the room and at the table. The second is for women, it’s really about getting them to opt in and believe both in themselves and in a culture that can support them, whether that’s a culture of behavior – no more strip club sales meetings – or whether that is a culture that supports their desire to balance their family life and their work life. I think both are very possible.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. You just said that you were definitely the only woman in the room for 9 meetings. For our listeners, what was going through your mind? Are you conscious of that or did it occur to you at various times because certain things were being said? Give us a little bit of an insight into how you became aware of the fact. Obviously, you knew you were the only woman in the room but what made it even more apparent?
Heather Combs: It never goes by without me noticing as the room starts to come together and all of the men, especially when we’re in our most formal business attire and they come in in their dark suits, that I become the only woman in the room and how much I stand out from the visual aspect. As that goes, there is a big difference on the way men speak and collaborate with one another, how comfortable they are interrupting one another and speaking over one another that you don’t often see with women.
Then just finding your place and how to interject, how to speak and to do that. You’re aware in the room, in none of those meetings was anyone disrespectful in an overt way, but it certainly makes you feel like you’re just one of one. I think that probably is true for all types of diversity when somebody’s one of one in a room and we should strive for that to be different. If a room has more people in it who are representing more perspectives and ideas, they’re going to be better for it.
Fred Diamond: How do you consciously behave when you’re in a room like that? Do you try to become one of the guys, or what would be some of the advice you would give to the women listening around the world? We have listeners all around the world who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast. What might be some of the advice you would give? Would it be to figure out a way to blend or just be yourself? How would you handle that?
Heather Combs: It’s super important to be authentic at all times. That said, I am aware of the opportunity and I lean in. I know that book has had some bits of controversy, but the truth is take a seat in the middle of the table, speak up, be confident, be aware of your ideas, take the opportunity to show your confidence and why you’re in the room. You’re not there as a token, you’re absolutely there because you’ve got something important to share.
Fred Diamond: In 2019, for example more and more companies have begun increasing the number of women on their corporate boards. Why do you think this is an important movement and how can more companies take steps to bring qualified women into positions of corporate leadership?
Heather Combs: I think it’s really important for the highest levels of all corporate leadership to be a representation of the environment that’s around them. I don’t know any companies that sell only to white men, so I don’t know why we have only 60 something year old white men leading most companies. I think that the products we put in the market are better, the go-to-market business models are better and of course, the research shows most of these companies, the more diversity they have in their leadership, the more profitable they are. It’s not only good for society and morality reasons or for the culture of inclusion, but also straight up for business profitability.
Fred Diamond: You’ve worked at some great places. You worked at CEB which is of course now part of Gartner, you worked at Hanover Research, you also worked at HRCI and you’ve held leadership positions. Throughout your own career how have you seen business culture evolve for women?
Heather Combs: I do think it’s improving. I don’t think we’re all the way to the destination we hope for, but I think it’s getting better. In the last few years, for example the conferences I’ve attended have increasingly gotten diverse on the stage. The number of female speakers and panelists have increased, the inclusion and welcomeness of the female participants have increased, the number of golf games and whiskey nights and cigar smoking outings have gone down to just simply getting drinks afterwards. You’d be surprised at how much it changes on whether women will attend if it’s cocktail hour versus a cigar bar. Those are the kinds of small changes that are happening that make it much more inclusive feeling towards those of us who might not smoke too many cigars.
Fred Diamond: The IES Women in Sales Leadership Forum we have two types of leaders who conduct the classes. We have professional trainers who talk about mindset and leadership but we also have gotten tremendous response from women in sales who hold leadership positions who have been sales leaders who, like you, were the only women in the room for a number of years. Actually, one of our speakers, Gigi Schumm actually won the Woman in Sales Leadership Award, she used to be a senior leader at Symantec and she was the only female senior leader with 49 other peers. What type of leadership or mentorship have you received from other women, and what do you think would be an appropriate way to mentor young women?
