Corporate Ladder

As a child working in the onion fields, I used to dream of having a job where I would work in an office building and wear a suit and tie to work every day.

“Study hard so you can work in the air conditioning!” my Dad would say.

Seriously, working in corporate America was literally a dream come true for me. A big cushy chair facing a wall of windows in a corner office was what I understood the goal to be, so imagine my surprise when I found myself in this exact situation during my very first corporate internship at the age of 19.

In the movies, the guy usually starts out working in the mailroom before he gradually works his way up to the C-Suite, but that wasn’t the script they gave me. Instead, they showed me to my office, gave me all the leniency that I could ask for, and then told me we’d catch up for a beer at happy hour, which was literally in the campus courtyard and it started at 2pm.

Free beer during work?! As strange as it sounds, this was the least an old corporate behemoth like IBM could do to try and keep up with the young Silicon Valley startups they were surrounded by during the height of the tech boom in the late 1990s. While many startups were offering huge signing bonuses, stock options, and ridiculous benefits, IBM appeared to be falling behind the times and at risk of losing their influential position. Though there were many times I was tempted by the incredibly young and fast paced culture of the startups, the prestige and name recognition of working for “Big Blue” was enough to keep me around.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, staying at IBM was one of the best and luckiest decisions I’ve ever made. When the dot- com bubble burst in 2000, almost all of those young, trendy startups went out of business overnight. As I was still in college, I had a lot of older friends who had recently graduated and accepted signing bonuses with thousands of stock options. During the boom, these options were worth millions of dollars, though they weren’t fully vested and thus couldn’t yet be sold. Unfortunately, telling a twenty-two-year-old that they’re only worth millions on paper won’t stop them from acting as though it is all real. So, they went out and bought fancy cars and lived lavish lifestyles, for at least a few months.

When it all came to an abrupt end, they got laid off and their stock options were worthless. Luckily for me, IBM was still as stable as they had always been, and I still had a job. As with everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to working for large corporations and their resilience to survive market fluctuations during this time was a godsend.

Other corporate advantages that I’ve appreciated over the years have included generous salaries, paid vacation and sick leave, proper equipment and support, educational reimbursement, established processes, corporate expense accounts, car allowances, travel budgets, professional development, human resource policies, well defined job responsibilities, and opportunities for advancement. That is not to say that everything in corporate is better, but there are some wonderful benefits to being a part of the machine.

One downfall to corporate (and being a salaried employee in general) is that while you may have a flexible schedule, there can be times when long hours are required. I first witnessed this in my third-year internship at IBM when I was sharing a large office with a full-time software engineer. As our office was pretty large, he had a habit of making himself at home with his personal items. I didn’t mind any of his belongings or decorations, but I was quite taken aback at one thing:

“Dave, what is that under your desk?” I inquired.
“It’s a bed roll.” he answered.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” I replied. “Might I ask why you have a bed roll under your desk?”
“Deadlines, man.” he responded with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Seriously?! You sleep here?”
“Sometimes… if I’m working late and I know I’m going to have to come in early, I’ll just take a nap for an hour or two and keep going.”

Hearing his words was all I needed to confirm in my mind that being a software engineer wasn’t for me. Though I loved coding and was already at the beginning of my senior year in college, I had seen enough to know that I wouldn’t be happy in the role. While some personality types appreciate the idea of being put in a closet and left alone to code for days, I knew this just wasn’t going to work for me. Even with the prestige that the engineering team received for being the backbone of the corporation, I clearly understood that I had to find another career path.

Technical Sales

From the time I was a sophomore in high school, my long- term goal was always to do technical sales. I’m not exactly sure where I first learned about the technical sales role, but I was positive it was the right role for me. The combination of getting to work in a position where I had a lot of personal interaction and at the same time was neck deep in the computer industry fit my personality and skill set perfectly. Plus, I had heard there was a ton of money to be made in the field, so I was even more motivated to move in that direction.

