Thriving as a woman in Sales

Careers  Culture
04 May, 2015

A first-hand account of the challenges (and rewards) for women in frontline roles

Dear members of the leadership team,

Hope you are well and had a good weekend.

As you know, becoming more inclusive and diverse as a company, is a critical imperative for us at Godrej. Over the last few months, we have had many discussions on what we need to do to champion and drive this change on the ground. One of our biggest debates on the gender diversity front, is how to increase the number of women we have in our teams in India. The challenge is particularly acute in Sales and Manufacturing. What is it that we need to do differently to better enable this? And what would it mean for our company and its evolving culture?

So, in my message today, I want to share some perspectives on how to ensure that we provide women with the enabling space to thrive in front line roles, such as those in FMCG Sales. 

I am very pleased that Apurva Joshi, who recently moved to the Innovation team, has written this week’s message. Apurva interned with GCPL in 2012, when she won the Godrej Gurukul Best Project Competition for her work on the Godrej Expert brand. She came back to join us as an Area Sales Manager (ASM) in the India Sales team in 2013, after completing business school.

Please read on…

June 3, 2013 was the start of a great adventure; my first job and that too, in the FMCG industry. Getting a foot in this glorified sector is the dream of many Indian b-school grads. Most of us begin our FMCG journey by roughing it out in the big, bad world of Sales. After a few years of doing the Sales grind, we eventually move to other roles.

I, as ASM Telangana Upcountry, handled a territory comprising 9 districts (listed by Wikipedia as the Naxal infested red corridor of India), 6 field officers, 80 salesmen, 44 distributors, a retail universe of 7,000 outlets and an annual turnover of close to INR 90 crores.

What makes my FMCG journey unique is the fact that I was one of the few women ASMs in the country, not just in GCPL, but among all FMCG companies. Some years ago, very few members of the so called fairer sex would have breached this male bastion, but nowadays many women are venturing into this field. Still, the gender ratio in Sales is worse than that of our country. But at least things have started looking up.

I often refer to people in Sales as ‘Ninjas’, for most ASMs develop traits that make them stand out from the rest of the human race. An ASM, be it a man or a woman, needs to be extremely adaptable and deal with situations with an ingenuity that few possess. Sales, by virtue of being a challenging profession, is considered to be unbefitting for the faint hearted, ones loving their peace of mind, and women.

To the uninitiated, it is a game of chasing monthly, quarterly and annual targets. But there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It requires a masterful jugglery of multiple business priorities across large territories and artful people management. An ASM is always on her toes, shuttling between towns for market work and stakeholder management, tracking multiple business agendas and constantly firefighting.

I am often asked if I had to encounter specific challenges owing to my gender in this realm of patriarchy. And if I would recommend another woman to partake in this vocation. The answer to both the questions would be an emphatic Yes.

I faced ample challenges, which persisted throughout my tenure, but I worked hard to assuage their impact to the greatest extent possible and figured out ways of working around them.

Establishing an eco-system conducive to work

Many of us ASMs find ourselves posted in far-flung places, thousands of miles away from our loved ones. We are required to travel to different corners of our territories on a daily basis. Mostly, we hit the road at 7 AM, only to return back post 8 PM. With different areas of our subcontinent plagued by various threats, ranging from insurgency, naxalism, dacoits, lawlessness and mafia to name a few, an ASM needs to ensure that she manages to do her work, while ensuring her safety. Through trials, errors and multiple bad experiences, we end up finding trusted cab drivers to ferry us around and hotels where we feel safe retiring for the night.

Establishing a supportive ecosystem is a challenge for both genders. But a woman travelling alone to towns – big, small and minuscule enough to not be visible on the map – must take extra precautions about the cab she travels in, the hotels she decides to use as her pit stops and the time at which she returns to the safe confines of her abode. The choice of hotels in many of our small towns is limited and not up to the mark. I myself, have had nightmarish experiences of residing in a hotel where a bacchanalian session was in progress in the hotel corridor right outside my room. At another time I was horrified to find a 3 inch hole drilled into the washroom ceiling of the hotel I stayed in at Nizamabad.

A clear organisational mandate on employee safety would be of great help and enable people in such jobs to raise a flag when they feel unsafe or threatened, without the fear of repercussions or being considered a whiny troublemaker. This would also help sensitise male RSMs to the extra precautions that must be taken by a woman. It would help dispel notions held by superiors that certain concessions and allowances made for female employees in such roles would in any way have an effect on their performance or deliverables.