Heather Combs: I have been lucky to have had some great female role models and other women in leadership roles who have helped me out along in the way, both from a molding, shaping, bounce-ideas-off-of-them way but also just management. Actually being there to guide my career and give me opportunities when they were the hiring manager. Now that I’m on the other side of that, I believe it’s unbelievably important to use the opportunities I have.
If I have the opportunity to hire women and diverse candidates, I should do so. If I have the power of the budget to support women, for example to go to the Women in Leadership sales class, I should do so. I certainly think that a part of giving back includes me mentoring other up and coming leaders and asking my fellow female colleagues to do the same. To pave the path forward for the people that are coming up through this process with us so that by the time our little girls are all in these positions, it’s a 50-50 ratio and not the 26-ish percent it is today.
Fred Diamond: Let’s give some advice to the young women listening on today’s Sales Game Changers podcast. Again, you’re a woman who’s Chief Revenue Officer for 3Pillar Global, you do a lot of writing so you’ve established yourself as a leader at least in the DC sales world, and growing as well. What might be some advice you would give to the women who are emerging in their career as they seek a mentor? What is the best way for a young woman growing her sales career to be mentored? You just don’t want someone coming to you and saying, “I want you to be my mentor, could you give me 40 hours a week?” How could you optimize your time and their time to be most effective?
Heather Combs: One is network, network, network. Get out there and meet as many people as you can and soak up every little opportunity. The 10 or 20 minutes before an event starts or the 10 minutes walking back to the parking lot can be great nuggets of time that you didn’t take off of anyone’s calendar. The diversity of thought you will get by being in the market and being present with so many different types of leaders, you will learn something along the way. Sometimes I don’t think it has to be that formal. If you have the opportunity to ask someone to formally spend some amount of time with you, just remember, be super respectful of their schedule, to make sure you’re grateful for whatever time they spend and then think hard about what that commitment looks like. Is it lunch once a quarter? That probably is something that they can do and that you can do and still get an awful lot from it without burning the relationship too much.
Fred Diamond: Heather, before we take a short break I want to ask you a couple other quick questions. What are the priorities for continuing to shape business culture that are supportive of female leadership?
Heather Combs: I think work closely with your recruiting department to insist upon a diverse slate of candidates. One of the places you can start is by making sure that other people know it’s a clear priority of yours and then holding them accountable to make that possible. I think the next is once you have that diverse slate of candidates, seek an opportunity to extend opportunities to non-traditional candidates. If someone’s taking their first sales role for example, take a chance on them. If they were a great college athlete, as Jennifer Ives talked about it, you probably have a good competitive person on your hands to work with.
Fred Diamond: You’re the Chief Revenue Officer, you’re responsible for sales and marketing. Do you enjoy being a sales professional?
Heather Combs: I absolutely do. I think that it is a lot of fun, I think that never having two days alike is an interesting way to get to go through your career and it just continues to grow as my role expands. To put the puzzle together, to solve problems, I think of it today as trying to take the very best product to market that I can. Shaping the product, shaping the process, shaping how we demonstrate that value and then making sure that we’re taking it to those individuals, those companies that can use it the most effectively I think is an awesome experience.
Fred Diamond: I just learned something recently that we now have a female majority in the college educated workforce for the first time. What do you think this will mean for gender equality in the workplace, in the sales industry in particular?
Heather Combs: I hope this one starts to impact that cultural piece we talked about. The environment that the women will create and the diversity inside the organization will make it more accommodating for other women and for diverse candidates probably of all types That will change from the inside out those things that are most important to the candidates. Whether it’s parental leave policies or whether it’s not having interviews behind closed doors that make them uncomfortable or whether it’s having events at locations and time frames that are respectful of their outside responsibilities. I just think we’ll see a change a great deal as more women come into the workforce and it’s just permeated through and takes down some of the old stereotypes.
Fred Diamond: Heather, as an experienced sales and tech executive, what advice would you give to other women starting their careers, particularly those in the tech and/or sales industries?