My original understanding, and subsequent plan was to get a degree in Computer Engineering, work in the field for a few years, go back to school to get an MBA, and then move into the technical sales field. But after working at IBM for three years during college, I was strongly opposed to staying in the software engineering field and was eager to move as quickly as possible towards the sales world. Unfortunately, I was having trouble finding sales managers at IBM who wanted to hire and pay computer engineers to do sales. Go figure.

When I first saw the job opening for the Technical Sales Training Program at Texas Instruments (TI), I had to do a double take. Seriously? They are exclusively recruiting Computer and Electrical Engineering majors to join their Sales Management Program and they are holding interviews on campus?! Talk about opportunity falling in my lap.

As I approached the TI recruiter in my freshly pressed charcoal gray suit at the career fair that day, I don’t think I could have been more confident.

“Hi! My name is Omar Bravo, I’m a computer engineering major and I’m interested in the Technical Sales position.” I then handed the recruiter my resume which listed my objective as “To obtain a Technical Sales position at Texas Instruments” in the first section.

“You’re a breath of fresh air!” the recruiter replied. “We don’t get many engineers that interested in sales, but it’s pretty clear you’re a man that knows what he wants.”

“Yes ma’am, I am.” I responded confidently. It turned out that this recruiter was actually the sales manager and that she had also been a part of the Inroads internship organization that was responsible for getting me into IBM. Since I was actually wearing the gold Inroads watch I had received as a Senior Gift, I quickly flashed her my wrist. “I owe Inroads so much!” I told her.

Having found common ground and developed rapport, I was a shoo-in for a first-round interview.

A few days later, as I was getting ready for my interview, I randomly got a call from my older brother Antonio. It was just a quick call, as I was on my way out the door, but before we hung up, he gave me a piece of interview advice that has stuck with me for the past eighteen years.

“Brother, there is nothing to be nervous about. You’ve written the papers, you’ve passed the classes, and you’ve completed the internships. You’ve already done all the hard work. All you have to do now is go tell them about it.”

So, I did just that. And it worked.

I breezed through the first-round interview on campus and was then sent to corporate headquarters in Dallas for three much more in-depth interviews. Through them all, I was confident and relaxed, determined to simply follow my brother’s advice and tell them about my experience. It was apparently enough, because the next day when I arrived back in Utah for Christmas break, I received an official job offer with a start date set for September of the following year.

Just like that, my entire life shifted direction and I was on my way to see how the other half lived.

Having received an offer letter in the middle of my senior year made the second half of my senior year quite enjoyable. Gone were the stresses of interviewing and answering the never- ending stream of “so what are you plans for after graduation” questions. Instead, I was able to focus on making sure that I passed my remaining classes while at the same time enjoying the finer things that college life had to offer. Things like road trips, mid-week house parties, relaxing in the mission gardens, and playing basketball in the gym. Additionally, since I knew that I would be receiving both my relocation package and a signing bonus on my first day of work in September, I was free to spend a little bit more than my part-time job budget had allowed. As I was already making $23/hour at my IBM internship, I never really lived the “poor college student” lifestyle, so increasing my spending was actually pretty frivolous. Needless to say, I bought more than my share of beer during my last four months of college. Ironically, this turned out to be perfect practice for my new career in sales.

The sales management program I had been hired into at TI was highly competitive and at the same time very relaxed. While there were thirty Associates in the program that were competing for sales positions around the country, the camaraderie was extremely high as we were all recent graduates in our first post- college jobs. Though each Associate was eligible to move out of the program after ten months, I saw no reason to be in such a hurry. We were already being paid a base salary equivalent to that of an engineer, and we had virtually no responsibilities. Sure, we would qualify for quarterly bonuses after we completed the program, but we would also be responsible for meeting quarterly sales benchmarks as well. On the contrary, while in the program your weekly schedule consisted of going out to lunch every day, attending a day or two of training, and hitting happy hour at least two or three evenings every week with all of the other Associates. From that perspective, it was similar to a co-ed fraternity where we all lived in the same apartment complex, we worked together, and we hung out together. But unlike college, everybody had plenty of disposable income.

