EPISODE 395: SAIC’s Nyla Beth Gawel Explains Why Sales Pros Who Understand Corporate Strategy Are 5 Times More Likely to Succeed

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on July , 226021. It featured SAIC Sr. VP for Corporate Strategy Nyla Beth Gawel.]

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NYLA BETH’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “I like the acronym Be bold, B-O-L-D. It stands for be future-focused. What’s coming for your customers and what is your company looking to do? Those two parallel paths, be future-focused and look out for what’s on the horizon. The second is orient around outcomes. You heard me mention that word, outcomes a lot, so the O in bold, orient around those. Don’t think of sales as the goal is the deal closed, think of it as that end outcome that you want your final customer and your company to achieve. Then the L is really learn about your company. I spend a lot of time in corporate strategy and people say, “What’s our strategy again?” Engage and ask. If you don’t know who your corporate strategy leaders are, if you don’t know what your corporate strategy goals and objectives are, ask, and really learn and make sure you understand it because it’s important to what you’re communicating to your customers. The D in bold is data, and data comes from everywhere. It doesn’t just come from our marketing leads, our inbounds and our outbounds. Be the sensor, drive yourself with data by paying attention to what’s happening into your surroundings and what’s happening in your customer’s arena and bring that together. I’m very confident that if you can follow that and be BOLD, that everyone here is going to definitely be able to continue down their successful path.


Gina Stracuzzi: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role.

Nyla Beth Gawel: Given what you just said about some of the next step, maybe I’ll start with the things that are most important in life. I cheer for the Georgetown Hoyas when it comes to college basketball season, the Philadelphia Eagles during the NFL, and the Washington Nationals in baseball seasons. I’m a little all over the National League in the Mid Atlantic there. But I’m also a mother of two children, two rescue dogs, and a passionate traveler. I lead with those aspects because those are some of the constants in my life. One of the things that I hope to share today is what I do in my career and how that relates to those constants.

I am the Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy at SAIC. For those of you who may not be familiar with SAIC, we are a $7.2 billion Fortune 500 company. We serve government customers, predominantly federal, as well as state and local, in an array of services, solutions, and products that are heavily focused in areas such as digital modernization, systems engineering, analytics, and even global logistics and supply chain. It is a really diverse company spanning unique missions that we all as citizens benefit from with the government.

Gina Stracuzzi: I was taken with your title, which is Senior VP for Corporate Strategy. Corporate strategy can mean so many things to different companies. I would love for you to tell us a little bit about your role and how you got to that role, because a lot of women that listen to the webcast and the podcast, they are exploring their options and also sometimes figuring out, “Do I want to be in sales or is there another role I could have that influences sales?”

Nyla Beth Gawel: To answer your question, I’d like to start with the how did I get here. To your point, there’s so many times in my career where I looked up and I thought, what’s next? If you had asked me 22 years ago, was my goal to be a senior VP of corporate strategy? I probably would have looked at you and said, “What’s corporate strategy?” Really, it’s one of those things so many of us can look back on our series of experiences and really look how we went from opportunity to opportunity, and we can put a great narrative around that. But it’s often hard to be at one point trying to chart what’s the next narrative. For me, what’s been, as I talked about, those four elements, what’s been constant in my career and in my life is that I’m a type of person that likes to ask, to what end? What are we trying to achieve?

What I found throughout my career, I was drawn to technology. Technology not for technology’s sake, but technology, again, to the question of to what end, what can it achieve? What can it empower or enable? I’ve spent time working around government, working around research and development management of programs. I found that the more I asked those questions, I naturally became drawn into leadership roles that really were not helping. They were really looking at the entirety of an organization and helping shape what was the organization trying to do. To what end did an organization exist? To what end was an organization trying to achieve its mission, or a vision, or a purpose? Along the way, what I found is I ended up in roles that had the word strategy in it.

