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EPISODE 200: World Wide Technology Sales VP Shawn Rodriguez Explains Why the Government and Education Markets Excite Him So Much
SHAWN’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “If you want to be a sales leader, be sure to really understand why. If you aren’t willing to give up the glory and truly contribute through others, then you should really consider continuing to be the best sales rep you can be. I’ve worked for executives who felt if you didn’t want to be the CEO of the company you’re not motivated enough and I could not disagree more. Be authentic and true to yourself.”
Shawn Rodriguez is the Vice President for State and Local Government and Education at World Wide Technology, also known as WWT.
Previously he held sales leadership positions at NetApp, Splunk and Forescout Technologies.
Find Shawn on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Shawn Rodriguez: I’ve been in IT sales for about 25 years, a little over 25 years. I’ve been SLED-focused, State and Local Government and Education, as you mentioned in my intro, also known as SLED. I’ve been SLED focused for about 21 years of that, so I was very lucky to find my passion for my career very early on in my sales path. Fortunate enough to work my way up to technology stack, as I like to day, stay ahead of the innovation curve. I started my career in the physical lair side of our world when a little thing called 10BASE-T Ethernet was first coming out.
From there I went on to selling network electronic, so hub, switches, routers that led me to data management virtualization with the explosion of data and storage. Finally, I had the opportunity to work with some data analytics, cyber security so it’s really been a great opportunity there but most importantly for me, Fred, careers are important but they don’t define you. I think they facilitate a meaningful life, so for me it’s all about family and what I get to do with them on the weekends. This just affords me the opportunity to do that. Humility and authenticity in all things I do are what I want my legacy to be.
Fred Diamond: We have people listening around the globe. Tell us exactly what state and local means, there’s state, government, obviously. Get deep about what actually the customer is who you’re selling to.
Shawn Rodriguez: If you think about government, it’s many different businesses rolled up under that banner so you’ve got everything from health and human services to transportation to public safety to public utilities. On the education side, you have higher education so you have the academic side of universities, you have research computing, you have academic medical centers and then you have K-12, obviously. There’s approximately 14 thousand school systems across this country so all of them comprise what we know as SLED, State and Local Government and Education.
Fred Diamond: For people listening, something like the state of California might be like the seventh largest economy in the world, so it’s pretty big.
Shawn Rodriguez: It is. 26 states, I believe was the last number I saw would qualify for the Fortune 100 just based on state budget so it’s a very large market. About $130 billion IT addressable IT markets so it’s slightly larger than the federal government in that measurement.
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell today. You mentioned you were in the state and local marketplace for over 20 years the majority of your career, so tell us what excites you about that.
Shawn Rodriguez: As we mentioned, I work for WWT, at $12 billion it’s one of the largest privately held technology solution providers in the world. We are the largest majority African American owned company in the US, we partner with the most innovative hardware, software, SaaS companies to bring the most promising ideas to reality by unleashing the power of our comprehensive advanced services. Until this year, WWT as large as it is did not have a dedicated SLED vertical team, which is my domain so it really provides me a unique opportunity to be a startup within a wonderful and successful company that focuses on our culture, our people and our communities above all else.
Fred Diamond: How did you first get into sales? Again, you said you were in theater when you were a kid and now you’re in sales so tell us how you got there.
Shawn Rodriguez: I’ve done a little bit of everything. I’d like to say it was some wonderful vision, but I had a very close college friend of mine who was a year older than me, he called me up one day and said, “You’re about to graduate, I’m about to get a promotion so do you want to come over here and interview to get into technology sales?” and I said, “Sure, sounds great.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Fred Diamond: Right out of college you went into technology sales?
Shawn Rodriguez: I did.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons you took away from those first few jobs?
Shawn Rodriguez: There’s three or four things that really come to mind. I remember my first job walking into the sales leader’s office and he shared a few things with me. One of the things he said was, “We do well because of how we treat people and that begins with how we treat each other” and that has really stuck with me over the 25 years of doing this, no matter what my role is.
Secondly, I try to spend a lot of time shadowing and observing early on everyone that I could in various functions, good reps, not so good reps, technical peers, marketing leaders, etc. I try to pick one thing to emulate, one thing not to do in order to put together a personal tool kit that can adapt to any challenge and situation. Next, I’m a firm believer in don’t expect or ask of someone something you haven’t done or are not willing to do yourself.
