Lucy Williams-Jones is a Senior Director of EMEA at DataDog, a cloud application monitoring platform.

Empowering Women in Sales Leadership: The Role of Mentors and Sponsors in Navigating the Path

Empowering Women in Sales Leadership: The Role of Mentors and Sponsors in Navigating the Path

Understanding the Impact of Mentors and Sponsors on Women in Sales Leadership

Climbing the ladder to a leadership position in sales isn’t easy for anyone—but a study by Xactly confirmed what many people already know—women continue to be under-represented as managers. Approximately  one manager out of three globally is a woman (31 percent) and only one-quarter of all CEOs are women, showing fewer women represented as you move each rung higher on the corporate ladder.

Women are almost half of all those employed in the EU, yet in 2021 only 35 percent of them were in management roles, and only about one-quarter were board members of publicly listed companies in the EU (28 percent). Less than one fifth of women in the EU are senior executives (18 percent). Similarly, in the US, only 29 percent of sales representative positions and 26 percent of sales management positions are held by women, even though evidence shows women regularly outperform male colleagues in B2B sales.

The Xactly study showed the lack of female representation is due to many factors. Still, in my 24 years in enterprise sales, I’ve learned that to move into leadership positions in most organizations, women need sponsors—not just mentors who provide guidance or support, but sponsors who can advocate for us and help us navigate our career path and overcome barriers to obtaining coveted leadership roles. An article in the Harvard Business Review confirms, “Too few women are reaching the top of their organizations, and a big reason is that they are not getting the high-stakes assignments that are prerequisite for a shot at the C-suite. Often, this is due to a lack of powerful sponsors demanding and ensuring that they get these stepping-stone jobs.”

I’ve learned many skills that have enabled me to be successful, but as a woman who has leaped in sales leadership, my mission is to transfer these skills to young women in tech, because we’re an underrepresented group. I can help these young women leapfrog the process, live their best lives, and earn the respect, opportunities, and earnings they deserve—including understanding the importance of finding a career sponsor.

Women Have the Personality Traits to Succeed in Sales Leadership

Research from consulting firm ZS shows women succeed in sales by excelling at different capabilities than men. On the surface, the essential qualities for both men and women in sales leadership are similar—being results-oriented, passionate about growth, and having a strong work ethic. However, women in senior sales management roles must work extremely hard to prove themselves, even though we offer exceptional skills when it comes to emotional intelligence, crisis management, organizational abilities, support, and empathy, and bring an innate calm that makes us natural at sales.

Because these qualities hold significance for women in sales leadership, it would seem to follow that the journey into leadership roles for women would be easier and faster. While our skills are becoming more noticeable and some progress in gender equality in sales, there’s more to the equation that shapes our journey and determines whether more women will continue to grow into senior management.

Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leadership role is no small feat. I often found myself navigating an undercurrent of skepticism and pressure to prove my capabilities. It is a pervasive challenge that men may not face with the same intensity.  I suffered from Imposter Syndrome, a fear of having my deficiencies exposed, which is more prevalent among women–yet still common among men. The self-doubt and perpetual need for validation made the transition a daunting challenge for me. Change was something I used to fear, constantly questioning my abilities. However, with the right support and a nurturing environment, the journey became more manageable.

Career Sponsors Can Help Women Advance into Corporate Leadership

Sponsorship is a critical factor for opening doors and creating change at the top. The reality is that women are often over-mentored and under-sponsored and while mentors play a crucial role in offering guidance and advice for daily challenges and overcoming self-doubt, they are not enough. Women must have sponsors. Sponsors are influential advocates who can be pivotal for long-term career acceleration and are necessary for launching into senior management because they clear pathways and can ensure women get the right assignments and visibility.

Reflecting on my journey, I can’t emphasize enough the significant role sponsors played. I was lucky to find sponsors who believed in my potential and facilitated pathways for growth. The executive support I received provided access to key opportunities and helped me increase my visibility. In my narrative, I was lucky to work for very influential senior sales leaders who were sincere in their support for women’s growth. One of my sponsors was Dan Fougere, former chief revenue officer at cloud observability platform, Datadog.

Dan is a true catalyst in empowering women. Dan created a ‘Women of Sales’ group, which included several women and senior leaders who met regularly to tackle important topics and ensure the Datadog was inclusive and conducive to retaining females and making it possible for them to thrive in the sales world. The group uncovered opportunities for female voices to be heard throughout the company, provided advice and guidance for skills development, and advocated for non-biased hiring and promotions.

The platform Dan developed not only granted exposure to influential leaders throughout the company and crucial programs but also helped steer women like me into taking on more impactful projects and more meaningful leadership roles. Because we were invited to a proverbial table, others became more aware of our achievements, and it made leaders stand up and listen more to the women in the organization. As a result of my participation in this group, I put my hat in the ring to lead the Women of Datadog Community Guild, which I co-led for two years. It gave me the platform to make a true difference for the women on the sales team, but also to all women at Datadog.

And since Dan left, it’s clear that supporting women’s success and elevating their roles throughout the company is a deeply embedded value supported by the whole Datadog leadership team. Personally, I received incredible support from other Datadog leaders, including Regional Vice President of EMEA Rich Perez, Vice President of Global Sales Lee Hunt, and Chief Revenue Officer Sean Walters in taking on the senior director role. Thankfully it’s part of the culture of the company–and something other women should consider as they look for the companies that are right for them.

Women Need to Find the Right Workplaces that Will Support Them

It’s widely acknowledged that fostering a gender-diverse team is not just a matter of inclusion but it is good for the organization, enhancing productivity, perspective and overall performance. The initiative must be supported by the highest levels of company leadership and practices must be put in place companywide for women to succeed.

Some women give up or postpone some traditional life events when they are working toward senior leadership. Alternatively, other women may pause their career and reenter the workforce years later. While I refrain from commenting directly on the intricate balance between career aspirations and life milestones, I strongly advocate for workplaces that support individuals—particularly women—through life stages and that advocate for sponsorship for individuals to help them succeed. It is not just a matter of equality but a crucial facet of a supportive work environment.

My journey stands as a testament to the significance of mentorship and sponsorship in empowering women in sales leadership. It’s a narrative that highlights the challenges faced by women in this field but also underscores the transformative impact of sponsors like Dan Fougere in creating a more inclusive, supportive, and empowering environment for women in sales. If a woman reading this takes just one bit of advice, it’s to look for sponsors who are influential in their organization and will advocate for their career advancement—it can make a huge difference in their ability to climb the career ladder. Take it from me—I recently was able to move from an independent contributor to a senior regional sales director and now get to pass on the knowledge that I’ve got to other people and help clear the way for them to grow into more senior roles.

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Lucy Williams-Jones is a Senior Director of EMEA at DataDog, a cloud application monitoring platform.
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  3. Celeste Houston
    June 6, 2024

    I really enjoyed reading your article . I too agree that women do not have powerful sponsors or mentors to navigate the pitfalls of the C-suite or for leveraging promotions in an organization. ”

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