Over time, I’ve spent a lot of time looking and understanding what does that word strategy really mean? If my journey was a reflective narrative anchored in technology and the enablement that technology unlocks, the missions in the government world that it can achieve. As I think about now leading corporate strategy for a company solely focused in this space, it really means looking at and leading strategic planning, sales and growth enablement, and a lot of the alliances and partnerships that have to exist in our corporate market. As it relates to sales and often business development, which I know for those of you maybe from the professional service arena, business development or BD may relate more than direct sales, I think it’s important to understand what is corporate strategy.

For me, I think of corporate strategy as fundamentally what organizes and aligns a company’s goals and investments, all to enable the outcomes. Outcomes of customers, employees, and shareholders. There’s a lot to unpack in those words, so I want to start a little bit with the first, corporate strategy is what organizes and aligns. I think about that as the framework. It’s the framework that needs to clearly define and articulate what is your company’s vision and mission? How is there a framework that can make sure that every business decision that’s made is towards an end goal, an end goal that’s shared and communicated internally and externally? If corporate strategy organizes and aligns, what is it organizing and aligning? It’s the goals investment.

I think about folks especially who are working hard against business plans, sales targets and goals. The corporate strategy I think of is that overarching framework that addresses why do you have those sales goals? To what end are you trying to achieve? I’m sure we all have financial targets, those are important as leaders in businesses, but how is the company organizing to really enable those through its company investment? If the framework or if the corporate strategy is organizing and aligning against some goals, and then the supporting investments, then the final piece of corporate strategy is to really define what are the intended outcomes. What does that look like to your customers, to your colleagues and employees, and then for public companies or those who have investors, to those shareholders, to the people who are counting on it? I think this is where when we put all that together and we think about it, it’s the framework that really creates from the very top of a company to the absolute most frontlines, a clear alignment of objectives. Such that it can be communicated, it can be shared, and ultimately everybody knows why they’re doing what they’re spending so many hours and passionate service working to achieve.

Gina Stracuzzi: That is clear and understandable and it really speaks to the holistic view. As you and I were speaking yesterday, your strategy approach always involves the client view as well, which is really important. I’d like you to address that a little bit. Also, talk to us a little bit about where sales enters that picture and how they all align together.

Nyla Beth Gawel: I think when we use the word outcome, we all of a sudden transcend the sales role, the marketing role, the account management and delivery team role, the corporate roles, because we begin to focus on what is really the end state we’re trying to achieve for our clients and our customer. I think that the word outcome, when we think about it through a lot of traditional sales, materials and training, we think about inbound and outbound, we think about the way in which we want to reach, the best ways, the organization. All the things we have to have buttoned up to execute on great sales plans. But ultimately, I really believe that sales don’t end with the deal. They end with the continuation of a customer or a client relationship, which is always about achieving that outcome.

Now, if you’re in a sales BD, and even to some extent I would say marketing role, driving towards those outcomes is as important, which means you have to have your eye on two parallel but very important [outcomes]. One, the customer or the client’s outcome. What is it he or she or they are trying to achieve? The other part is how does that relate to what your company’s intended outcomes are? If you’re in a product environment, you can think about this as you can sell a product, a widget, let’s call it. But what is your company’s agenda in terms of why they built that, what they want to achieve, what’s its sunset duration, its support needs? And on the customer side, what are they trying to achieve with it? What are they trying to actually do? I think that the word outcome helps people really, no matter where they fit in an organization, have that unique and consistent orientation to their efforts.

Now, from a corporate strategy perspective, you might say, “Why does that directly matter to sales and business development teams?” I’ll just cite a research that the Harvard Business Review did probably about 15 years ago now, and they called it the Evergreen Project. What was really pointed out is that as we would measure by finances, most successful financial companies have that backwards. Companies that are very successful financially, one thing they had in common without any exceptions is that those with a clearly defined and well-articulated strategy that indicated the outcomes of what their business expectations were, outperformed those without 5X in a sales advantage. Let’s think about it if you’re in sales and business development.

