EPISODE 646: Goal Setting Strategies for Long-Term Sales Success with HashiCorp Public Sector Leader Melissa Palmer

The Sales Game Changers Podcast was recognized by YesWare as the top sales podcast. Read the announcement here.

Subscribe to the Podcast now on Apple Podcasts!

Become a partner of the elite Institute for Excellence in Sales (IES) and take your sales team to the next level!

Purchase Fred Diamond’s best-sellers Love, Hope, Lyme: What Family Members, Partners, and Friends Who Love a Chronic Lyme Survivor Need to Know and Insights for Sales Game Changers now!

Today’s show featured an interview with Melissa Palmer, President HashiCorp Federal Inc.

Read more about the Institute for Excellence in Sales Premier Women in Sales designation and program here.

Find Melissa on LinkedIn.

MELISSA’S ADVICE:  “Challenge yourself to be the most active listener that you possibly can be, both with your customers, with your colleagues, with your manager. I think we can all get better at that.”


Fred Diamond: Melissa, I’m very excited to talk to you. Tell us a little bit first about HashiCorp, and what do you guys do?

Melissa Palmer: Thanks for having me today, Fred. HashiCorp delivers automation for the multi-cloud environment, not just for the public sector, but for corporations across the globe. You might have heard of one of our core products called Terraform, which just in the last 12 months has been downloaded over 450 million times. Really a ubiquitous product out there in the market for any organization that’s looking to automate their infrastructure workloads.

Fred Diamond: Tell us a little bit about your background. You’ve worked for some of the major technology companies, you worked for a lot of smaller firms as well. Give us a little bit of a peek into your career path that brought you to HashiCorp.

Melissa Palmer: I came up through the traditional sales ranks, if you will. I started out of college, and this will date me a little bit, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. I started at what was then Bell Atlantic, now Verizon, obviously, selling advertising as an inside sales rep right out of college. What was really neat about that opportunity though, which you don’t see very often today, is there was an intensive six-week introductory sales training program. Literally they sent you away for six weeks to a different location, kind of like the old days of IBM or Xerox, where they had very intensive sales training programs.

I was really lucky that I had that opportunity at the very beginning of my career to learn some really key fundamental sales skills and processes that frankly have stayed with me through my entire career. But that’s how I got my start. Worked my way up. Went from inside sales, was very successful. Overachiever, moved into the field, then decided that I wanted to move into technology, which I have a liberal arts degree, so I don’t have a technology background by education. I literally just started reading everything that I could on tech to bring myself up to speed on my own time outside of work.

Got the opportunity to go to work for, at the time, a startup called Intelligent Decisions, which is still around today. I think they were acquired. But at that time, it was very much a startup founded by two practitioner technologists that literally took me under their wing and taught me a lot about computers and technology. They literally had me take a PC apart and put it back together again. Which if you know me personally, I’m one of the least handy people around, even though I live on a farm. That was a really interesting experience.

Then from there I think hard work and luck tend to intersect, and I was very lucky that from Intelligent Decisions, I was able to, through my network, move over to a company called Sterling Software, which at the time was a tier one software company, sort of the place to be. What’s really interesting is I was in one of the divisions that sold mainframe software, so the mainframe infrastructure management at the time for the mainframe. That was not in the public sector. I actually started my career out on the commercial enterprise side of the business. Again, just worked my way up, started out with a very small territory, was rookie of the year. As I said, a very traditional sales background, I would call it.

From there, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve worked for some really top growth companies in the software sector. One of my favorites is VMware. I was actually at the very startup days of VMware Federal and was there from 200 million to just under 4 billion. I was there seven years, just what I call meteoric growth. You could probably count them on one hand, companies that have grown at that clip as VMware. There’s just a couple other that you would put up there in that category. It was just a really fun and really amazing experience for me in my career to be a part of something, frankly, that special. Not just from a growth and revenue perspective, but we were also frankly just changing the landscape of the way organizations manage their IT from a virtualization perspective, was brand new at that time. At the beginning it was very much an evangelical, getting out there and trying to explain what virtualization even was.

When I first started, it was before we had a hypervisor. Very, very early days at VMware. But again, just saw really amazing growth and was able to help the DOD customers, I focused on the DOD at that time, really do much more with less. Which is very critical for them to achieve DOD missions so they could get their infrastructure where it needed to be so that they could focus more on their mission capability, which I was really proud of being a part of that.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk a little bit about that. First of all, I actually interviewed with Sterling Software in 1999. I worked for a company called Compuware, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, in product marketing, and was looking to make a move back to the DC area. I also remember I worked for Apple Computer, and I remember my first year at Apple, we did almost all training. Like you said, those days are long gone. But I want to focus on the last thing you said, where you were moved into working with DOD. At the levels and the companies that you were working for, you were helping government customers work with complex problems, and government, especially DOD, is solving problems around the world, keeping people safe and those kinds of things. Talk about your role and a sales professional’s role in helping customers like government solve these complex problems.

