EPISODE 488: Career Advancement Strategies for Women in Sales from AWE’s Reena Kirspel

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on March 15. 2022. It featured an interview with Reena Kirspel, Director of Client Services, at AWE.]

REENA’S TIP: “Know your value. How do you do this? You can start with a mind map. Just start brainstorming out the education you bring to the table, the experiences you bring to the table, your personality traits, training, certifications. Just start putting it all out there to see. Start with a brainstorm session. If you don’t know off the cuff your value, at least start there. From there, begin to fine tune it and build it out so that your value is essentially your brand statement. You want to know your value. Then you want to be able to articulate your value which is being able to express owning that I.”


Gina Stracuzzi: Reena, welcome. It is my honor to have you. I love to let my guests tell the audience about themselves and what they do and the company they work at and how they got to where they are today. Please, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Reena Kirspel: Thank you, Gina. It is not lost on me that our names rhyme, so it’s the Gina-Reena show today. I’m very much excited to be here. I am the Client Solutions Director at AWE, Advancing Women Executives. What is AWE? AWE is an enterprise solutions firm, where we partner with clients across the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 to create sustainable workplace culture. What do I mean by that? We find that companies have definitely improved their recruiting efforts for women and underrepresented groups, but yet they struggle when it comes to engagement, promotion and retention. They bring people on board but are unable to keep them.

As a result, it’s not unusual for these people, for women and underrepresented minorities to leave a company and seek greener pastures because they have not been provided with opportunities for growth or advancement. That’s where we come in. We provide professional and leadership development opportunities so that companies can invest in their employees, increase engagement, and improve the promotion pipeline, ultimately retaining their best people. That’s a snapshot of what we do.

We’ve got this amazing visionary founder and CEO, Meiko Takayama. She kicked off the company about a decade ago with something called Leader. Leader is our flagship program for VP level and above executive women. But we also recognize that the majority of women sit in the middle of the pipeline in those manager to senior director roles. We offer Accelerator, another amazing program that lays the foundation from which women who are wanting to accelerate into VP and C suite type roles are able to do so.

That’s some of the work that we do, and I’m obviously a part of it. I always say for myself, I love to see people grow. That’s my passion, which is why I love working at AWE because I get to do that every day through these types of professional and leadership development workshops. I was telling you earlier, Gina, I have quite an eclectic background. I began my career in the performing arts with a theater background, went to academia and then now found myself in the L&D sector, learning and development for corporate.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s awesome. You know because of the forum and everything that I am committed too for Women in Sales that it’s one of the reasons that I thought, I need to have Reena on the program, because what you are doing at AWE aligns very closely with what we are doing with the forum and all of our Women in Sales programs. It is specific to Women in Sales, but it is along the same lines that the gains that women are making aren’t happening fast enough.

I read something a couple of years ago that men sail through that middle range that you’ve been talking about generally in three to five years, and women can stay there for 10. It’s just not fair and it’s doesn’t make good business sense. That’s the biggest thing. I love what you’re doing. I want to talk a little bit about your idea, and again, this is something we talk about in the forum a lot. “It’s I, not we.” That goes counter to everything we’re taught. “Don’t talk about yourselves,” and women are particularly socialized to not talk about the I. Tell us a little bit about your philosophy and perhaps AWE’s, and what that means to you, the idea of I, not we.

Reena Kirspel: I really came to understand the value of I not we by joining AWE. I got to admit, the first time I heard it, it’s one of AWE’s core tenants, key philosophy points there. When I first heard it, oh, my gosh, everything in me resisted it because I talk about how I have my cultural influences and my country influences. I was raised in an Asian and Indian home here in America. From both sides, I’m hearing it’s not good to toot your own horn. Let other people notice you. Let other people elevate you. There’s no I in team.

You are quite trained to think that way growing up, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I want to put that out there, first of all. You should be a team player. Most of us are. We love being collaborative and communicative with our colleagues, co-workers or bosses. Those are important skills to have. Most of us list it on our resumes. We say, “I’m a team player. I’m highly collaborative.” Those are all very good things. But unfortunately, we don’t get promoted as a team. The individual gets promoted.