By having an understanding a very clear corporate agenda, corporate strategy, you already are five times more likely to exceed in your sales. There’s a direct correlation to this concept of alignment, and clear goals, and the shared understanding of parallel outcomes. 15X, by the way, for total shareholder returns. For those who are trying to keep shareholders happy, even more important. I think that that’s where, to me, when I work with our sales, and in our company it’s really truly more business development, which has a lot to do with professional services, a slightly different approach. But it’s really about making sure that the framework that the company’s going to achieve matches and is aligned to the framework that our business development and our delivery professionals really need to have and adopt that meets their success in the eyes of the customers. For us it’s all oriented in that word outcomes.

Gina Stracuzzi: The statistics alone that you quoted from the Harvard Business Review really tell everything. It’d be interesting to know how many of the product companies follow that same kind of thinking. I know there’s a big difference in services companies and product companies, and they go at things completely differently for sound reasons, but it would be interesting to know if there’s a big difference in a complete sales strategy versus a business development strategy and where those two might diverge.

Nyla Beth Gawel: I do think there’s probably some divergence. I think the divergence is often in the processes that are used, some of the techniques, but I think more often than not, what’s consistent, and I think it’s true in products and/or in services, the goal isn’t to just deliver the widget. The widget, by the way in services is just the person. It’s still the knowledge, but it’s to make sure you’re achieving a customer’s goal. We hear this all the time now, customer experience. What’s the customer experience? I think that’s true if you’re selling software, I think that’s true if you’re selling transformation services and project management, what is it that you are enabling somebody else to achieve? I think that’s the part that transcends, the processes might be a little different to support that, but the strength and what time and time again we’re seeing in research and in our own engagement is that it’s the understanding. It’s almost like that old mantra, put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, and understanding their success metrics and how you are accretive and supportive to them.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk a little bit about how your focus and strategy has changed over the last 18 months. This word has come to mean so many things, but whatever pivot you might have had to do to align with what was happening.

Nyla Beth Gawel: It is undeniable that the past 18 months have probably put everything up for consideration in different ways. For me, when I think about strategy, I think about really some interesting areas of what we’re looking to achieve. We have certain financial goals. We have certain portfolio and business goals that we want to look at. But there’s two other very important elements of corporate strategy that are essential, which is the employee experience and something we refer to as ESG, the environmental, societal, and governance focus of our company.

Now, how does this relate to in terms of what might have changed in the last 18 months? I would say that those two other pieces, the employee and the societal and the benefits as a company, actually, I think heightened into attention. I think that matters for everybody, whether you be in a sales, a BD, or marketing job, because as we all know, it’s just been harder. It’s harder to connect when you have just a video, sometimes it’s harder to build rapport and even trust. The focus, I believe in the last 18 months, has really elevated those. Some might call it the softer areas, if somebody wants to call them the squishy areas of strategy, but they might be squishy, but they’re really, really important. The reason is because that’s who we are. That is the engagement that we need to have.

I would say in the past 18 months, we’ve really had to focus on the people, the employees, and frankly then the infrastructure and the tools that can enable it. It’s additive to the hard-driving more traditional financial and portfolio type of strategy goals that companies are looking to achieve. There’s a famous book by Simon Sinek that says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I think the past 18 months have showed that. The best strategy, the best PowerPoints and analyses are definitely not going to matter when you’re faced with truly some obviously global crises if your culture can’t support your people and therefore can’t support your clients and customer along the way.

Gina Stracuzzi: We see sometimes the invisible cultures that exist in corporations really knocking up against their goals and their strategies, and they can’t figure out why. But there are these underlying currents and things that are institutional waves, and they get in the way of things. It is the companies that can recognize that there are still cultural influences that they need to address that are really coming out of all of this more successful, I think, and they’re losing less people because that has been a real issue, especially in sales. It’s really been hit hard.