Finally, I think the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is respect is the intersection of love and fear. If people love you too much, they won’t respect you, if they fear you too much, they won’t respect you so it’s really about playing between the 40’s, so to say.
Fred Diamond: Again, for people listening to the show, we broadcast out of the Washington DC area, so the nation’s capital but we have listeners all over the globe. People outreach from Australia, from Europe, from the Far East, if you will. We’ve had a number of people on then podcast because we do the shows based out of Washington who are in the government federal market space. Shawn, you’re actually one of the first guys that we’ve had in the state and local or education space. I don’t mean to answer the question for you, but tell us what you’re an expert in, tell us about your area of brilliance.
Shawn Rodriguez: I always felt like trying to be an expert in any one thing really limits you, for me it’s always been about finding true passions and those passions lead you to opportunities for brilliance. You must stay humble in the process, I’m really big on the humility theme, you’ll hear that throughout the questions today. Based on my experience of the last 20+ years, SLED is something I’ve learned a lot about and I know well. I guess proportionately there are not many of me in that respect, which might make me an expert of sorts.
Also, my leadership opportunities over the past 14 years have shown me that I’m a builder of teams and strategy to a point of scale. I manage to find ways to get the most out of everyone including myself and get everyone to work as one team which is one of the three catalysts and pillars that really define me and that I operate by, no matter where I’ve worked.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question for you, I want to talk about the state and local market place for a little bit. Part of my background, I was the Marketing Director for Compaq in the state and local space and the federal space for that matter as well. I had a conversation once with the Chief Procurement Officer for the city of Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the fourth largest city from an IT perspective at the time and he said he had to make decisions between buying a fire truck, which everybody can see driving down the street, or computers. He said in a lot of cases it was easier to buy the fire truck because everyone sees a fire truck. Tell me some of the challenges that you face as a leader in the state and local space.
Shawn Rodriguez: You’re hitting on a very relevant point there, and it’s really about getting to an understanding of the mission. If you really understand the outcome that the customer is trying to achieve, if you do your research on the customer and learn how to have a conversation in their language, you can find ways to attach yourself to the largest business problem. You typically find ways of probing for that business problem by the pain it causes, what does good look like to them, what does the desired state look like and then asking questions or positioning yourself in a way that differentiates you from your competitors to do it like no one else can and attach to that largest business problem. When you think about, for example, education and how do you go in and tie technology to the student experience or student success? If you think about health and human service, how do you make it easier for citizens to get access to the services they need but also eliminate waste and fraud in the process? It’s ways that you can metric and quantify the ways in which technology impact the business of government.
Fred Diamond: Again, you mentioned that 26 states would be Fortune 100 so let’s say Texas or California, something like that, from a technology perspective, give us a little ball park on what some of their key technology challenges would be.
Shawn Rodriguez: Obviously many of the large states out there are struggling with fiscal challenges, that’s one thing first and foremost, they never have enough money. I’ve done this 20 some years, they’re always broke but certainly I think the biggest problems they’re having are coupled. #1 is keeping up with the pace of innovation. When you look at things out there like the cloud, their citizens and employees are expecting new and innovative ways of doing things that are extremely disruptive to the norm. Government is not one to often change or evolve very quickly. Secondly, probably the elephant in the room, cyber security. That’s a gap that they have from an employment perspective, it’s a gap that they have from a budgeting perspective and quite frankly, it’s the most pervasive risk they have, as we’ve seen countless over the past several months of cities and school systems and even some state entities that have been victims of ransom ware and cost. The case of a couple of major cities in this country, $20-$30 million dollars to fix what could have been done for a fraction of that.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Shawn Rodriguez: One of your most famous from this series is certainly #1 on that list and you mentioned his name earlier, a gentleman named Mark Weber that I had the privilege of working for. Mark is one of the most influential and authentic people I know both inside and beyond the beltway. I think of Mark like a Bill Parcells, if you look at all the great coaches in recent years of the NFL, most of them come from the Bill Parcells system or worked as assistants under him. I think Mark has that similar type of legacy in sales. Mark always demonstrates balance and emotional control, his highs are very high but you never see his lows, he leads from the front and trusts and empowers while inspiring self-accountability, pushes people outside of their comfort zone on how to contribute to the team’s culture.