How do we make that happen? How do we start learning that when we talk about ourselves, it doesn’t have to be to the detriment of someone else? I think that’s really important, especially here as women. We do not have to step on each other to get to the top. There is no reason for that. There’s no need for that. I actually really believe that if you are able to own your successes, articulate your value, you are less likely to be in competition with other people or feel that you’re in competition. I think that’s where a lot of this toxic culture that we hear in corporate America stems from. I think the more we start becoming self-aware and articulate the value that we specifically bring to a team and to a company, the better we’ll be for it as we attempt to climb that ladder.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. There are so many opportunities to lift others up with you that getting that opportunity so that you can do that, and then it becomes collaboration rather than competition, is a really pivotal piece of making sure that women not only articulate their own value, but really appreciate it, so that they can ask for what they want, which I know that you really get behind in both personally and what you do with AWE. Do you get pushback in your work? Do you have women that don’t want to take on that idea of I?

Reena Kirspel: I think the pushback comes from a place of discomfort and unfamiliarity. A lot of people are not used to doing it. But when they stop and they think about some of their male colleagues, I always say, take a page out of the playbook from our male allies. I’ve had women say time and again, “Gosh, I really struggle with talking up my wins, but meanwhile, my coworker has no problem in a meeting saying, ‘I just settled this huge deal’ or ‘I just accomplished this. I brought this revenue in,’ or whatever it is.” They just put it out there.

For some reason, I think the pushback comes from a place of just not practicing it. It’s a hard conversation. It’s hard to put yourself out there. It’s hard to say, “Hey, look at me.” I think a lot of times women have a mindset that if I’m doing the work really well, you should notice me. You, my manager, you, my boss, should notice that I’m excellent. What I would add to that is yes, they should. Of course they should.

But I don’t know all that’s on your boss’s plate. I don’t know how many teams your boss is managing. A lot of times, unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I think a lot of times senior execs are so busy putting out fires that if there is somebody who’s just doing a great job, you just think, “Oh, that’s great, she’s got it,” and you move on to the next thing. There are several ways to do this, but to start putting yourself out there is key.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s something that we talk about quite a bit in the forum too, is managers can’t read your mind. If you don’t say, I want this, or, this is what I would like for my career growth, they don’t know. If you’re doing a really great job for them and you’re making sure they don’t have more fires to put out, they’re going to keep you right where you are because you’re really valuable. It’s up to you to make sure that it’s understood. Yes, I’m putting out these fires, and I’m keeping things at bay and I’m making things happen for a reason. This is what I want.

Reena Kirspel: It’s really interesting, Gina. The other day, a colleague of mine, Alexandra Yan, had shared an article with our team and it was on proof versus potential. You might have heard the language being used, performance versus potential. This idea that women are often measured and look through the lens of performance and experience whereas men are viewed through that lens of potential.

How do we flip that script? How do we get it so that we’re being viewed through a lens of potential? It’s not like, “Oh, I don’t check all these boxes, therefore I’m not worthy of that next role.” Whereas a guy would have no problem saying, “Hey, you should consider me for this next role.” You got to look at the traits of a leader. There’s all these traits that are out there. Being a visionary, being strategic in your thinking, interpersonal skills. But in my opinion, and I’m completely biased as somebody who has a background in communications and teaching communications, being a great communicator is in my opinion, the number one skill of all great leaders.

How you as, let’s say, a mid-level woman, show that you’re ready for that next leadership type of role, or that next step in the leadership pipeline is by communicating that. You’re demonstrating that you have the skill by reaching out to your boss and saying, “Hey, I was wondering if we could sit down some time.” I always suggest, send an email. Don’t corner somebody unexpectedly. Don’t in a standard one-on-one meeting suddenly bringing up, “By the way, I think I’m due for a promotion and a raise.” Your boss is going to be taken aback by that for a variety of reasons. You sprung it on them.