Because the program exclusively hired Computer and Electrical Engineers with the sole purpose of training them in the art of Sales and Marketing, this social behavior was highly encouraged by our managers as this is exactly what our actual role would entail. More often than not, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid for this! While the engineers were working long hours in their dimly lit cubicles, we were getting the Vice President’s courtside seats to the Dallas Mavericks NBA games or the Dallas Stars NHL games. With each day that passed, I was shocked to learn that this was how the other half lived.

Engineering vs Sales

When I used to sit in an office with other engineers, the long hours were justified with prideful conversations about how the engineers were the heart of the company and that if it weren’t for the engineers, there wouldn’t even be a company. Once I moved into the sales and marketing department, I was curious to learn if employees outside of engineering felt the same way. Surprisingly, they did not.

Rather than gratefully lifting up the engineering department while relaxing with clients on the golf course, as perhaps the engineers had hoped, the sales guys instead would boast about how if it weren’t for sales, there would be no revenue and thus no company. Having now been on both sides of this conversation, I can see valid points in each perspective. Though each role is very different, they are both equally necessary and equally challenging in different ways.

Bold statement, right? Let me explain.

While most will agree that engineering requires dedication and an advanced intellect, some may say that any schmuck can do sales, to which I will agree. However, there is a huge difference between simply taking orders and developing long term relationships that result in increased revenue. Sales definitely requires a different skill set than engineering, but a great salesperson is no less talented than a great engineer.

For starters, salesmanship starts at “no.” If your job is to stand behind a cash register and take orders, you’re not in sales. A salesperson’s job starts when they proactively offer goods or services to someone and it continues when their offer is rejected. For most people, going out and proactively approaching a stranger with an offer is completely terrifying and having to continue on after being rejected is out of the question. Yet, that’s what salespeople have to do.

At TI, I was trained to immediately break the ice with potential clients and build rapport quickly. From there, my objective was to learn what their key “care-abouts” were, what obstacles they were facing, who the primary decision maker was, and how involved my competitors were on the project. This was all in an effort to figure out how and where I could best help them accomplish their goals, while at the same time selling more products and increasing the company revenue 18 months in the future. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just send a potential client a questionnaire in an email and have them tell me about the inner workings of their company. This sure would have been easier, but that’s not how it works.

Instead, I would start out by simply trying to get them on the phone. Once on the phone, I would schedule a visit to swing by and introduce myself. I would always try to schedule the visit for the late morning so that I could invite them out to lunch right after, as it is much easier to establish a positive relationship at a lunch table than it is at a conference room table. Plus, it’s very difficult to decline a free lunch.

Once at lunch, my goal for our conversation was to talk about anything other than work. Since it was going to take anywhere from twelve to eighteen months for the average client to finish designing their product and put it into production, it was going to be just as long until I saw any revenue from this project. So, I wasn’t in the business of quick one-time sales transactions like a used-car dealer, I was in this for the long haul. As such, my goal was to first get to know and then make friends with each prospective client before trying to work with them for the next year and a half.

This strategy of developing personal relationships with clients was wildly beneficial to my effectiveness on a daily basis. Rather than interact with clients solely on a professional level, I was able to interact with them as friends since we would spend so much time in social situations outside of the work environment. From lunches and happy hours to golf outings and deep-sea fishing trips, from NBA and NFL games to NASCAR races and rock concerts, my corporate expense account allowed for my clients and I to legitimately become friends.

This was an enormous advantage when it came to actually doing business together since we both had a vested interest in seeing each other succeed. Having access to inside information that my competitors weren’t privy to was definitely an advantage of these relationships, but the real benefit came during the times when things weren’t going as planned. Whether it was a price increase or a missed delivery date on my company’s part that was going to negatively affect my client’s production schedule, it was always my job to deliver the bad news. It was at these times that I valued my friendship with my clients the most because though these issues weren’t actually my fault, somebody had to get yelled at.