Melissa Palmer: The first piece is really understanding the customer’s mission. DOD is very unique and specific. Unless you come from a military background, which by the way, I did not, I don’t come from a military family even. My grandparents were in the military, but in terms of my own core family, there was no one in the military. But I have a strong interest and respect and I’m a huge patriot, so I was very interested in supporting the military. Frankly, it got me excited to get up every morning, that that was the customer that I was helping shape the future of their technology direction.

I think the key really is understanding their mission. Because technology can be applied in so many different ways, but it’s really critical to take a step back and invest the time and the effort to really understand what the mission is and what they’re trying to accomplish. I will tell you, especially at VMware, but in general, I think you can be collaborative with the customer and sometimes even help them to shape what their needs and their requirements are. But it goes back to first, you have to frankly just listen.

Before I went into leadership, one of the things that I really tried to focus on as a sales rep is super active listening. I can’t really emphasize that enough. What I see as a leader, oftentimes when I’m coaching my sales reps, is they’re so excited because frankly, sometimes it takes them quite a while to get that first meeting with a customer. They may have worked for months to get a meeting, and so they’ve prepared, they know their product and the tech and all the bits and bytes. They go in and they might ask a couple of questions, but they just want to get to that presentation. I see that over and over again. I think that’s the critical difference, is one of the things I did as a rep is I played a game with myself during the meeting to see how long I could keep the customer talking. Customers like to talk about themselves and their problems, and so it’s cathartic for them. I think it really served me well because I did 80%, 90% listening and maybe 10%-ish percent talking and presenting.

Fred Diamond: Melissa, that’s a great point in two sides. One is, prior to the pandemic, I used to do every interview in person. I would come to the sales VP’s offices, and one of the questions I would ask would be, what is one of your main strengths? Listening would come up all the time. People would say, the 66% solution, or you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order. We came up with a metric that if the customer is doing 95% of the talking, then it’s a successful meeting. Then some people say, “Well, what if you’re doing a demo?” Okay, good. If you’re doing a demo, of course, you should be doing more of the talking, but in those peer meetings.

I want to go a little bit deeper, I love that idea of the game. Talk a little more about what some of your advice would be for the sales professionals listening to today’s show on how they can become a better listener. Because you’re right, there is that drive that you want to get to the question and the presentation, and here’s what we have. But one thing that’s really intriguing about your answer is the understanding that the customer will dictate. Even though we have our quotas and our timing and our quotas, the customer will dictate when the sale is going to happen.

Melissa Palmer: For sure. I think most of the listeners are probably in a very complex, what I would call enterprise sales environment, it’s not one and done. You’re never going to go in a first meeting and come out with a PO at the end of the meeting. It doesn’t generally work like that. Especially in the public sector and the federal government, just the procurement process alone can take months or longer. I think maybe the first piece would be to change your goal or your expectation from that first meeting. Instead of, “Hey, I got to get through the 28 PowerPoint slides I put together for this meeting,” maybe think more in terms of, “I want to really get to as deep of an understanding as I possibly can about the customer’s environment, about the customer’s problem set, about what personally the customer or the economic buyer cares about and what keeps them up at night.” I think changing your mindset a little bit. I have a personal anecdotal story about this one that I’ll share.

When I first joined HashiCorp, which is a little over a year ago, which I’m basically the general manager. I run the entire public sector organization and business. I had to do my first presentation to our C-suite, our senior leadership team, on the state of the business, very typical cadence, usually once a quarter or a little bit more. I had my first one, which you never know what to expect, the players and what their hot buttons are, what they care about, et cetera. I did my preparation. I thought I was super prepared. I went in and I gave the presentation. I basically had one goal. We’re public, so I’m not going to share any details, but I set out on the meeting that I had one thing I wanted to accomplish. If nothing else, I wanted to come out of the meeting with an action item that got me going in the direction of what that one goal was.