Proving the detractors wrong

Initially, I faced skepticism regarding my ability to handle a territory fraught with multiple challenges, partly owing to my gender and partly, my inexperience. As a woman manager, there were certain constraints like being unable to sit at a distributor point till late in the night, or staying overnight in many towns owing to concerns about safety. Initially, this was not taken well. It took time for me to prove that though my methods of working might differ from that of a man, I was just as capable of delivering 100% of my targets on a monthly basis and leading my team just as well as a male manager would.

Dealing with the great Indian male ego

Every female ASM must figure out her own technique of dealing with the great Indian male ego. 99.99% of the people one encounters possess the XY chromosome. Starkly different in age, experience and background from the men one mingled with during one’s pre-sales days, these shrewd, business minded veterans of the field are under no particular obligation to listen to a 25 year old woman. Building a rapport with men not accustomed to dealing with women beyond the ones in their families and certainly not with those in positions of authority, requires both time and consistent effort. Getting through to a team is easier for male bosses. It is usually accomplished using a heady concoction of alcohol after meetings, hanging out after work hours and using tactile cues.

Women, on the other hand, must try different iterations to maintain a dignified distance and yet fraternise and get through to the team. As a young woman leading a team of men almost double my age, I made it a point to deal with my team members with a certain reverence. I was aware that I would have to command and not demand respect from the team, through the value my skills and education could add to their years of experience. Through consistent effort, I tried to make it clear that my job was not to establish one-upmanship as a boss (something that is very prevalent in Indian FMCG Sales), but to ensure that the team worked as a cohesive unit and delivered consistent results. Once I managed to win over different stakeholders, I never felt discriminated against, disrespected or unsafe around the many types of men I interacted with. My team was immensely protective of me and we got along exceptionally well and delivered some great results.

Sales: the great equaliser

I realised that once you breach the initial barrier of skepticism regarding your gender and learn to work around the operational chinks, Sales can be a great equaliser. Here, numbers provide testimony to one’s capability. Subjectivity is limited and everything measured on a scale. No other entry level post MBA job allows one to lead a team and manage a business worth hundreds of crores at a mere 25 years of age. In Sales, you are empowered to take decisions, your viewpoints are respected and dissent is not quelled. As a woman manager, I competed with my male peers on an equal footing and held myself just as accountable for my deliverables. I knew that while, as a woman, I might require certain concessions in travel and the way I operate, my end results and what was expected of me, were at par with what one expected of a male manager. I saw myself as the manager of a territory, before I saw myself as a woman.

Sales: a profession of choice for the fairer-sex?

Would I recommend sales as a profession to another woman? Yes, I would! Very few professions allow a 25 year old woman to lead a team and entrust them with a responsibility of crores of rupees. Once you deliver your targets, Sales as a profession is gender blind. It takes you to the corners of the country and sensitises you to people of all socio-economic strata. It shoves you out of the comfort zone of an AC office and into the dirt and grime of the real world. It toughens you up to deal with all types of people, situations and challenges. It leaves you with anecdotes that would make for the most interesting conversations. Also, for anyone aspiring for a career in FMCG Marketing, Sales provides a window to the reality out there. Sure, it is difficult and often uncomfortable, but it does end up making one practical, driven and goal oriented.

Can women thrive in Sales? 

A woman can do a pretty darn good job at Sales, provided we iron out a few chinks and provide her a safe environment to operate in, with all the support she needs to thrive. A network of mentors within the company that one could reach out to, would help women firmly establish their foot on the ground. As there are very few women in Sales, we often look for role models in the initial days, to figure out how to lead a team and deliver results, regardless of the teething troubles we might encounter. While we do seek help and advice informally from our peer group, we mostly shy away from reaching out to senior management. An official network comprising of senior managers, sales professionals, human resource partners, and other women who have taken the sales route in the past would make it a lot easier for us to reach out, seek advice and ask for help without feeling awkward about it. It would help us get perspective from veterans on how we can deal with challenges and work in a way that helps us optimise our performance. A responsive network would also convey to young managers that there is a whole system out there to support them when things go awry. This would be very reassuring for all young managers and challenging roles like Sales and particularly for women. Encouraging diversity in Sales would bring a different perspective and culture to Indian FMCG Sales. It is high time more women storm into this field and make their mark here.

A big thank you to Apurva for sharing her journey in a very honest take on this much debated issue.

Apurva was one of our few women ASMs. While the numbers have picked up over the last couple of years, to give you an idea of where we stand today – just 3 of our 40 ASMs in India are women. Retention is a concern, with women opting out of these roles early on, citing location, family concerns, lifestyle or lack of a peer group as issues.

