EPISODE 604: Sales Career Success with Lifetime Achievement Award Winners Susan Shapero and Joe Ayers

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Today’s show featured an interview with IES Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Joe Ayers and Susan Shapero of HPE. They are the recipients of the 13th Annual Lifetime Achievement Award on June 9. Attend here!

Find Susan on LinkedIn. Find Joe on LinkedIn.

SUSAN’S TIP:  “Be bold. As you go forward, sometimes some of the things that we’re being asked to do are a little bit scary, to voice your point of view when it might be different than others, to end up calling on new customers rather than those that know you and love you and trust you, to learn new technology when you’ve mastered a previous one, and you need to evolve. Sometimes it’s scary and I would say that, acknowledge that, but do it anyway.”

JOE’S TIP:  “Embrace the change. You’re living in an environment now, there’s more change on humankind than ever before with some of the AI and machine learning environments that we have out there. I would suggest embrace it, understand what’s going on, and then work really hard to be a professional. That means understanding the selling, you’re selling skills. Whether that be challenges, sale methodology, whatever you want to use, understand your industry and really get into it.”


Fred Diamond: We have Susan Shapero, Joe Ayers, you both are going to be the 13th Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. We’ve had some amazing sales leaders over the years that we’ve recognized at the award event. How are things going for your sales organization today?

Susan Shapero: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here, Fred. Quite honored to be an awardee and to have the opportunity to have this conversation. For me personally, things are going well. We’re finishing up our half. We finished the half strong and so just excited to be here.

Fred Diamond: Joe, how about you? How are things going? We had you on the show in the middle of lockdown. We had over a couple of hundred of HPE’s partners, plus our usual audience. You gave some great answers. How are things going? You made a move, by the way, from public sector into the commercial side. How’s that been going for you, and what do you want us to know?

Joe Ayers: Fred, thanks for having us on. Thank you for the recognition. It’s great to hear those names of those folks that have been working in the government sector for many years. Just nice to have our names, Susan and I’s names associated with those folks. Those are some great leaders. For those that don’t know, Bruce Klein started at HPE Federal. He even started within our group, and it was always in my career, it’s been great to talk to those folks and get their advice through the years. But every time you keep saying lifetime, I feel really old, that I’m getting old and things like that. It’s a different stage in life.

Then you mentioned on the move to the, we call it in our US industry, is basically our top 500 customers here in the United States. I’ve been doing this for the last few years. It’s a total blast. It’s been a great time learning something new, taking all my government experience and all the work in selling and focus on a new customer. I’ve really enjoyed what I’m doing right now.

Fred Diamond: Again, we’re doing today’s interview in the end of April of 2023. What are some of the big issues? The world’s gone through, obviously, a huge amount of changes over the last couple of years. Government marketplace, public sector has been hugely impacted because of the things they had to do on the health side, and of course, everything else related to so many things. What are some of the biggest issues and how are you solving some of those issues?

Joe Ayers: For the economic cycles, we’ve hit a slower one. Certainly, a big one for us is driving continued profitable growth. Then for a lot of folks that haven’t lived through more challenging economic times, we go through cycles in our economics and we’ve hit a slowdown. Things are more competitive, they’re a little slower to get signed off and done in terms of that. I think for all of us, in our world, it forces us to be more competitive and to offer greater value to our customers versus our competitors. I think we’ve thrived in it, but what I’m learning about our sales professionals and our engineers that are out there, you really need to work hard to know three things. You need to be smart on your industry. You need to have some technical knowledge about your solutions and how those might compare, benefit and risk versus some of your competitors. Then lastly, just some selling skills in terms of how would you position that? How could you challenge your customer to think about things differently so that they could run their enterprise a little bit more effectively?

Fred Diamond: Susan, how about you?

Susan Shapero: First of all, my sales force is probably one of the things that I’m most proud of within the organization. We have an outstanding team that really has a significant amount of domain expertise, a real passion for the mission, and ones that have become quite technical and focused on trying to help our customers understand what kind of capability we can help them bring to the fight. I agree with Joe. I think there’s a lot of distractions out there today between the economic downturn and folks are reading about layoffs in the industry. For me, my focus is making sure that I keep them focused on the job at hand right now, and making sure that their priority is supporting their customers and doing the right thing to be able to open new doors and profitably grow the business.

Fred Diamond: I want to follow up with something that you just said. Again, we’re recognizing our 13th annual Lifetime Achievement recipients. Joe mentioned that a lot of the people we’ve honored before have made huge marks in their career and the public sector marketplace. Even though the award isn’t exclusive to public sector, many people know, who are listening to the podcasts, that were based in the Washington DC region. Susan, you mentioned your sales professionals’ mission. I’d like you both to answer the question. You both have devoted large parts of your career to serving public sector, specifically federal. Why is that? Tell us a little bit about why you’ve chosen that as your mission.