The meeting did not go as I planned. It went in a completely different direction from my goal. My goal was obviously for my team, obviously it wasn’t for me personally, but it was one of the critical aspects that I felt we needed to continue to grow the public sector organization and business. I came out of the meeting not happy, I felt like I had not achieved what I set out to achieve for that meeting. I debriefed with my boss and our CRO, and they thought it was great. They had a completely different take on the outcome of the meeting than I did. I thought it was terrible. They were like, “You did so great,” high-fiving me, virtual high fives. I was just like, “Okay, how can we be so far off on the debrief of the presentation?” Then a couple of days and a week went by and I thought, “Melissa, you’re silly to begin with. Your goal was probably not realistic. It’s not one and done.” Our whole C-suite just met me basically in essence for the first time. Me thinking that I’m going to change anything significant in one meeting is just not realistic, frankly.

I think that’s a big piece of it, is make sure you have a realistic goal. I think it goes back to what I was saying, the active listening and the goal should really be to seek to really understand your customer’s requirements, needs, problems at a very deep level. Not just surface level. I see that oftentimes too, when I’m doing account reviews or opportunity reviews with my sales reps, I’ll ask questions and they’ll be like, “What’s the compelling event?” “Well, they have a modernization project.” I’m like, “Well, that’s a project, but that’s not really a compelling event.” Then I’ll ask more questions, “Well, what’s their timeline for the project? What happens if the project doesn’t meet the timeline goals? Is there a budget?” et cetera, lots of other questions.

It’s really interesting that a lot of times they don’t know those second, third, fourth level questions that I ask. It goes back to because they’ve, “The customer has a modernization project, check the box, and let’s move on to the presentation.” It’s just a theme that I see coaching my sales reps on a consistent basis, is that not digging deep enough, I think, in what we call discovery. I say that we should basically, when you look at the sales process, there’s discovery, there’s needs analysis, there’s presentation, technical validation, procurement, et cetera, et cetera. I say discovery should be woven through every single step in the sales process.

Basically, you never get out of discovery. Discovery forever, in essence, because you should always be seeking to further understand and also just clarify and make sure that you’re on the right track. To go back to what I was saying, this is a complex sales cycle that we’re dealing with. We’re not selling a widget. We’re not selling a pencil or a pen or something simple. We’re selling very complex technology. I just think that’s probably one of the biggest deficits that I see as a sales leader.

Fred Diamond: Actually, when we talk about complex enterprise, there’s multiple people involved. Any deal can go astray if you don’t understand all the players and what their missions are, what their personal missions are in some cases. Of course, with government, almost everything is publicized, and we understand the direction of the agencies and where they’re going. But at the same time, there’s human beings involved in that market, and what are their career aspirations? What are their reasons for doing this? What hasn’t worked in the past that led them to inviting you to come in to share some of your ideas?

Melissa, president, you’re also a woman in sales, obviously, and many people who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast know that at the Institute for Excellence in Sales, we are the center of excellence for corporate women in sales best practices with our Premier Women in Sales Employer designation. Of course, we just published our latest best practices for women in sales and for underrepresented communities. What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a woman in sales and how have you overcome them?

Melissa Palmer: That’s a great question, Fred. would point this back to my childhood. I know that that’s going to sound a little odd, but I was raised by two working parents. My mom worked. Both my parents didn’t go to college. They both were very successful in their careers respectively. My mom literally worked her way up in the school system, basically from the very bottom to the very top. She was the area director by the time she retired. She literally worked in the county government her whole career. My mom was very direct that she wanted me to politely and respectfully always question authority.

I think I was the only one of my friends that was raised that way, frankly, because I’d literally go to my friend’s house for a sleepover when I was a little kid, probably, I don’t know, seven, eight, something like that. We’d sit down for dinner, and I was a little kid among the little kids, and we’d sit down to dinner and they would pile all this food onto my plate. I’d be like, “No, no, no, I can’t eat that much. I’m sorry.” Then they’d be like, “Well, you have to stay and finish your plate before you get up.” I’m just thinking to myself, like, “There’s no way. That’s not possible,” and that’s not the way I was raised. I was raised to take small portions, finish it, if you want second portions, great, happy second, third, whatever. But I was never made to finish my plate, which at the time was very atypical. All kids were made to finish their plate before they got to get up and go play. Literally, I would have to have them call, like, “I’m sorry, but you need to call my mom.” They would have to get up from the dinner table and call my mom, and my mom would be like, “Yep, she’s right. She doesn’t need to finish her plate if she’s full.”

Anyway, so that’s just one example of the way I was raised. It’s served me, frankly, throughout my whole life, and definitely throughout my career, as being a woman in a very male dominated industry. Almost always, I’m the only woman at the table in a boardroom. Almost always I’m the only woman in a table, even supporting DOD as a sales rep, there are not a lot of women in DOD, in the military. I was almost always the only woman at the table.