There was one instance in particular where my company’s parts were failing and causing my client to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because of this, my client’s upper management demanded that I come in to give a detailed report of what the issues were and how we were working to resolve them, even though our engineering department had already provided these details. So, I went into my client’s office and got yelled at by his upper management for a solid thirty minutes. They repeatedly explained to me the financial damage that was being caused because of my company’s failure, and that they were now failing their customers. Over and over again, I apologized and assured them that our engineering department was doing everything they could to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. Then they yelled at me some more.

After this verbal lashing was over and his management left, my client and I sat at his desk in silence for a few moments before I reached up and pushed the button on the Napoleon Dynamite bobblehead that was sitting on his desk:

“Gosh! Freaking Idiot!” the bobblehead spouted out, to which we both began to chuckle.

“Sorry you had to endure that, man.” my client said. “Even so, I really appreciate you knowingly walking into this firestorm for me. Though it might not seem like it, you being here is actually taking a lot of heat off of me.”

“It’s all in a day’s work” I replied nonchalantly. Then we went to out to lunch, on my expense account of course.

The reality is that though entertaining clients can be very enjoyable, it’s definitely not the same as being on vacation with your loved ones. For starters, you have to drive and travel a ton. I was personally averaging 35k miles a year, which explains why I was given such a lucrative monthly car allowance. Likewise, while staying in a hotel every so often can be fun, staying in a hotel four nights in a row makes you long for the comfort of your own bed. The same goes for eating out – it’s fun at first, but there comes a point when nothing sounds better than a home- cooked meal.

Last, but not least, is the drinking. Talk about torturing your body. Don’t get me wrong, picking up a happy hour tab for folks is a blast. But, being a professional party guy every night makes early morning breakfast meetings less than enjoyable. So, for anyone who thinks that “sales guys have it so easy,” I challenge you to make cold calls all morning, golf and drink beer all afternoon, and then still have enough energy and be sober enough to drive your clients to dinner and drinks that night. All while never even considering being late for the 8 AM meeting the next day that you’ll be chauffeuring everyone to.

It may not be digging ditches, but it’s no walk in the park either. Especially if you have a hangover when you have to take one for the team and get yelled at.

The Greatest Salesman

Throughout my life, I have encountered many salespeople. From the lawn care guy that knocks on my door, to the life insurance agent who wants to scare me into a buying a policy, some folks are really good at selling their products/services and others are not. But of all the salespeople I’ve met, Ricki Jam (Ricardo) was the best.

Ok, so perhaps Ricki didn’t bring in the most revenue or close the most deals, but when it came to breaking the ice, building rapport, and getting clients to relax and open up, no one did it better than Ricki. Whether he is meeting a client for the first time or simply standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, Ricardo would have someone telling him their life story after only a few moments of interaction.

At first, I assumed it was Ricardo’s thick Jamaican accent and boisterous laugh that put people at ease. In combination with his extremely jovial attitude, he gives off a first impression that he is a bit goofy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Though it wasn’t my first impression, Ricardo actually has an engineering degree from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and is ridiculously intelligent. Even so, he never came across as an intellectual elite, which I came to understand was by design.

After years of observing Ricardo make instant friends with everyone, everywhere, I finally cracked his code. To get people talking, Ricardo would simply repeat whatever the other person said last with a raised inflection in his voice and a pause, as if he was questioning their response.

Ricardo: “Hey mon, where you from?”
Random Person: “I’m from Cleveland.”
Ricardo: “Cleveland, eh?” (pause)
Random Person: “Yeah, I lived there until I went to college.”
Ricardo: “Until you went to college?” (pause)
Random Person: “Yeah, then I went to Ohio State in Columbus.”
Ricardo: “Ok, ok, Ohio State Buckeyes… You’re a big Buckeyes fan?”
Random Person: “Yes, of course! Go Bucks!”

Just like that, Ricardo would have someone he just met animated and talking about whatever it is they loved. Rather than trying to steer the conversation, he would always let the other person take the conversation wherever they were comfortable, getting them to say “yes” with every response. Once comfortable and confident that Ricki was just a super friendly and charismatic guy, they were basically willing to talk about anything he wanted.