Susan Shapero: I’m a person that has always believed that it’s my job to give back and to live a purpose-driven life. For me, one of the things that I absolutely love about serving federal is that I have an opportunity to make money to help support my family, but really that I feel I can make a contribution in keeping the nation safe and providing services to our citizens. I feel like it’s been a wonderful journey for me to be able to serve two purposes.

Fred Diamond: Joe, how about you? Again, you’ve moved into the industry side, as you call it, but you spent a large portion of your career serving public sector. Why is that and why was that your mission?

Joe Ayers: I ended up getting into it somewhat by accident. I needed money for college, ended up having the Army pay for my school at West Point, and that sent me to my path working with government. Similar to Susan, when I got out in ‘99, after working in the Pentagon, it was a real joy just to give back a little bit. For us in IT, it was nice to help those government folks that are, what are they doing? They’re trying. They’re trying to more effectively run our nation and run their agencies or services. Just like Susan mentioned, I feel proud for the work I’ve done over the years. You want to make a difference. You want to make their lives a little easier. You want to make them a little bit more effective in running their enterprises. I hope that over the years we’ve made a difference.

Fred Diamond: Again, HPE is one of the top brands, obviously, not just in public sector, but in the world of technology for a long time. You are able to attract a lot of the top tier sales professionals and top tier leaders. But what are they doing today? Again, it’s 2023, April, that we’re recording today’s show. A lot of people are going to be listening to it in the spring and summer of 2023. Joe, what are the elite sales leaders and the elite sales professionals doing right now?

Joe Ayers: I think you can learn a lot around watching the top folks, both engineers and the sales side. What do they do? They lead with and educate our customers on some of HPE’s differentiation. In our world, it’s our as-a-service model, which is GreenLake, and across our business units on HBC/AI, our compute business, our storage business, and then lastly on the Aruba piece. We have a lot of differentiation in that. Then those elite sellers really understand their customer’s IT environment, what their objectives are, and then our folks are smart enough to challenge those folks to maybe think differently about doing things, share best practices they see across the government, or in my case, industry, to really try to add some value.

Fred Diamond: Susan, how about you? What are the top professionals doing right now?

Susan Shapero: I believe that the best reps are constantly learning. The technology is consistently evolving and changing, and it’s going fast. I think that in order to keep up there’s got to be a focus on learning. The other thing that they need to continue focused on is the customer’s mission priorities. Because the magic doesn’t happen unless our capabilities enable the customer’s mission priorities. Just like Joe said, maybe years ago it was okay to be supportive and nice and knowledgeable. In today’s world, I think the best reps really have a point of view. They bring to the customer new ideas. They challenge the customer to look at a problem in a different way and maybe bring different ideas about what others are doing that might help them be successful.

Fred Diamond: Let’s pursue that a little bit further. Again, you both have tremendous expertise selling to government leaders. Again, representing a brand like HPE, that gives you access to the top level of customers at the highest level. We have a lot of people listening to the podcast who want to know, how can I better be of service to the highest ranking leaders? When I have the opportunity to get to them, what should I be doing? Give a little bit of advice for sales professionals selling to government leaders. How should they be? What should they be thinking about? What are some of the challenges that they’re faced with?

Susan Shapero: I feel like with government leaders, they’re not interested necessarily in just starting out hearing about our stuff. What they’re interested is knowing that we’ve done our homework and that we have a keen understanding of where they are and what their strategic priorities are, and creating alignment between our capabilities and those strategic priorities. I say the hard work begins after the sale happens. I’m a big believer in a cradle-to-grave approach that I think government leaders are looking for us to execute flawlessly, or if we do come up with bumps in the road, that we do quick corrections to make sure that when they do get capabilities from HPE, that it really does end up creating that value that they’re looking for.

Fred Diamond: Joe, how about you?

Joe Ayers: Susan nailed it. That was great. Let me highlight a couple of points though that Susan said. Do your homework prior. You need to come to the meeting having done your homework to offer insights. Don’t just give the dump on your latest solution or service that you offer, but rather offer some insights and maybe how that particular solution or service could really offer some value into what the customer’s trying to do. Prove that you’ve done homework, that you understand their environment and their enterprise and what they’re trying to accomplish. Then show that customer how your solution or service might fit.

