One Job That Could Guarantee Your Success

LinkedIn – “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?” – Woody Allen, “Small Time Crooks”

Despite quantum changes in the business world over the past 40 years, one thing has held steady: MBAs studiously avoid sales jobs.

But some of our brightest future business leaders might be surprised to learn that many entrepreneurs have turned out to be salespeople at heart. Think Steve Jobs at Apple, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, Howard Schultz at Starbucks, Phil Knight at Nike and Sam Walton at Wal-Mart.

When this year’s crop of MBAs graduates in June, almost half will go into finance or consulting, doing almost anything to avoid the hustle – and rejection – that are part of trying to sell something to flesh-and-blood customers. What they probably don’t realize is that twenty years down the road, their most successful classmates will have mastered the art of persuasion and built their careers on the ability to sell goods and services.

The simple fact is that no business can survive without sales. To find paying customers – the lifeblood of any business – entrepreneurs must first raise capital, hire great teams, build a brand and cultivate customer loyalty. Each of these, at its heart, is a “sale.” So learning to sell is vital to anyone who hopes to start or to lead a successful business.

Why don’t MBAs flock to sales jobs? One reason is a fear that they’ll be enlisting in an army of commission-dependent, interchangeable cogs in a business machine. Having just spent two years and a small fortune learning about strategy, finance and organizational behavior, some feel they are beyond enlisting in the business world’s front lines. But they’re wrong.

At its heart, sales is about figuring people out: Great salespeople don’t push products. They listen. They solve problems. And they do it all by providing solutions that are worth more to customers than they cost. This is not merely the essence of recruiting lifetime customers, it’s the only way to build durable relationships with suppliers, shareholders and employees. Listening for ways to solve others’ problems is a key to sales – and to leadership.

No matter what industry you choose, an acute sense of the customer will pay off. And believe it or not, sales can be fun. If you believe in the value of what you’re selling, you’ll realize that you are actually in the business of making people happier, more productive, better-looking or whatever they are solving for. With this mindset, sales can be fulfilling in the moment and meaningful in the long run.

On the flip side, if your sales job is only about convincing people to buy stuff they don’t really want or need at a cost that’ll never create any net value to them, you’ll be living your own Willy Loman nightmare.

The least popular, but perhaps most useful, advice I give every year to MBA graduates is to pick up sales experience as soon as possible – and the closer to the customer, the better. Jobs in sales-related positions will likely teach you how to do the following:

1) Conquer Rejection: Cold-calling, market surveying, and… rejection, can be tough. But as someone who got his start leasing warehouse space, I can attest to the value of overcoming rejection and developing a granular, customer-by-customer connection with the market. Jobs involving lead generation and lead qualification comprise corners of the sales funnel that may turn off some would-be sales reps, but can still be great ways to learn a market. Embrace them if that’s where you get your start.

2) Hone Your Networking Skills: People in sales learn to create and cultivate new relationships seamlessly, not only with customers but also with suppliers. Networking is a great way to meet customers, suppliers, potential joint venture partners and advisors in an industry – and it can be enjoyable.

3) Tackle and Solve Problems: The legendary head of sales for IBM, Buck Rodgers, used to say that his favorite call of the day was from an angry customer. He considered it an opportunity to prove to that person why choosing IBM had been a smart move. After-the-sale service jobs (often called account management) are vital to establishing and maintaining lifetime customers and can serve as a tutorial in what works and what doesn’t. Getting direct customer feedback will lead to product improvements and teach you how to respond to customers before you lose them.

4) Rise to the Top: As you master the art of sales, you’re honing your powers of persuasion, improving your listening abilities and developing the grittiness that makes salespeople such durable members of the workforce – all of which happen to be valuable leadership skills that can help you rise to the top and better manage your responsibilities once you’re there.

As motivational speaker and sales guru Harry “Zig” Ziglar used to say, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” If a job in sales can teach you that, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity. And, if you’re in finance, consulting, or supply chain management, there’s no reason not to borrow this salesman’s credo.

By Joel Peterson