Give a little bit of warning. Send an email out and say, however you want to phrase it. The toughest thing about email is you can’t tell tone. Typically, in emails, especially professional emails, we’re not dotting them up with emojis like we do text. Try to keep your language very open and neutral and friendly and talk about it in terms of just your perspective, your feelings. Take the “I” route. Don’t say you. Don’t put the onus on the other person yet. Talk about the value you’ve been bringing.

I know I did this for myself, so I’ll tell you my own little story. In our company, we had a couple of key people leave about six months into my role at AWE when I first came on board. A couple of great people. They ended up having other opportunities and they moved on from AWE and that left a gap. This happens all the time in companies. Nobody particularly asked me to step in, but I just naturally did. I started stepping in and taking on additional responsibilities because that’s just how I’m wired.

I think that’s how a lot of us are wired, especially as women. We see an issue, we go in and we deal with it. We don’t sit around going, “Who’s going to take care? I’m going to wait to be asked.” We’re like, “I’m going in. I’m going to take care of this. I can do this. I can help.” We will step in and do that, which is fantastic. Then a few months down the road, I realized, I don’t know if my title really adequately covers what I’m doing now and I don’t know if my pay is really on par with what I’m doing now. By the way, I don’t know if you know, but it’s Equal Pay Day today. It’s National Pay Equity Day, what a great day to have our podcast.

Anyway, I’m very fortunate. I have a fabulous female CEO that I was able to reach out to because the person I reported to had left, so now my direct pipeline was up to the CEO. I sent a very nice email just asking for time with her. I basically asked, “Is this something that we can discuss at our weekly one-on-one, or would you like me to find more time on the calendar for us?” I laid out for her in the email what I would like to discuss to give her time to reflect on it and think about it.

I used the I. I talked about the value I was bringing to the company. I spoke about the additional responsibilities I had taken on in the several months prior. It was great. It ended up being fantastic. We had the conversation, she was very open to what we had to say, but I did have to put myself out there first. Would she have come to me eventually? I mean, probably, I guess.

In this article that my co-worker had shared with us, the person shared, it was a BBC article. The person in the article talked about how the onus should be on management to recognize their talent and to help elevate them into their next roles. I think that’s great. That’s fantastic if management is doing that. But as you and I were just saying, people are busy, they’re being pulled in a hundred directions, and it’s not intentionally. I’d say 9 times out of 10, they’re not intentionally trying to overlook you.

Keep that in mind and start the conversation. If you sit around waiting for somebody to notice you, you might be sitting around for a long time. Be brave, take that step, ask for that conversation. Put yourself out there. But before you do that, don’t just come off listening to this podcast going, “I’m going to go ask for that raise now.” [Laughs] you really want to think ahead.

Gina Stracuzzi: A piece of advice that one of the trainers in the forum gave and I love this is, when you’re going to ask something, or you’re going to send an email of that nature, to write it and put it aside. Come back, and in your instance, make sure the “I” is in there. It’s not like, you haven’t given me, or, I think you should, and really let it sit for a bit and then come back, because you’ll be surprised how much you end up changing after the first draft. I love that advice. We have a question from Frederika. She wants to know, how persistent should I be in letting them know? I’m assuming that Frederika is wondering, if I don’t get much of a response from that email, what would you do?

Reena Kirspel: A couple of things. Frederika, you know your direct manager better than I do, so a couple of things to keep in mind. I knew that my direct manager is pretty responsive. If I didn’t hear from her within the week, I would definitely tap back in the following week. Again, know your person. Know your boss. If your boss typically takes a long time to get back to you, then just hold it. But if you know, gosh, they usually respond within 48 hours, and they haven’t gotten back to me.