Then think also Susan nailed it on the service and support, especially for government. They really need you to support them really wherever they go. In the case of government, you’re talking about some austere environments in some cases, and I think that support envelope that’s helping our customers, it really is important. You really need to take that into account, and hopefully you can explain that value when you’re discussing with customers, not only the solution and the services, but rather the full envelope of support that they’re going to get over the years.

Fred Diamond: I want to follow up with what you just said. We get a lot of young junior sales professionals who are thinking about a career. One thing I like to recommend to them, when people ask me, how do I have a real successful career in sales? I say, “Be selling to a huge market and become an expert in that marketplace so that you can deliver some of the insights that you had just talked about.” If you were to talk to a new sales professional, someone in their early to mid-20s who decides, “Yes, I’m going to pursue a career in sales,” what would you tell them about pursuing a career in government? You talked about the mission, why it’s important to you, but if they were to say to you, “Should I pursue a career in government sales?” What would you say?

Joe Ayers: I ended up coming to sales from being a former Army officer, and it was totally new to me, and I was wondering if I was going to be selling Kirby vacuums type of thing door to door. I didn’t quite know what the hell I was getting into. I have to say, and I’ll share some names, I was really blessed that I had some great mentors that I worked with. Jim Kelly that run Dell’s federal right now, Mike Craft, that just got promoted to run federal over at VMware. I worked with Jennifer Chronis back in the Army together. We’ve been growing up since she was at IBM. For me, I’ve had some great folks to learn from over the years, and I’d say that that was a real blessing.

For those that are interested, I think it can be a great career. I think what I’ve learned, I went from thinking Kirby vacuums door to door to rather, “Hey, customers may need help,” and every company is selling either a product, or a service, or both. Now, it’s those companies that can create great solutions and services and then demonstrate that value to customers, which is important. Personally, I have really loved it. Then lastly, anybody that really loves the whole pay-for-performance, this could be the career path for you.

Fred Diamond: Susan, how about you? If someone said to you, “Should I pursue a career in government sales?” What would you tell them?

Susan Shapero: First of all, Joe’s story made me smile and made me harken back to when I was a kid and I was actually going door to door to sell toothbrushes, combs, and sandwiches to raise money for the band and for the girl scouts. I was going to say there was a lot of opportunity for rejection and all that kind of thing. If I were to have a conversation with someone about going into sales, I would say that in our field it isn’t like being a vacuum salesperson that honestly, it does provide an opportunity for folks to bring capability that can really be useful to the customer. For me, it’s not like, “Hey, here’s my Bag of Wares,” but rather how can I create a connection between what the customer’s trying to do and what their needs are and our capability?

To me it’s pick a good company where you end up believing in what they do and the capability that they bring to the table, because that makes it much easier. I do feel like in sales there’s a little bit more risk than being in a career where you just go in and you get a paycheck for showing up and doing your job. Just like Joe said, if you are competitive and you love to win, then this could really be a good career for you as well.

Fred Diamond: One of our previous guests described selling into the public sector, particularly federal, as the NFL of sales, the National Football League. Everybody, it’s Fortune One, it’s the biggest marketplace in the world. It’s also, I believe, one of the most critical. I’m just curious, Susan, did you play an instrument in the band?

Susan Shapero: I did. I was a flute player in the band. Actually, I had a lot of fun in high school and college being able to go with all the different teams to games and getting an opportunity to participate that way.

Fred Diamond: Joe ,one thing that you and I have in common is you’ve spent a lot of time on the ice as a hockey instructor and coach. I never have, but my son is a hockey professional. I’m just curious. Susan mentioned being in the band. You spend a lot of time in the ice, hockey’s the most competitive sport, I believe, that there is, especially at the highest levels. Is there anything you’ve learned from being a hockey coach and spending so much time in the hockey world that has helped you become the sales leader that you are?

Joe Ayers: Yeah, parents can get crazy [laughs]. I think as Fred mentioned, as a hockey coach, I had worked with the Reston Raiders and coached high school kids back at Fort Bragg and then helped out with our high school team here locally. For me the lessons are you just love to teach the love of the game. I think age and time gives you a perspective of enjoy the run. For the crazy parents out there, let it go. Your little kid probably won’t be playing D1 anywhere, anytime soon, especially if you’re playing hockey in Northern Virginia. Your chances are very, very slim. Hey, enjoy the time with your kids. Enjoy the time going to get pizza and having a great time. The crazy competitiveness that we all deal with in work environment, I think some of that, you got to keep it in perspective in terms of what you’re doing.