Nyla Beth Gawel: It is, especially for teams that have had whether it be quotas or targets or goals. When the rug is pulled out from under you on all the processes, all the tools, all the infrastructure and the pure personal relationships and ways of going about doing it, that’s a really challenging environment to be in. The motivation, the support that the companies can offer, and I always go back to and the investment in as a result their people, I think it’s even more important these days than it’s probably traditionally been.

Gina Stracuzzi: How are you coaching your people at this time? Daniella said, “So very true, outstanding presentation today.” Let’s talk about how you’re coaching your people and what do you recommend they should be doing and how are you motivating them or keeping them motivated?

Nyla Beth Gawel: There’s probably a few different ways. There’s three or four that I think are probably most important, and specifically for people in sales and growth parts of a business. I think the first is meeting people where they are. What I mean is, whether it be with your peers, with your teams, with your customers, there are so many different norms that are coming to light. Whether it be flexible work programs, whether it be which technology folks are using to handle those flexible works, or whether it be requirements to be back in the office. And, of course, all the other life that we all have in our background some days that people are trying to balance.

My first is in order to meet people where they are, you have to appreciate that these different models out there are all influx. You could be selling into a company that requires people to be in the office. Then you might need to go, even though your own company says, “We respectfully ask that people stay at home.” There’s all these different norms, and I think the first thing to do is just acknowledge them and acknowledge that we’re all on a different playing field than maybe we used to be, and our playing fields might be slightly different. I think that enables a true degree of just a basic people-first mentality.

The second would be to really though remember that even though we lose a little bit of the context, especially in a remote environment, the handshake of trust, or the ability to share a meal and discuss something, it doesn’t take away the data that is around us. The second area that I’ve been coaching people is, how else can you get insights in different ways than maybe you pursued in the past? For example, if you’re used to getting customer feedback by sitting and having a dinner, and it can be in the cone of trust, what are you going to do if you can’t actually share the meal? The data is probably still there. There are trends, there’s environmental contexts that you can be reading, engaging in market reports, other ways that you can be sensing what’s actually happening in your market.

Then when you are on a video call, you can be more empowered to raise the question, “Have you been thinking about whether or not the digital experience of your employees is working? I’m hearing a lot that it’s an issue.” You’re coming more informed by focusing on data to maybe easier draw out things that frankly, we all know in the past was just easier over a glass of wine to extract. I find that using external data, really investing not just on your traditional sources of feedback and data, but looking across the market, helps change the conversation or give you fodder to pull more out.

Then the third big area that I’ve been coaching people on is, and we just happened to have gone through this recently is, when you think about what do you need, is to really move people to think about not what training do you need, but first is coach managers to ask others. But think about it not just in the terms of training or tactics, but what do they need for development? Are they empowered? Do they understand how to work in this new normal? Do they know how to manage others? Do they know how to create rapport? There’s a wide amount of information out there. It’s just not your traditional training. It comes out the type of development programs and different ways to network and engage. I’m really leaning on people to meet people where they are, emphasize the data that can enable them to have a richer customer conversation, and then focus on really how do you develop your team, not just train them. I think that is something that, it’ll be additive to all the other activities that people are already thinking about to achieve their goals.

Gina Stracuzzi: Often when I speak with employers, I really try to, not just because I would love for them to send people to the forum, but it is such a crucial piece of keeping morale high and retaining good employees, is to invest in their professional development. Not just training on process but really getting to the core of what motivates them and letting them know that you believe in them and you’d like them to be part of your succession plan, but through professional development.

Nyla Beth Gawel: Opportunities like this forum where you can just hear from other leaders in your industry, maybe make connections, they’re all different ways to continually absorb more as we go in really different ways. I think that, especially in larger companies where I sit, but it takes a moment to remember that. We can’t train everybody to perfection, but the ability to create these opportunities and encourage people to engage is probably the best thing we can be doing for them right now.

