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When I walked into a sales conference about 18 years ago, I will admit I didn’t pay much attention to the genders of the people in the room. I had just started at a manufacturing company a few months before and our office was pretty diverse. Someone quickly pointed out to me that there were exactly two women in the room: myself (the marketing person) and the sales administrative assistant. The very male dominated industry I just joined became pretty evident – at least when looking at the sales team.
I assumed this was an anomaly and it would be different in other companies. Instead, I found more of the same as I went further in my career, joined another manufacturer and then a distributor. There were very few women in leadership roles. You might find a woman in a sales role, but it felt like there were only a few.
I let that really get to me for awhile. I don’t think that it was holding me back – it was my fear or insecurities that stopped me from pushing forward. I was waiting for someone to notice the job I was doing, for someone to offer me the next position. I wasn’t driving my career; I was waiting for someone else to do it for me.
I started to look deeper. Why weren’t more women in leadership roles and in certain functions? Why weren’t there more women in our industry? I identified that I needed to take charge and get started. So I spent a lot of time asking questions, watching and researching. I learned what success looked like for those women who had entered management roles, for those who had become active in organizations such as NAED Women in Industry (a committee/advocacy group of the National Association of Electrical Distributors). I heard other people’s stories. I connected with many women who had built successful careers in distribution. Based on my research over the years, here is what I learned – the short version:
- Take a detour. I don’t know of any role in an organization that isn’t better served by having a diverse background and experience. Take sales for instance. By taking a sales role and having that customer interaction, knowing the sales process from start to finish – you'll benefit in any role you decide to take at any point. Even if you see it as a detour off your path, I think your path will be longer and get you further by gaining the experience from that detour. Even if you just do it for a year, it gives you some street credibility with others (and yes, that includes customers and other people in your organization).
- Find a sponsor. Having someone in your corner is always a good thing, male or female; it helps to have someone you feel can support and lend that insight when you need it. Someone that can bring up your name when a position or a new project is discussed and you aren’t in the room. Someone that you trust that knows what you are looking for and can help steer you towards the ultimate goal. Someone that can throw your name in the hat when a new role opens up that you would have interest in.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Women have a tendency to wait for things to come to them, or feel like they have to be completely ready for a role before applying. If you wait for everything to be perfect or for you to be completely ready, you never will be ready. Sometimes you just have to go with on-the-job training. Most times you will find yourself pleasantly surprised by the skills you currently have that are exactly what you need to get started. Don’t hesitate to just ask for a role. I have found that when you ask, you usually will be considered, and in the end, even if you don’t get the role you get feedback on what areas you need to develop – providing insight into what to work on so you are ready when the next position becomes available.
- Get involved. I was fortunate that I had a boss that took me to my first Women in Industry event. From there, I got more involved, eventually chairing the organization and then helping start a women’s network at my previous employer. Each time I got involved and was a part of building something, I met more people, I heard more stories. I learned, listened and absorbed everything I could. I got way more out of it than I ever put in. I built a network and came out with mentors and friends that have guided me well.
- Get a mentor and be a mentor. I have had informal and formal mentor relationships. I have been (and still am) a mentor and been mentored. Some last for years, some have lasted for months. Some have been to get specific skill sets (better in business acumen), some have been to discuss career moves and next steps. All of these have helped me guide my career – helped me see more clearly and helped streamline my thinking.
- Use all the resources available to you. Talk to people in roles that you want – shadow them, ask them questions, learn what is needed to do their job. Take training classes, seminars, webinars when you can. See what career development services your HR group offers. Take advantage of it all. Read – magazines, books, articles, blog posts, etc. Stay current.
I have been very fortunate to have had a number of both male and female mentors, a network of colleagues, friends and sponsors through my career. I am thankful that they all helped get me where I am today and I know that what I have learned will help me in the next steps of my career. My thoughts here are just some of the things that I learned and advice that helped me. Each person’s journey is their own, but it's nice to sometimes hear some encouragement and support; I found mine through this process. Good luck! I hope your path isn’t a straight one, but one you look back at and think, "that was awesome – what a ride!"
With more than 15 years of experience in manufacturing and wholesale distribution, Stacey Felzer has held various roles in marketing, sales, business development and product management. She currently is the Regional Sales Vice President, Central Division for Halco Lighting and can be reached at email@example.com.
Stacey spends time volunteering with the NAED Women in Industry organization, recently having served as the chair of the organization. She was a part of building a women’s network at Anixter – empowering more than 400 women to join together to learn, share and advance their careers and knowledge base. She presents regularly on personal branding and the importance of finding your voice and being authentic.