I’d say at least give it two weeks and then bump it back up to the top of their inbox. You just hit Reply All and you say, “Hey, I just wanted to flip this back up to you at the top of your inbox. I know you’ve been busy, but I’d love to have a conversation about this.” Then hopefully, they are responsive. If they’re not, if it’s a complete ghosting happening of some sort, which would be awful, you have to think about who’s next. Who’s somebody else in the company that you can reach out to? Whether it is somebody in HR, or whoever it might be to discuss growth and development opportunities for you within the company if you feel that your direct manager is not listening to you.

Gina Stracuzzi: That might be where a mentor or a sponsor within the company comes in handy, I would think.

Reena Kirspel: Oh, definitely. You just brought up two keywords. We always say for women, I say it myself, you should have both roles. They are different. People use the terms interchangeably but they’re very distinct roles. A mentor is that trusted advisor. They can be in the company or outside the company, frankly, and somebody who’s wise, whose wisdom you appreciate and want to lean on. But a sponsor is somebody who sits in the company. Who has a seat at the decision making table, who can say your name when you’re not in the room. It’s so important for women that we have both in our lives.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yes, absolutely. I had a woman who came to me once and she told me, “I have gone to great expense and personal time to get this certification.” She said, “I haven’t mentioned it to anybody in the company and I’m done with the course.” I said, “Well, why aren’t you telling your boss about it?” She’s like, “I just don’t feel comfortable saying I did this. I don’t want to seem braggadocious.”

I’m like, “It’s not bragging. It is a valuable asset to what you’re doing. You’re bringing more resources.” She’s like, “No, I just can’t, I can’t.” I said, “Here’s what you do then. Think about writing to HR and you CC your boss and say, I would like you to add this certification to my personnel record. I think it’s of value and I would just like it added.” Then your boss knows about it. She called me back later and said, “Oh, my God, it worked wonders. I got a raise, I got a promotion.” For her, it was a comfortable way to do it but it didn’t come off as bragging. There are ways around this if the first couple of tries to “I” is just more than you can muster, which is an uncomfortable position as you’ve mentioned.

Reena Kirspel: Gina, I know one thing I said, because I didn’t want to make it sound like I was being weighed down by the added responsibility because I wasn’t. I actually enjoyed the added responsibility I took on, so I made it really clear that I am so thankful for these opportunities I’ve been given. That’s how I phrased it, because I was. It wasn’t an, “I’ve taken on all this work, I’ve been doing this.” That’s not the attitude that I have. It was just simply, I’m so grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to step up in this role and do these things, and I listed what those things are, and I was wondering if we could have a conversation about what my role will look like going forward, or where there’s opportunity for more growth for myself.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, it’s like anything else in communication. SPIN has gotten a bad name as a PR tool. But the truth is, how you lay something out, how you communicate it is everything. You’ve found a graceful way to show your appreciation and the value that the opportunity is bringing to both you and to the company. That’s really where illustrating your value and articulating your value comes in, because you can make the argument for I as long as you’re articulating what it’s bringing to the table. Then it’s not bragging, it’s a reality.

We’ve talked a little bit about how women can do a little bit better at owning their own successes. That’s really what that comes down to. Maybe you start with a list of things that you’ve accomplished. One thing that I always advise women is, keep a track record of what you’ve done because you cannot count on others to do that. They may seem like little wins, but just in a spreadsheet, when you close a deal or you got a conversation that no one else could get, or you help the team through a tough spot, write it all down. Because when you have those quarterly reviews or the year-end reviews, you can then sit there with your track record.

Reena Kirspel: One of my colleagues calls it a feel-good folder. You should keep a feel-good folder. That’s where you keep track of formal things like annual reviews and feedback that you receive that way as well as informal things, an email that you’ve got. A note from a colleague, a note from a client, note from your boss, whatever it is, that was a source of encouragement that spoke about the value add that you bring. Have those things on file. A lot of times when it comes to articulating your value, you can actually borrow language that other people used to describe you and talk about you. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to go invent something out of thin air. You can look back on those types of feedback and begin to articulate that for yourself.

Gina Stracuzzi: Right. Maybe that’s a good way to step into the use of I. I have been told by my boss that I am, blah, blah, blah. Or I have been told by clients that I am easy to work with and quick to respond or whatever the case is, but that is great advice. I love that. What advice would you give women to help them get more visibility? That’s the thing that men are great at.