For myself, I never differentiated, frankly, I was just trying to do a job and do it to the best of my ability and be as prepared and effective as possible. But what I realize now is not everybody was raised the way I was, so I try to go out of my way as a woman leader to one, set the right example. Two, I try to mentor and bring along as many women and diverse team members as I possibly can, because I know that diversity of thought and collaboration, just frankly, is more effective in growth. That’s the other thing.

The other thing is protecting women in the workplace. We’re way beyond the Me Too movement, but I’ve been in the industry for a long time. I’ve always been able to protect myself because of the way I was raised, but not all women fall into that category. I have been able to do this throughout my career. I definitely look out for and try to protect other women in business and make sure that they’re respected, they’re treated equally and fairly, and make sure that they know that they have a voice and they have a mentor in me that they can come to if they need to bounce ideas or need help really in any way. My door is basically always open from a mentor perspective.

Fred Diamond: We talk a lot about mentorship, and we also talk a lot about sponsorship. Talk a little bit about that, about what advice you would give to women in sales who want to reach the levels that you have? Again, we’re talking today with Melissa Palmer, the president of HashiCorp Federal, and she’s worked at some of the top technology companies in the history of technology. She’s also worked for companies of all diverse sizes, if you will. She’s also worked in Department of Defense, which is probably, I’ve always said, probably the most important customer of technology in the world, for all the reasons that people could probably imagine that we’ve even addressed. It’s not saying that every other industry isn’t important, but the mission of the Defense Department is literally about saving lives around the world. Talk about what advice specifically you would like to give to other women to continue to grow and to reach the level that you have.

Melissa Palmer: Well, I think it goes back to what I mentioned before, which is I love the term lifelong learner. I’m big on music, but rather than listening to music, oftentimes I listen to podcasts when I’m walking the dog, or in the car, or in the shower even. It’s just an opportunity to utilize that time. I think today there’s information available in so many different platforms that it’s frankly almost difficult to sort out where you want to spend your time. But I think being a lifelong learner, both in terms of your career itself, technology, and where technology is going, but I think it all starts with a personal goal, which sounds super simplistic, but I will tell you that as a sales rep, and I tell my reps this all the time, I’m a whiteboard person. I’ve got a huge whiteboard in my home office, in all my offices. The goal for the team is always at the top left of my whiteboard. I see it every morning when I walk into my office. I know where we are, I know what we’ve closed.

The goal is not always just revenue oriented. The goal could be, “Hey, there’s this big initiative that’s going to help my team grow and help make their jobs easier. I need to get this initiative done by the end of the year,” whatever it is. First of all, take time away and figure out what your goal is, either in your current job or what you want to do next. Then you’ve got to craft a plan for how to get there. If you’re unsure of your plan, find a mentor, find a colleague that you can bounce it off of and get some different input and ideas.

Another thing that I did, which was really helpful when I was a sales rep, is we created this, basically, in essence, it was a networking group. Because we all did DOD, just play on words, we called it the Circle of Trust networking group. Basically, this was when I was at VMware, all of the other key technologies, like let’s say you cover the Navy, for instance. We know that the Navy is big in Microsoft, and Oracle, and NetApp, EMC, whatever, maybe NetApp and EMC don’t want to come to the same networking event, but you get my point. You’d figure out what those tier one software and hardware vendors were for that particular customer, and then you get everyone together and you exchange information on what projects the customer’s working on, what each individual OEM is helping the customer with. It was just a really great way to stay on top of your customer in a different sort of way.

A moment ago, you talked about reading all of the published information that the CIOs and the CISOs put out on their individual agencies and what their objectives are, which of course is step one. But to your point, you’ve got not just the individual CIO’s personal objectives, but every single time I meet with a CIO I read their published information, but then what they share is usually a little bit different than what’s published. Could be because that was published a year ago and things have changed since then. Could be that they’ve encountered some political headwinds and they haven’t quite been able to get to where they wanted to go. I think just looking at being a subject matter expert on your customer and coming at it from as many different angles as possible. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket from a G2 or data perspective.

Fred Diamond: Actually, we’ve interviewed a bunch of CIOs for the Sales Game Changers Podcast and asked them, “What do you want from sales professionals and sales leaders?” They didn’t answer with what is the 10-year strategic plan. It’s more how do we make deals go faster in your company? Or who is the person on your team that’s involved with maybe DE&I initiatives? Or who could we talk to to understand this, that, and the other things? I remember when I asked the question a couple of times, I expected, if you’re dealing with Amazon, we want to talk to Jeff Bezos or whoever’s running AWS. It wasn’t that. It was not simple things, but things that would help them be more successful.