The other impactful mentor to me was one of those coaches Mark produced, a lady named Regina Kunkle, Regina was my manager for a few years at NetApp and most recently was the Vice President of Sales for SLED at SAP before recently retiring. She taught me the importance of urgency and how you execute, how to stretch yourself beyond your normal expectations and the importance of involving yourself in your career beyond just your day job.
Fred Diamond: I like the way you used the Bill Parcells analogy because I’ve used that before. Mark was the most downloaded podcast we had ever done, we actually recognized him at the Institute for Excellence in Sales in 2015 for our Lifetime Achievement Award and we established a relationship with him. He’s at Catholic University of America now leading their sales program, their sales curriculum. When we posted his show I got emails from all over the world, people who worked for him, worked for someone who worked for him, all over the place people reaching out and shared some of the lessons you have taken away as well.
Shawn Rodriguez: I’ll add to that, Fred, the wonderful thing for me is the things that I experienced with Mark from a professional experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know his family and see those same qualities in how he, as a family man and a leader in his personal life, that’s just one of the things that has inspired me the most about Mark.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Shawn Rodriguez: For any sales leader, the first one that’s probably there is fairly pervasive. Open sales capacity, open head count makes hitting the mark so hard yet you must practice discipline and patience in making sure to hire right and avoid the temptation to just hire fast. Some companies don’t afford you the opportunity to be patient to hire right, they want you to hire fast so finding that middle ground can be extremely difficult. In SLED specifically, you’ve got a largely remote and geographically dispersed team and finding ways to keep them connected to the mother ship, so to say and feeling part of a tangible team when they only get to see each other a couple times a year, maybe as a larger group can be challenging as well.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. A lot of people reach out to me who listen to the podcast and they ask about the guests that we had and some of the markets. Again, you’re one of the first people that we’ve spoken to who has devoted a good part of your career to the State and Local and Education market place. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast today who are at the early stage of their career, is that a market you would recommend that people pursue?
Shawn Rodriguez: For me, I think one of the great things that led me to SLED beyond just the serving side of it is there is a tremendous amount of consistency. At the end of the day, government is not going away. It might change, it evolves over time, education is not going away, it changes and evolves over time. The more and more they look to innovate and evolve, the more and more technology is going to be at the forefront of that so it’s been a great career for me. I certainly think it would be a great career for those 20 years from now.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you take us back to the #1 sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Shawn Rodriguez: I thought about this one long and hard, Fred and I’m going to go a little non-traditional on you. Instead of talking about a specific customer win, I’m going to share a small leadership win that means a lot to me. I was making a career change a few years ago, I happened to be at the office the last day of the fiscal year. Everyone was in a jovial mood, we had a great year, we were celebrating, it was my last day, there was obviously some high five’s and tears associated with that. A young lady that was a relatively new, inexperienced manager there asked me if she could talk to me for a moment and we went and sat down.
She said, “I just want to let you know, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but the first year you were here I’d always see you come to our floor, sit among us, the younger crowd, the people doing inside sales and various tasks. I never had any idea that you were the Vice President of Sales for our SLED organization. As I reflected on that, it’s one of the most impactful things I’ve seen because you are a man of the people, so to say. You never came in here with an attitude that you were higher or better than anybody else. I observed that, I learned from that and I just want you to know the impact it has on me as a young leader.” That’s why we do what we do, that meant a tremendous amount to me.
Fred Diamond: We just talked a few questions ago about mentoring, do you enjoy being a mentor? I presume you do, but do you enjoy being a mentor?
Shawn Rodriguez: I do. Candidly, throughout my career I was fortunate enough to always be on the younger side of what I did, whether I was a younger enterprise rep or a younger leader so I think it gave me a real unique opportunity to connect with some of the younger folks coming into our industry. I’ve gotten a little older now, so I don’t necessarily have that particular skill set anymore but I do enjoy mentoring folks that are looking to become leaders and maybe folks that are looking to move from the technical side of what we do to the sale side of what we do. I get calls every week from somebody from a previous team or previous organization asking for my input, my thoughts on something and again, it’s little stuff like that that means a lot to me.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors. Again, you said you get a lot of calls from people you previously worked with. Give some advice to people listening to the podcast on how to get the best advice from you. Just saying something like, “Shawn, what is your advice?” that’s great, I’m sure you have tons, you’ve already given us tons on the podcast but how would someone make it easier for you to give them advice that they can take advantage of?