They’re great at it for two reasons. They have bigger networks, people pulling for them and keeping their name in front of people, and their lack of fear in using the I and letting people know what they’ve accomplished and sharing their ideas in meetings that show innovative thinking. Sometimes it can be hard to get heard in meetings, I appreciate that. A lot of women still struggle with getting heard or they get talked over or whatever the case is. It is difficult, and I never want to diminish that it is difficult. But visibility is key to getting those critical raises and elevations and career milestones.

Reena Kirspel: You bring up a very interesting point in the beginning about networking. I feel like pre-pandemic, one of the biggest issues was, if somebody after work is saying, “Hey, let’s go out, let’s grab a drink, let’s grab a meal.” It’s oftentimes harder for women to do that because we tend to be tasked with caregiving responsibilities. I’m not saying all the time, there’s homes where people balance it well with their spouse, and there are stay-at-home dads. I know that’s true as well. But a lot of times it is a hindrance.

The women that I’ve had the privilege of working with, I have heard time and again, “I don’t have time for networking.” You have to make time for networking and that’s just a fact, because at the end of the day, you don’t want to be one of those people that tries to tap their network when they’re in crisis mode. When something’s going wrong is suddenly when we’re like, “Oh, I got to reach out to XYZ and find out if there’s an opportunity here.” You don’t want that. You want to continually be working on your network. There’s lots of ways to do that.

Look, social media has made that easier. If you’re not on LinkedIn, you should be on LinkedIn. It takes very little effort, in my opinion, to set up your LinkedIn page. Browse around on LinkedIn. Once you’re signed up, even if your page isn’t filled out yet, look at other people’s profiles. See how they’ve approached it, and see what you like and make your profile page true to you. Then reach out to people, drop them a note, a message, like an article that they recommended, comment on something.

There are so many ways to stay in touch with people that are not time consuming. On a side note, I think it’s great. If you can grab coffee with people during the week, if you can meet in person, face to face, definitely do it. I guess you have to be as proactive in scheduling networking as you would be scheduling your kids’ activities but you need to stay on top on your calendar. You block off time to pick up my kid from soccer. Well, block off time to network and make it a priority.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. Well, it has come to that point in our conversation where we like to ask our guests for one piece of final advice and maybe that was it that you just gave us, that people, women, listeners can put into place today to start advancing their career or going after what they want.

Reena Kirspel: I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. One is, know your value. How do you do this? You can start with a mind map. Just start brainstorming out the education you bring to the table, the experiences you bring to the table, your personality traits, training, certifications. Just start putting it all out there to see. Start with a brainstorm session. If you don’t know off the cuff your value, at least start there. From there, begin to fine tune it and build it out so that your value is essentially your brand statement. You want to know your value. Then you want to be able to articulate your value which is being able to express owning that I.

If you find this challenging at any stage, whether it’s the knowing part or the articulating part, then reach out to people who know you best, and run your ideas and thoughts and language that you’re using to describe yourself by them. It could be that trusted mentor, it could be a family member who’s both beautifully and brutally honest with you. Whoever it is, reach out and get those second opinions, get those insights. Tap into your champions and get feedback from them. If you’re like, “Gosh, I don’t know what to say.” A lot of times I’ll ask women, what makes you unique? The number of times people stop and they’re like, “Uh, I don’t know.” It really throws them for a loop. I leave you today and I ask you, what makes you unique? Answer that question.

Gina Stracuzzi: That is incredibly powerful and incredibly easy and incredibly hard at the same time. It goes again to just being socialized to not feel like you’re bragging, and it is not bragging. You don’t have to share it with anybody right off the bat. Just write it down, live with it, and then you can put it in front of somebody. Well, I really hate that our conversation is over, Reena. This has been just amazing, incredibly powerful and valuable. I do hope you’ll come back again and we will stay in touch for sure.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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