Melissa Palmer, one thing that I’m reminded of frequently through our conversation here is that the successful sales professionals at the top of their game for a long time, it’s not about selling, it’s about the service and the teamwork with the customer. I’ve interviewed 30-year veterans of companies like Microsoft, and Oracle, and Dell, and companies like that, and they’ve been in touch with their customer for the journey as well. Because in most cases, the customer doesn’t want to leave. Salespeople might go from company to company and they’re required and stuff like that. In a lot of cases, the customer wants to serve whomever they’re working for. Maybe it’s the government, or financial services, or healthcare, whatever it might be, retail, hospitality. They want that long career in that industry. How can you, as the sales professional, help them be successful?

Before I ask you for your final thought, I want to thank you for all this great information here. Melissa, you talked about being a lifelong learner. I’m going to put you on the spot. What are you trying to learn right now? What is the top thing that you’re spending your time trying to become smarter on?

Melissa Palmer: It’s hard to choose just one, therein lies the challenge. But I’m reading a book right now called Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. We have a new president at HashiCorp, President of Worldwide Field Operations, Susan St. Ledger, that came over from Salesforce, and then Splunk, and then Okta before. She’s actually been on our board for a while, but she just joined to help from an operational leadership perspective at Hashi. It was actually one of her suggestions. It’s a really interesting book because it’s very much psychology based and it talks about how sales leaders, or leaders in general really, can get the most out of their teams. It’s really, I think, eye-opening in terms of asking the right questions and framing the way your team thinks, but by asking very specific questions.

I find it really fascinating, frankly, the psychology piece of it, because she actually has done studies, she’s an executive coach, where they’ve actually found that the IQ of the individuals that are being coached in this way actually increases. The whole premise of the book is basically, how do you get the best from your team? That’s really what I’m trying to create here at HashiCorp. I tell not just my team, but anyone that I’m trying to bring on board, my goal, not just to grow the revenue and help support our customers, which obviously that’s all very important, but what my goal ultimately is, is to build the best public sector team around the beltway.

I want to be where there’s a line at the door, everyone wants to come to work at HashiCorp Public Sector because it’s a fun place to work. You can grow in your career. You can do very meaningful work that helps, to your earlier point, probably the most critical customer out there. It’s not just DOD. There are critical customers. You’ve got lots of different agencies within DHS, Fed Financials has very critical customers as well that we support. I think that’s really it in a nutshell, is I want to build the best team that I possibly can where everyone wants to flock to work because it’s fun and because they grow personally and professionally and they do meaningful work.

Fred Diamond: I’ve been calling your company HashiCorp the entire time. Is it more officially called HashiCorp, or does it matter?

Melissa Palmer: I don’t think it matters actually. It’s tomato, tomato. I think our founders, they’re both born in the US, we’re a US-based publicly traded company. Hashimoto is the last name of one of the two founders. That’s where the name came from originally. It’s a surname at the end of the day, so I don’t think it matters.

Fred Diamond: We could have gone so many different directions with this interview, Melissa. I want to thank you. There are so many topics that we’d love to maybe have you back on and focus on in the future. Servicing the public sector, lifelong learning, ways for women in sales to be more effective, because that is a huge part of what we do at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. I want to just acknowledge you on being a guest on today’s show, your success and your career. I love to hear about what you’re looking to accomplish at HashiCorp as well. Best of luck. You said you’ve been there for a year. Again, we’re doing today’s interview in the middle of November in 2023. We look forward to continuing the relationship.

Give us a final action step. You’ve given us so many great ideas, but give us one thing specific that people should do right now after listening to today’s show or reading the transcript.

Melissa Palmer: I would say challenge yourself to be the most active listener that you possibly can be, both with your customers, with your colleagues, with your manager. I think we can all get better at that.

Fred Diamond: I appreciated your bringing that up. Like I said, back in the day when we did the interviews before the pandemic live, I would ask the question, which I really don’t ask anymore, is what is your superpower? What are you great at? Listening came up all the time, where I finally said, “Tell us some specific things,” which you’ve given us today. Most people are “listening” for their opportunity to talk. We see that all the time. People might be nodding, but we know that they’re just waiting for their time. I loved your answer before, because we’ve said many times, if the customer’s doing 95% of the talking, it is a great conversation, because most customers love what they discover, not necessarily what they’re told. As you’re talking, you begin to identify things, and things come up and they unfold. I’ve seen so many customers’ eyes light up just because they’ve realized something that they’ve been able to have had the opportunity to talk about. I love that point.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *