Meryl Streep was up for her 20th Oscar nomination last night. She has shown unbelievable range across her career. Jennifer Aniston presented an award last night but hasn’t yet been nominated. Part of the reason for this is typecasting. Jennifer tends to get girl-next-door roles and is pretty much a guaranteed success at the box office when the takes on romantic comedies. Now I don’t want to take from Jennifer’s success – she has had a long and lucrative career – but success in one area tends to perpetuate itself and sends you down certain paths that end up being more rigid than you think before taking them and then, before you know it, typecasting sets in.
Interestingly enough this typecasting doesn’t just apply to Hollywood – it also happens in sales too. Now we all know the stereotypes of sales from outside the profession – From Willy Lohman of Death of a Salesman’s “smile and a shoeshine” approach to unfair comparisons all sellers to sleazy used car salespeople – but there is also a risk of getting stereotyped within the profession. Here is how it can happen to you and how you can avoid the Jennifer Aniston route and become more of a Meryl Streep in your sales career.
I see 4 main ways in which you can get stereotyped within the sales function.
In sales, this is where you stay selling basically the same thing in, at least, your last two jobs. when you do this twice in a row things start to perpetuate themselves and recruiters tend to approach you for jobs related to your new found “speciality”. As you know already know the industry space, you can command more income because of what you bring to the table so it ends up being the path of least resistance to take another opportunity in the same space. I see this happen in a few spaces but in particular HR technology – where you see lots of patterns of companies like indeed.com or the ladders moving to companies like LinkedIn You also see it in local marketing services – where move patterns like Groupon to Yodle and Yext are common. Finally, I see this often int he video space where moves between competitors like Brightcove, Ooyala, and companies like Conviva are standard practice.
2. Focusing on the same vertical (in Jennifer’s case this would be the largely female audiences or romantic comedies).
In sales this is where you become a one-trick pony on vertical orientation. Again, this is an easy trap to fall into – you leverage your rolodex from one company to another as you command more money by doing so. When verticals are broad or deep like retail / commerce or media planning agencies for ad tech this is less of an issue but the more niche they are (such as selling to the legal vertical) the more this situation can perpetuate itself. I see this a bit with publisher-focused sellers. That space has gone through some tough times in the past 10 years and those that only focused on that vertical found it harder to pivot away from it.
3. Staying in the same job too long i.e. gold watch syndrome – (did Jennifer stay on Friends too long? She did that show for 236 episodes and 10 years! )
The startup space doesn’t generally lead to too many issues with long tenures (!) but you often see it with more mature firms. I think anything more than 4 years with one firm you start to see diminishing returns with each additional year you spend there. Exceptions can be made where the firm was acquired or merged as that can show good adaptability on your part if you survive the combining of entities. Anything beyond 8 years and you run the risk of being perceived as institutionalized. This is especially the case when you work with more mature firms. If you are with mature firms over 8 years, you are way less likely to be contacted by earlier stage firm recruiters.
4. Only working with mature companies (ok I can’t take the Jennifer parallel here!)
Everyone should mix up firm stage at various times in their career – blending earlier stage firm experience to show scrappiness and later stage firms to a) see how they operate and b) truly understand enterprise deals and how a big firm can rally resources to surround deals. If you only work at large firms like, say IBM, Adobe, Salesforce it is often assumed (rightly or wrongly) that you need some type of corporate cushion to function effectively in sales – being fed leads or needing to rely on teams of sales engineers and proposal writers. This puts earlier stage recruiters off even reaching out to you so you will at least not likely know what you are missing out on!
So how do you avoid these traps? How do you avoid being the sales equivalent of Meryl Streep and effortlessly move from highly varied role to role like she did on Kramer vs Karmer and Doubt? The answer is that you should mix it up (!) but, in sales, you can only do this within reason. You should also always seriously think what any move does for your perception to the outside world BEFORE you accept any role – will you be seen as typecast or do you truly have range AFTER you add the prospective new role to your resume?
Remember there are a few key variables in every job move…
Assuming, function (sales) and location are constant and there is already good SaaS exposure the remaining two key variables are Industry and Vertical.
Recruiters want to hire the perfect fit and try and find that by looking for sellers that already sell in their industry AND target their core vertical. That makes an ideal match. HOWEVER they have no issues slightly compromising with either industry OR vertical matches. From a candidate perspective, you should take advantage of this compromise by deliberately changing one of these variables in EVERY job move. If you sell Proximity marketing solutions to brick and mortar retailers then try and sell something different like Point-of-Sales Systems to brick and mortar or online retailers OR try and sell Location-based Services to a different vertical like QSRs or Automotive dealers. If you sell Recruiting Software to HR Chain of command people, try and pivot to sell something like Learning Management software to the same target audience and, while doing so, also try and expand your vertical worldview to include other business units. This will give you more range long term.
So it is really important to try hard not to take the easy option. But don’t try and bite off too much – if you try and change Industry AND Vertical orientation you will likely lose your leverage and the interest of recruiters. It can be done (look at Tom Hanks moving from Bachelor Party to Philadelphia!) but often only with the help of friends and former colleagues who trust you to fill that skills gap. (cue oscar acceptance speech where previously typecast actor says “I would like to thank XXX for taking a chance on me”)
Also when you hit 4 years at a firm you might want to start seriously evaluating making a move or at least being more open to a move. Yes, that is hard when you are established and doing well at your current firm but staying for too long can be detrimental to your value and may leave you tied to outdated technology or a space that is no longer the technology flavor-of-the-month. Sometimes you have to cut the cord of the predictable commission checks and adapt to pick up the next wave of hot technology. Maybe Jennifer should have asked to leave half way through the Friends franchise?
Finally, try and resist spending your whole time in more mature organisations. You may need that later in your career but, at least while you have less responsibilities, experiment with earlier-stage firms. Worst case you can use that to your advantage by eschewing red tape in larger firms later in your career.
So even if you missed out on your true calling as an actor and got into sales, you can still strive to be the Meryl Streep of selling – regularly mixing it up and surprising everyone with your range. You will have a longer and frankly, far more interesting career because of it.