In my case, as I thought about it, I don’t think a lot of sports are like this, it’s the pursuit of working on your skills. It’s that strive for excellence of always improving every day, whatever sports you’re involved with. Then lastly, having fun. Because if you don’t have fun, you won’t come back and you won’t improve your skills. I think the longer I did it, especially in coaching, I really focused on the fun part too of that aspect because that would motivate those young folks to want to come back and learn more.

Fred Diamond: Again, I want to thank Joe Ayers and Susan Shapero. They’re the Lifetime Achievement recipients for the Institute for Excellence in Sales at our award event on June 9th at the Tysons Corner McLean Hilton. Before I ask you for your final action step, I have one last question. Again, this is the Lifetime Achievement Award and you both have a lot of lifetime ahead of you, but how have you changed, if not just in the last three years? That’s a question I typically ask because the world has been through so much over the last three years. If you want to take it even back a little bit further than that. Again, you’ve reached the pinnacle. You probably have a lot more to go in your career, but you’ve reached very high level with the industry and HPE. How have you changed over the last three years? Again, if you want to take it even further back, that would be fine.

Susan Shapero: That’s an interesting question. My job has changed quite a bit over the last three years. I was running the intelligence community for well over a decade. Then now I’ve taken over the responsibility for running the US public sector business. For me, being able to take a broader look at what’s going on on the playing field, and I realize that I have a lot more dials that I need to be able to turn in order to make the operation work. For me, being very honest about what’s working, what’s not working, and having the courage to actually quickly make some changes when it’s not working, fail fast and then adjust. Making sure that I really do continually take care of those folks that are my most important assets, which is my sales team, and making sure that they’re well paid and that I set them up for success.

Fred Diamond: Joe, how about you? How have you changed, if not just in the last three years, over your career?

Joe Ayers: First I must mention, you can’t see me on the podcast on a Zoom call here. I’m smiling because I’m listening to Susan and giggling that once you make that step from senior director, early VP, into more of a major role running a large federal or public business, it is significantly different. There’s a lot going on and there’s a lot of folks that you may not have worked with before, and your span and influence greatly increases. It’s been fun to watch Susan in action. She’s doing a great job leading HPE’s public business. We do have some fun discussions for all those that are listening in terms of the growth that comes along with that because now she realizes by the time you get to Friday, your brain is totally fried because you’re so tired because it’s been such a busy week.

Now for me, my last three years, I’ve got the privilege of working with our US industries team. We focus on roughly our top 500 US corporate customers. I got to tell you, I’m really loving it. After 30 years of doing public work, it’s been fun. I get to work with financial customers, retail, insurance customers, manufacturing folks, healthcare, life sciences customers. For me, I’m not only having fun, I’m learning a ton. I’m learning a ton from our sales professionals and our experts that we have within our team, and they’ve been really patient with me. Too often I use some federal examples and they’ll get mad at me, but now I’m really learning about GE and how does Disney run their enterprise, and what is happening with Ahold and the self-checkout and how does that work? I’m having a lot of fun learning about all these things.

Fred Diamond: You’ve both given us so many great ideas. Give us one final idea, something people can put into play right now after listening to today’s podcast.

Joe Ayers: Final action, embrace the change. You’re living in an environment now, there’s more change on humankind than ever before with some of the AI and machine learning environments that we have out there. I would suggest embrace it, understand what’s going on, and then work really hard to be a professional. That means understanding the selling, you’re selling skills. Whether that be challenges, sale methodology, whatever you want to use, understand your industry and really get into it. You need to show up with a basic knowledge of your customer and what they’re trying to do and understanding total environment. Then lastly, you’re going to need to work on your technical skills and know the basics at least. Not only understand your solution, but what are the benefits that you can offer, what are the possible risks, and how would your solution play with others that are out in the industry, so that you can give your customers a fair perspective and add value to that discussion.

Fred Diamond: Susan, bring us home.

Susan Shapero: I would say be bold. As you go forward, sometimes some of the things that we’re being asked to do are a little bit scary, to voice your point of view when it might be different than others, to end up calling on new customers rather than those that know you and love you and trust you, to learn new technology when you’ve mastered a previous one, and you need to evolve. Sometimes it’s scary and I would say that, acknowledge that, but do it anyway.

Fred Diamond: As a matter of fact, I interviewed a gentleman named Ron Police, who was also in the public sector marketplace for a long time. He spent a lot of time at Oracle with our second Lifetime Achievement recipient, Jay Nussbaum. I said, “What advice would Jay give?” He said, “Be bold.” I actually have on a post-it note right here in front of my wall, be bold, in honor of Jay and in honor of both of you who will be our 13th Lifetime Achievement recipient. Thank you both for the great insights today. My name is Fred Diamond and this is the Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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