Shawn Rodriguez: I think a couple things for me. #1, demonstrating in a command of understanding the situation. People often will ask your opinion and as you probe and ask questions, they haven’t necessarily done any of the leg work perfecting their skills or their discipline on how they go research, understand their customer, understand the challenge. Then the second thing I would say if you’re going to ask for someone’s opinion or help, be open to it. I have over the years had a few people that will come to me and ask for my time and ask for my opinion on something and then turn around and immediately debate me or argue why I said what I said. Just be open minded, if you don’t want to hear a different opinion or different perspective, don’t ask for it but if you do, make sure you do your due diligence on the front end and are educated on what you’re going to ask about.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever question going into sales? Again, you had a friend of yours called you right away, right when you graduated and you went right into technology sales. Did you ever think to yourself along the way, “You know what? It’s too hard, it’s just not for me.” Again, you’ve been servicing the state and local market place, a lot of opportunities but it’s a challenging market place like you just mentioned. You have state, you have counties, you have cities, you have localities, you have non-government type organizations you probably serve as well. Did you ever question going into sales?
Shawn Rodriguez: No, never and I’ll give you two very specific reasons why, one of them I’ve touched on a little bit. In SLED, being able to connect to the mission is incredibly motivating whether it’s a HHS project like I mentioned, I was fortunate enough to work with a PHD at Duke University in part of my career on a research project where they were doing sequencing for looking for a cure for HIV, for AIDS. I was fortunate enough to work with another university on taking machine data, IT stuff and making it meaningful and predicting student success. You have these things that are really an ability to attach to the mission and those missions are things that impact everyone’s lives on a daily basis.
Secondly, through that I’ve had the opportunity to associate through that staying ahead of the innovation curve, as I mentioned. I’ve had the opportunity to associate with folks from all walks of life, from the contractor in blue jeans pulling cable to governors, senators, ambassadors and CEO’s. It’s been an amazingly entertaining journey and way too fun to ever exit.
Fred Diamond: Obviously you have a long way to go, and as I’m thinking about this interview, higher education is being so disruptive right now for a whole bunch of different reasons. Of course, the cost of student loans and wanting to prepare people as they post graduate, so some of the opportunities that you’re dealing with must be quite phenomenal. Again, this is the Sales Game Changers podcast, my name is Fred Diamond. We’re talking to Shawn Rodriguez, again he’s the Vice President of State and Local and Education for WWT, World Wide Technology. You said it’s a $12 billion company?
Shawn Rodriguez: $12 billion, yeah.
Fred Diamond: Based in Saint Louis, we’ll learn more about that later on. We’re going to take a short break, listen to one of our sponsors. When we come back, we’re going to ask Shawn for his tips on how you can take your sales career to the next level. This is the Sales Game Changers podcast.
Fred Diamond: Shawn, you’ve given us a lot of great tips. What’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Shawn Rodriguez: That’s a great question, Fred, thank you. I always felt it’s great to be ambitious as long as you’re not blind with ambition. Don’t feel entitled, you have to earn your stripes like those before you, I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen. We’ve seen generational transitions in our industry here, people have different perspectives and different expectations so really avoiding that sense of entitlement I think is critical. Find your passion and stay disciplined to it, be willing to sacrifice, to make moves that align you to that passion.
I’ve had younger reps approach me and approach every other manager just desperate to getting to field sales, for example whether it was fed, commercial, SLED, it didn’t matter and they came across as desperate. You try to coach people off of that sometimes, it’s very difficult. Don’t get desperate to find stepping stones that appear to take you up but really take you sideways in reality.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a selling habit or two that has led to your continued success?
Shawn Rodriguez: I’ve touched on this a few times today and I probably still will throughout the interview here. Humility, be a person of your peers and team no matter how important or good others perceive you to be. As Mark Weber would say, don’t be a sales prima donna – he’s got a great article he wrote on that one time. Secondly, your company pays your check but your customers pay your company. As a sales professional, it’s up to you to find every way possible to the win-win, even if that means you have to walk away from business sometimes.