That said, we are also fortunate have a few great examples of successful women leaders at Godrej, who have worked their way through traditional male bastions – like Pallavi Wad, who leads Supply Chain in our Indonesia business and Somasree Bose, who leads our Cinthol, aer and Protekt brands in India. Some of our younger women ASMs, like Apurva, have also worked hard to establish themselves as strong performers in their teams.

So, the question for us is, how to attract, develop and retain more women managers? Where will our next Pallavi or Soma or Apurva come from? And how do we become a more enabling company for them?

Whether it is as a leadership team, supervisors, team members, colleagues or friends – we are all intrinsically part of how this plays out across our company. We know the numbers and have deliberated on the issues at hand, many times over. But in order to come up with a lasting solution, we have to first be able to step in their shoes and the shoes of the many women who we hope will find Godrej an inspiring place to work at.

This is probably easier said than done. At times, we may not even realise the kind of lasting impact that we could have, especially as managers of first timers in the workplace. Research on what it takes to create a workplace where women can really thrive, cites the attitude of bosses as a key enabling factor. We shape, sometimes rather irrevocably, the way young women approach their careers – how valued they think their contributions would be and how determined they will be to prove themselves capable.

A study done by the Catalyst Group found that 25 per cent of women left their first job because of a difficult manager. In an HBR article discussing the study, Rick Waugh, the ex-president and CEO of Scotiabank says, “It’s very important who your first or second supervisor is. Many times, that determines whether you’re going to stay with that organisation and how far you’re going to advance. That first landing spot – whether you get coached, developed, and mentored or you get a bad manager – casts the die. Companies need to put more emphasis on manager-direct report relationships in that first job.”

So, the responsibility to make women feel like they are part of a workplace where they can thrive rests with each of us. Whether it is by ensuring that safety is nonnegotiable, equipping by way of mentoring and support networks, or being more accepting of different approaches and viewpoints – our ask as a company is that you take personal accountability to make this possible.

This does not however, mean that we will make any allowances as far as performance and deliverables are concerned. Our people philosophy of Tough Love is very clear that we will value merit. What we want to ensure is that we can create an inspiring, enabling workplace for women; a level playing field for them to perform to the best of their abilities.

Overall, we must continue to have zero tolerance for discrimination. At Godrej, we absolutely believe in the importance of diversity. It is not a nice-to-have, but a real business necessity. Being able to cultivate different perspectives will make us a more rounded company, with a deeper appreciation of our consumers and society.

I am sure that many of you would have suggestions on what else we need to do, based your own personal experiences. Do share them with us; we could greatly benefit from these discussions as a team, as we look to strengthen our people policies and practices and make Godrej more diverse and more inclusive.

Comments

  • Tukai says:

    Very well balanced article! Captures a lot of perspective into real sales. And yes- I believe it’s an awesome thing to begin a career in sales.

    However, having spent almost 4 years in the FMCG industry across sales and brand roles – one pattern intrigues me – very few females actually come back into a sales role. Exceptions are refreshing, but having been part of the world’s largest FMCG, what I found was very few women came back into senior positions in sales (field roles like say Regional/ Divisional Sales Manager).

    Hope this changes, as otherwise not only does the diversity policy end up being a biased one (against male counterparts) but we also run the risk of having too many managers in HQ roles with too little sales experience.

    • Apurva Joshi says:

      Thanks Tukai. Starting out in sales certainly provides a lot of perspective and learning which is essential for a career in the FMCG industry. A lot more girls, out of B-School, are now entering the FMCG Industry and starting their careers in sales. With the passage of time I can only see the ratio of women increasing in this traditionally male domain. With a little operational support from our companies and peer group many of these girls would be able to thrive in and hopefully make long-time careers in sales. Diversity to us means not just having women in the sheltered confines of HQ roles but having women out there, in the field, fighting it out shoulder to shoulder, with their male counterparts!

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    A very interesting article and I could relate to many aspects as I too was in a male dominated profession, the Indian Army.

    Net net, you need to do a good job in the role at hand, regardless of your gender. Respect thus earned, then smoothes the path.

  • Apurva Joshi says:

    Thanks Sunita. Women like you are inspirations for young girls who start out their careers in such male dominated fields. I hope that in the future the term ‘male dominated profession’ is completely obliterated by girls and women who storm into these fields and through their sheer hard work and grit prove their mettle in the same.

  • Manushi says:

    Hey,

    I am an MBA student, skeptical about taking up the ASM role, being a woman. I am majorly concerned about the safety issues and how to tackle a team of dogmatic men, who generally are not adaptable to taking women as their boss? Your reply would help me make an informed decision. Thank you.

X

Join the 8AM conversation

Subscribe