I’ve had the privilege of watching Ricki conduct this same interaction with countless people and each time the interaction would end, the other people would walk away smiling and thinking about how great of a guy Ricki was, even though he was just repeating whatever they said. The best part is that this isn’t a sales tactic that Ricardo learned out of a book and uses for nefarious purposes. Instead, it’s just the way Ricki Jam operates. It just so happens that it works perfectly for breaking the ice and building rapport in a sales meeting.

As further proof of his excellent sales skills was his ability to be the first Associate hired out of our Sales Management program. He was selected to join a highly sought-after Corporate Account Team in the beautiful city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida that everyone else in the program was vying for. While many of the other Associates (myself included), didn’t perceive Ricki as a true contender, he proved to everyone that his personality, charisma, and ability to connect with people quickly was as valuable, if not more valuable, than all the technical knowledge in the world.

Memorizing product tech specs is easy compared to being so comfortable in your own skin that you make other people around you feel at ease. Though I have done my best to integrate Ricki’s techniques into my own interactions, I am nowhere near as authentic or comfortable as he is when it comes to simply being myself.

In essence, that is the glory of Ricardo: He has been able to embody the age-old cliché of “just be yourself”. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to do the same.

Work Friends

At a professional conference I attended in college, one of the workshop presenters spoke about the importance of keeping your personal life separate from your professional life. Among the benefits of this separation was that you were able to minimize your liabilities in the workplace. Whether that meant not making a fool of yourself at happy hour, or not confiding in someone who could use your personal situations to hinder your professional advancement, the presenter’s stance was that these liabilities weren’t worth the risk of making friends at work.

As a young impressionable novice to the corporate world, I thought this perspective made sense. Staying out of office politics and avoiding the gossip around the water cooler seemed like a great way to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, it is also a great way to miss out on all the inside jokes, in addition to getting passed over for your next promotion.

While I fully understand that promotions and raises should be based solely on a person’s ability to proficiently perform their job function and that who goes golfing together shouldn’t matter, I also understand that all businesses are people businesses and people want to work with people they like. As such, though it may not be fair, personal relationships influence professional decisions every single day and to be ignorant of this fact is a liability in itself.

In my first Technical Sales position in Florida, my boss John was a huge proponent of mixing business with pleasure. So much so, he once advised me that “if you have to have friends and you have to have co-workers, why not just kill two birds with one stone?” At the time, I shuttered a bit at the suggestion, as it was so far removed from the initial advice I had heard on the topic. But, after having just completed the Sales Program where I had made some wonderful friends, I was cautiously open to the idea.

Over the next four years in that specific role, I actually did make some really wonderful, lifelong friends at work. Friends whose weddings I went to, friends whose homes I stayed at, and even friends that I went on international vacations with. Not just co-workers either, I’ve actually had two different bosses stay at my parents’ house with me on vacation. One boss literally crashed on the couch of my best friend from high school after a long night downtown. Later on, he sat at my parent’s kitchen table and played poker with my older brothers and cousins.

Needless to say, making friends at work can be an over-the- top, outstanding experience. Likewise, it can be not-so-awesome as well.

Though it has been the exception to the rule in my experiences, I have hung out with a few crappy co-workers over the years. From the guy who was a closet racist and would drop n-bombs on the golf course, to the guys that thought they were so rich they would make fun of poor people while hanging at the poolside bar, negative associations can happen. Unfortunately, just because two people work at the same place doesn’t mean they necessarily carry the same values or aspirations, though they regularly do have a lot in common.

In general, if I were to give a younger me advice about making friends at work, I would encourage myself to be open to the possibility. Definitely tread lightly and understand that liabilities can exist in these relationships, but that the overwhelming majority of your coworkers want the same things as you do.

People are people and every business is a people business.

Posifocus Mantra #12

Every Business is a People Business.

Reflection

What is your favorite part of your job? Are you friends with the people at work? How much more enjoyable would your job be if you truly cared for the people you work with (and they cared for you)?

Challenge

Take your relationships at work to the next level. Check in with your co-workers to see how they’re doing, invite someone out to lunch, bring in bagels for your team meeting.

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