Heather Combs: I think one is lean on your own unique experience. Everyone has something wonderful to offer and so often we fail to see that about ourselves. If you’ve come from the sports we mentioned earlier or if you have a parent that has been in the technology field or you come from a certain global background because perhaps you were a military brat, moved all over the world and you are extroverted and capable of meeting anyone from any culture, use those things to really lean into and become the best version of yourself so that you’re successful authentically in your career.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the skills they should be working on? What is one skill if a young woman in sales came to you and said, “Heather, give me one thing”? Of course it could be customized, but in general what’s one skill that you would have people work on?
Heather Combs: To pay attention to the basics, that there are so many often overlooked steps in the process these days, thank-you notes, agendas for sales calls, being on time, making sure that you have clearly communicated why you’re there or next steps. Just make sure you nail those basics before you go onto something more extravagant and miss the things that really make a difference.
Fred Diamond: Those are some great bits of advice. A lot of times on the Sales Game Changers podcast people will talk about the basics and doing them over and over again. We actually interviewed someone you introduced us to, Alan Stein Jr. who is an absolutely fantastic business leader and motivational speaker. He kept talking about how some of the best basketball performers in the world like Kobe Bryant would work on the simplest things. They won’t be working on the 360 dunks, they’d be working on foot movement or passing. That’s a great answer. I’m just curious, what would you tell your younger self? Again, you’re now the Chief Revenue Officer of a very successful company – I’m not going to mention number of years but what would you tell the younger Heather Combs?
Heather Combs: [Laughs] I appreciate that, that’ll give me a cover for just a little bit longer. I think that one of the most important things is to be in it where you are. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, now my oldest is going into 10th grade and I still very much think of myself as a new mom. I realize that 15 years has flown off the calendar and I hope I enjoyed every minute. When I look forward and I think about her going off to college or what her life will involve, I just want to be there to absorb every minute. While that’s very true in personal relationships, it’s true in your career too. Whether you’re going to your first training class or you’re getting your second promotion or you just got your first office, enjoy each step of the way because as it disappears into memory, you’ll long for those moments.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely, you’ve got to live in the moment, that’s a beautiful way to say it too. Be in it where you are, I like that a lot. Heather, tell us about some of your selling habits that have led to your sales success that some of the listeners listening to the podcast might want to make their own.
Heather Combs: The basics answer probably would be a good repeat there, but there’s another one I talk a lot about and it’s I believe very much in momentum. When you get a rock rolling in the right direction, that rock continues to move even if you’re pushing it uphill. The same is true in the other direction – if you either stall out, it’s very hard to start again or if that rock starts rolling the wrong way it’s very difficult to stop it. From everything you do, from the time you wake up in the morning through your sales process and your follow up to the other commitments you make, if you constantly move forward with positive momentum you will find it easier to be successful.
Fred Diamond: Heather before I ask you for your final thought that will inspire our listeners today, again the Woman in Sales Leadership Forum from the Institute for Excellence in Sales is a support network for young women in sales who are looking to grow in their career. Let’s talk about that for one final second. What about building support networks? What would you recommend for women in sales to go about making this happen?
Heather Combs: I would say it goes right with the piece of advice which is fill up your own cup. No one else cares about your career much as you do, so make sure that whether that filling it up is getting enough sleep or it’s having enough people in your network or it’s having someone review your resume for your next job application or to go to that training class – this training class, Women in Sales Leadership training class – fill up your cup so that you are ready to pour it out when you need to.
Fred Diamond: Again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe and one of the cool things, too about the Sales Game Changers podcast is people discover it every day. I get people who reach out to me and say, “I love this episode” and I’ll go back and I’ll realize it was from two years ago. Give us something that will inspire our listeners today and in the future as they come upon this podcast.
Heather Combs: No pressure there, Fred. I would say it’s that I continue to learn, grow, evolve and improve every day and so will you. Find the places that you’re willing to learn to work hard, to continue to get better, never think anyone walked in and found sales leadership or life in general all that easy. Just keep on working at it and enjoy the journey.