I’ll tell you a brief story: I did a lot of business with my team with a particular university in the south east, they came to me with a large budget to buy a particular solution that I had some insight that my company was probably going to discontinue within the next 6 months and I told them, “I’ll sell it to you if you want us to, but understand there’s the risk of this and I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t advise you to probably look somewhere else.” Those types of things build a lot of trust and credibility.
As I mentioned earlier, research the customer, understand their business and challenges. I’m going to the National Association of State CIO Conference next week, which is the Annual State CIO event and you would be amazed every year how many CIO’s get on stage and talk about the sales reps and professionals that come into their office unprepared, ask them about their goals and objectives when their business plan was posted on their website if they had read it before they ever walked through the door. Just simple blocking and tackling like that. Then finally, don’t be afraid to create healthy tension internally or externally if you’ve earned the right to do so.
Fred Diamond: I have a question for you. On the federal space the federal government publishes its mission, so if you’re selling to the government it’s still hard but you can understand where they’re going and even what some of their technology investment is going to be. Is that the same for most state and local enterprises as well?
Shawn Rodriguez: Absolutely. I would say that most state and local and education entities are really good about placing strategic plans both from the IT perspective as well as from the administrative perspective. They set their initiatives for a city and then it’s up to IT to align an IT strategic plan that aligns with the initiatives. Not only is it about reading a strategic plan of a CIO or an IT organization, but you also got to stretch beyond that and understand the business objectives of the government or educational entity that you’re serving.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Shawn Rodriguez: I’ll tell you, Fred. My initiative today is pretty simple because it’s very personal in nature. Candidly, learning a completely new way of measuring progress and success, working with a privately held company and one that is a technology solution provider versus an OEM. Until 3 months ago, I’ve spent my entire career with public companies and as many of the listeners can attest, it is multiple forecast calls per week, top line revenue success being the most important variable, weekly, monthly, quarterly accuracy being imperative.
Now working for a private company, success is measured in different ways. What is the next contribution I can make to the company and how do I choose at my disposal to invest in people and resources to get us there? Get the right people on the bus then figure out the seat, as we like to say around here. The priorities are different, too. WWT really puts a lot of emphasis on culture and being a great place to work, we have an entire framework dedicated to how we do business called The Path so we’re really focused on building happy and motivated people that are willing to engage in their communities and give back, and if we do that, we find the customers want to do business with us.
Fred Diamond: You’ve given us a lot of great information today but I want to ask one final question, before I get your final thought. What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Shawn Rodriguez: In the words of a great leader that Mark and I both had the opportunity to work for, a gentleman named Tom Mendoza, it’s not about what keeps me up at night but about what gets me up in the morning. Seeing others give so much to succeed and celebrating that success really pumps me up and keeps me motivated but also the opportunity to lift someone up when they did all the right things and didn’t win is equally as important and rewarding as a sales leader.
Additionally in SLED, customers really need and want your help in order for them to be successful, they never have enough money or people as you just talked about. If you help them in times of need, you’ll be surprised how often they will advocate for you and connect you to others who share their challenges and goals, but too many in sales never take the opportunity to ask. Look for that rinse and repeat angle and don’t be afraid to ask customers to connect you within their network. It works a whole lot faster than calls and emails.
Fred Diamond: Shawn, thank you so much, this has been a great interview, a lot of great insights. Again, I mentioned at one part of my career I was doing a lot of marketing for Apple Computer and for Compaq in the state and local market place. Went to some of the trade shows that you go to and spent a lot of time with people in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Boise, Idaho.
Shawn Rodriguez: All those great state capitals.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Shawn Rodriguez: Thank you, Fred, and again thank you for the time today. I would say this, if you want to be the best sales rep in the world and nothing more, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a sales leader, that is great but be sure to really gut check why. If you aren’t willing to give up the glory and truly contribute through others, then you should really consider continuing to be the best sales rep you can be. I’ve worked for executives who felt if you didn’t want to be the CEO of the company you’re not motivated enough and I could not disagree more. Stay true to yourself and your passion and be authentic. Finally, find ways to give to the culture of your company, not just take from it.