Be a Founder: Tips for Taking Ownership Over Your Sales Career

Early in my career, I was an Account Manager at eChalk covering the New York City area. eChalk provides communication and instructional software for K-12 schools. Our goal was to have every school using eChalk to create better learning outcomes.  I remember my manager at the time empowering me, stating unequivocally, “You are the CEO of New York City for eChalk. Find a way to make it a success.” Talk about pressure.

She told me that I could—and should—take full accountability for the entire 5 borough territory, without making excuses. When we first started working together, eChalk was in about 50 schools in New York City. By the time I left, we were in more than 600 in NYC, the largest school district in the country.

But more important than our success was my manager’s attitude, which has stuck with me for all of these years. If taking ownership over your career is what you really want, you need to really think of yourself as the CEO of whatever you own, even if it is just one small part of the company.

Today, I am the VP of Growth at Managed by Q, an office management platform that helps companies create the best work environments for their teams. We have a set of company principles that we work and live by, one of which is “Be a Founder.” To us, being a founder means feeling individual responsibility, regardless of our functional boundaries. It means owning your outcomes.

Whether you’re acting like a founder or the CEO of your territory, approaching your career with a sense of ownership is the best advice I can give you. Here are my top tips for doing just that.

1) Build your sales skills.

A lot of people think that sales is about convincing people to buy your product or service regardless of whether or not they need it.

But that’s not sales. Sales is about educating people on new and better ways of solving problems and providing value. It’s also about identifying a need or an issue and providing solutions that create successful outcomes for other people.

It can be challenging to develop these skills, but I truly believe it’s worth the effort. These skills are valuable for people wanting to climb the career ladder in sales. And even more valuable for anyone looking to get what they want out of life.

A desire to seek to understand, effective communication and problem-solving are foundational skills that will equip you for success in the face of virtually any challenge. That includes building a career, so be prepared to make a strong case for why you deserve the job or promotion.

2) Accept rejection.

As salespeople, we have to come to terms with rejection—as it is an inevitable part of the job. Being able to handle our disappointment gracefully is important both for building a sales career, professional relationships, and just getting through day-to-day life.

You need to develop enough grit and resilience to know that just because one deal or pitch didn’t work out, it won’t stop you from getting what you want. Expect rejection, be prepared to handle it, learn from that experience, and then try again.  Persistence in the face of failure and rejection is a powerful character trait that will always serve you well.

3) Be comfortable talking about your successes.

To build credibility with clients and coworkers, you must be able to talk confidently about your successes. This is difficult for many people, particularly women—it was certainly difficult for me for a long time. I had to force myself to do it, and in doing so it became more comfortable.

Keep in mind that talking about success for illustrative purposes is not the same thing as bragging. Temper your account with humility, but let your pride show through where you’ve earned it.

Mastering this skill will give you more credibility. It will enable you to better educate your customers and increase the likelihood that they will take your recommendations—further advancing your career.

4) Don’t be afraid to take a step back in order to take two big steps forward.

In business, we tend to believe that you always need to be advancing, but that isn’t always realistic. Sometimes you have to be willing to explore other opportunities in order to get where you want to be in the long-term. 

After 6 years at eChalk, I had been promoted into a Senior Account Manager role. I had earned a lot of responsibility since starting as a Project Assistant. But I knew I wanted to be a people manager and the opportunities weren’t there. So I started looking for a new role.

After I interviewed with ZocDoc, they offered me a job as an Operations Associate. While this meant I would be going from being an account manager to customer support,  I took it. I told myself, “I will be the best customer support person I can be, and then I will become a people manager at ZocDoc.”

While I was working as an Operations Associate, I noticed that ZocDoc had a sales team and a customer support team. But they seemed to be missing a team to handle all of the in-between issues. I told my managers, “I can help with post-sales support, let me build this team here,” drawing on my previous experience as an account manager.

Fortunately, they gave me the opportunity to build out a post-sales team. I was able to achieve my goal of getting into management and realized how much I enjoyed building a team from scratch.

While going into that customer service position was a bit of a risk, sometimes you have to be willing to make that kind of move to meet your long-term goals.

5) Be solution-oriented.

Whenever a team member comes to me with a problem, I ask, “What do you think we should do about it?” This re-frames the issue so that we’re taking ownership over what may be standing in our way of success.

Identifying problems is the first step to solving them, but without a potential solution, we’re not being productive. We have an old saying at Managed by Q that hard problems are the ones worth solving. As salespeople, we are hardwired to find the best solution for our customers. We need to apply this same creative problem solving to our own issues, so that we can pave our own path for success.

When we’re able to talk through our problems and speak openly about potential solutions, we drive to resolution faster. More importantly,  we’re acting like founders and owning our own personal outcomes, both personally and professionally.