Reinventing your career: 6 strategies to amplify female leaders in business development

Take a sales call, sit through a pitch meeting, or peruse the Chief Sales Officer bios at top corporations and you’ll see a lot more women today than you would have two decades ago.

Organizations have made great strides in gender equity, including in male-dominated fields like business development, but there’s a long way yet to go.

Today, women hold only about 21% of sales leadership positions globally. This is strong evidence that organizations need better strategies for finding, recruiting and developing female sales leaders.

How can companies invite women into business development roles at all levels and uplift female leaders within the ranks?

For answers, we sought out executive coaches Nancy Girres and Dayna Milne and business development expert and Applt Ventures CEO Amanda Moriuchi.

It starts with culture

“It takes a culture that makes it safe to talk about the issue,” says Girres. “That starts at an executive level, with the president, CEO or whoever is leading the charge.”

Sales leadership teams that don’t already include women should be especially careful about approaching conversations about gender equity, so as not to alienate women with leadership aspirations.

As Moriuchi explains, “Some companies make a DEI program a box to check. They bring women into those environments, but are not interested in the feedback that comes from those minority leaders.”

Diversity is about more than the team photo, after all. Creating space for women is good for business. Moriuchi underscores what’s at stake.

“If you have a leadership team that doesn’t reflect the diversity, width and breadth of your customer base, you are going to alienate a great majority of your customer base,” she says.

6 strategies to elevate female leaders, authentically

If you want to take full advantage of female talent to enhance business development results, where do you start, and then how do you proceed? The women leaders we talked to had several suggestions.

1. Set an intention

The outcome of any diversity effort will depend strongly on the intentions driving it. Milne recommends that organizations probe the reasons why they are seeking to add women to a sales organization or the leadership team.

“Are you shifting your culture authentically to include more women, or are you doing it for the sake of optics?” she asks.

The difference will be palpable, as Moriuchi explains. “Being a token is a totally different experience than working within a company that recognizes that it gives them a deep competitive advantage to have a diverse leadership team.”

Take the time to understand your “why” and communicate it across the organization, highlighting the enhanced opportunity that exists in greater inclusiveness.

2. Make it a two-way conversation

A place at the sales leadership table isn’t enough if women are meant to play an integral role in your organization. “Giving everybody a voice to express themselves and be themselves, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or background, is how we get the best out of people,” Milne says.

She adds, “If women are not given the space to speak, oftentimes we are going to go unheard.” It can be difficult to speak up as the minority in the room, so company executives need to actively solicit input from women leaders and rising stars. Just as importantly, they must listen to and act on the feedback, even when it’s difficult to do so.

3. Reassess job postings for better recruitment results

Did you know that women approach job hunting differently than men? If not, your recruitment efforts may flounder.

Milne points out, “If you’re just throwing job openings out there on LinkedIn or Indeed, you’re not going to attract the pool of candidates that will support your efforts to create a diverse workforce and promote women.” How you advertise positions on these types of job sites, as well as how you communicate openings internally, could have a huge impact on how many women respond.

“If men meet three to five out of 12 qualifications, they apply for the job,” Girres says. “If women meet 11 out of 12 qualifications, they hold back. If you know women think that way, stop putting so many qualifications in the job description. You’ll get a more robust group of applicants if you note what can be trained versus what is a genuine ‘must-have’ for applicants.”

4. Root out unconscious bias

According to Moriuchi, “Unconscious bias is just a part of the human condition. As a leader of a sales team, I think it’s a question of how we acknowledge it and operate despite it.”

A great example, in Girres’s opinion, is parenthood. “I don’t know why we’re still asking whether women can have babies and a career,” she comments. “Why are men never asked that question?”

Consider what happens when organizations avoid promoting deserving young female sales representatives because of unacknowledged fears that their drive and ambition will fade if they have children. These companies will lack a robust pipeline of senior female business development leaders for years to come.

Such impacts demonstrate why it’s so important to examine systems and question outcomes in light of unconscious bias like this. Where are you sending unintended but unwelcoming messages?

5. Chart a clear path to leadership

“You need to provide a developmental track,” says Girres. “If I know I want to be a COO, here are the five most important things I need to learn and know. Now, I have a path to develop my career.”

The same applies if a woman has in her sights on becoming Director of Sales, Chief Sales Officer, or Global Head of Business Development. She needs to understand the steps along the way to this goal and how she can acquire the skills and knowledge to reach her destination.

6. Invest in leadership development

Once you establish the career path, create the development structures to support it. These can include internal training tracks, external leadership development programs, and one-to-one coaching and mentorship.

Don’t feel like all programs must be reserved for women. While there are benefits to a supportive female environment, mixed-gender groups also offer advantages.

“If we’re in the same room, we understand each other’s challenges better. I see a man’s perspective, he sees mine,” says Girres.

“I had both men and women as sales mentors,” says Moriuchi,” and it allowed me to really lean into the strengths that I have.”

The value of gender equality

Girres summarizes her perspective on diversity, saying, “The more diverse we are, the more robust our decision-making capabilities are, because we’re coming at it from all these different ways of thinking.”

This attitude opens the door to female leaders and improves the business development space for both employees and customers.

And Moriuchi reminds those with excuses, “If it was life or death for your company’s survival and you realized that you needed a diverse leadership team, you would do whatever it took.”

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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