Gina Stracuzzi: Daniella added another comment. She said, “The continuation of peer-to-peer and client-customer interactions is crucial, especially in these changing times.” You are so right, Daniella, and thank you for commenting. I’d like to know how you have changed as a leader over the last 18 months. What have you noticed different about how you approach things?

Nyla Beth Gawel: I think for me, I have had to probably emphasize two areas. One is intentionality. I have been exponentially more intentional than I’ve ever been in my life to reach out to somebody, to check in on them, to ask how they’re doing. And thinking about it truly as a business, think about what do I need to know? What might I need to ask? Because the water cooler conversation where I would have otherwise got information just isn’t there. It’s both as a leader reaching to people, but also two-way street model, making sure I’m absorbing information, making sure I’m asking questions to increase my knowledge base. That intentionality is definitely something I’ve had to be way more focused on.

I think the other is empathy. Empathy goes hand in hand with authenticity for me. Everybody I work with hears me talking about my interns. I mentioned I’m a mom of two, five-year-old and seven-year-old. It’s amazing that they’re not banging through this door at the moment. I’ve learned to have empathy for other people’s lives, but I do that through authenticity. I have to be who I am. I can’t hide them, I can’t hide that they’ve been in virtual school or that my dog’s barking at the mail delivery person. I can be authentic myself and have empathy towards others when they are trying to balance and juggle. I think that’s a whole new degree of my own leadership style I’ve really had to put into practice.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think you’ve done beautifully, and those are two wonderful things to really nurture within ourselves. I have to say between myself and all the podcasts Fred has done, empathy and intentionality and authenticity, those are words that used to be bantered about with some sense of, “Isn’t that lovely?” But the last 18 months have made everyone stop and say, “Wow, yeah. I need it myself and I can’t ask for it for myself if I can’t give it to others.” I think for leaders, it has been an eye-opening experience in a really good way, because it’s like, “Everybody that works for me has problems too.” The barking dogs and whining kids, and it’s hard. Now we know that we really all do put our pants on one leg at a time and hopefully not in front of the camera [laughs]. I want to ask the final question that Fred and I always ask, and that is to give our listeners one final action item, one step that you would recommend that people can put into place today or start thinking about today to ensure their continued success.

Nyla Beth Gawel: I’m going to put it in an acronym. As somebody who works in the government market, that is all we have. The acronym is be bold, B-O-L-D. It stands for be future-focused. What’s coming for your customers and what is your company looking to do? Those two parallel paths, be future-focused and look out for what’s on the horizon. The second is orient around outcomes. You heard me mention that word, outcomes a lot, so the O in bold, orient around those. Don’t think of sales as the goal is the deal closed, think of it as that end outcome that you want your final customer and your company to achieve.

Then the L is really learn about your company. I spend a lot of time in corporate strategy and people say, “What’s our strategy again?” Engage and ask. If you don’t know who your corporate strategy leaders are, if you don’t know what your corporate strategy goals and objectives are, ask, and really learn and make sure you understand it because it’s important to what you’re communicating to your customers. The D in bold is, it’s really around driving with data, and data comes from everywhere. It doesn’t just come from our marketing leads, our inbounds and our outbounds. Be the sensor, drive yourself with data by paying attention to what’s happening into your surroundings and what’s happening in your customer’s arena and bring that together. I’m very confident that if you can follow that and be BOLD, that everyone here is going to definitely be able to continue down their successful path.

Gina Stracuzzi: You are so right about acronyms and the greater DC area. Well, thank you so much, Nyla Beth. This has been a joy and I love how clear and concise all of your answers were and how you really think through strategy. I think pretty much everything you said today was applicable and it gave our listeners a lot to think about

Nyla Beth Gawel: Gina, thank you so much, and thank you to Fred and thank you to all those that are listening. Look forward to staying connected and staying part of this thriving network of sales leaders you’ve created.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yeah, we would love that. All right, thanks everyone. We’ll see you next week. Bye, Nyla Beth.

Nyla Beth Gawel: Bye.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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