In the most recent episode of Taking The Lead, Glassdoor Chief Sales Officer Kate Ahlering sat down with Christina Brady to discuss a number of topics, including the challenges and wins involved with aligning siloed business divisions toward common goals. A few of the quick highlights in this article:
- Evolving as a leader means embracing new responsibilities. When you start in sales but take on oversight of additional divisions within a company, you have to start thinking beyond the current quarter and embrace big-picture challenges.
- Glassdoor Chief Sales Officer Kate Ahlering says the key to her success has been aligning seemingly disparate business divisions toward common goals.
- Kate shares her top takeaways from a years-long, ongoing effort to keep the peace between those who sell the company’s services and those who enable sales operations –– all while driving the company forward.
But as Oprah Winfrey says, luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.
San Francisco-based Kate grew up in Virginia (“I’m a recovering East-Coaster”) and played NCAA basketball for UVA.
“I’ve been an athlete for most of my life, which sounds a little trite as it relates to leadership, but it’s the foundation and the lens I see the world through,” she says. “I fell in love with leadership and coaching.”
On this episode of Taking The Lead, Kate shares how, as a sales manager turned high-level exec, she took on the challenge of uniting seemingly disparate business divisions toward common goals.
Post-college, Kate quickly rose through the ranks at ACTIVE Network, a SaaS company for events and activity management. She went from enterprise rep to sales team leader and then “a leader of leaders” by the time she left.
ACTIVE has a “pretty awesome hyper-growth story,” she says. It went public and grew like crazy before she decided it was time to move on. By then, Kate had a wealth of experience and a network to match.
A colleague at ACTIVE went on to run sales enablement at Glassdoor and urged her to make a move. And she did.
That was nearly eight years ago. Reflecting on her journey, Kate says it has been an “incredible ride.” She took on a role overseeing half the sales team, and two years later Kate was in charge of the entire sales division at Glassdoor.
Building on that success, she took on the challenge of leading client success, revenue operations and “the full go-to-market” for the company in 2019.
Align client success and sales operations
It’s common for sales divisions to have siloed revenue-focused selling and sales operations teams, and for conflict to arise between them.
But the sales operation/sales revenue “interrelationship is so important, and also so delicate,” she says.
She saw the opportunity to align those go-to-market concerns by bringing in a customer success organization dedicated to growing relationships with Glassdoor business clients and engaging them to ensure they have the support and tools they need. It just makes sense, she says, to merge disparate parts of your organization into one that’s aligned with common goals.
But we don’t often see a revenue leader oversee ops, too. Now Kate has an equal stake in both. How does she navigate the delicate relationship between sales and operations?
“When I began this journey of leading operations along with sales, it was probably one of the biggest leaps in my professional development I’ve had to undertake,” she says. “If you come up through sales, you do kind of have the [metaphorical] sales t-shirt on.”
But once you make the leap to ops, you’re “forced to become an objective general manager” instead of laser-focusing on driving the numbers for the current quarter.
Sales ops are a ‘secret weapon’ (and help you think long-term)
Once you’re running larger parts of the go-to-market, you have to think two, four and eight quarters down the road, she adds.
Kate’s tip? Operational leaders are “your secret weapon” to keep you from being too focused on the near term.
“It’s like going from one kid to two –– you can’t have a favorite child,” says Kate. “You need sales ops and sales ops need sales. You have to make sure that you’re understanding the perspectives, being fair and making the right business decisions based on what each of those groups bring.”
Operations pros have long been integral to Glassdoor’s growth –– they’re the ones who ensure data is centralized in one place. She says it took about a year to overhaul inaccurate systems by “getting the company’s data cleaned up so we had one version of truth and that our sources of data were limited, not coming from everywhere.”
They’re “not glamorous jobs,” Kate adds. “But they’re absolutely critical to our foundation, to scale. If we don’t have talented, engaged people working in these roles, we’re not going to be successful.”
That’s why she strategically elevated sales operations (now known as revenue operations) roles at the company.
In practice, that meant highlighting excellence in operational projects that drive the business, as well as inviting sales operations leaders into recurring executive meetings so they can get “the context they need to make better decisions in their jobs,” Kate explains.
She thought it was important to make sure they didn’t feel like they were being “overlooked, or an afterthought,” she says. “Once they get in the room, it’s one way to build that trust.”
Clarify priorities — and get the important parties in the same room
Kate spent most of her first year in the CSO role and trying “not to over-assert” the priorities of her former department. It was crucial to demonstrate objectivity and to establish her new mandate: “to guide, create goal alignment, learn and earn the trust” of all the sales groups.
“Over time, that trust strengthens,” she says.
And in sales environments, when time is the most limited resource, it’s common for everybody to think everything is urgent, all the time. How does she resolve issues that arise between teams around competing priorities?
The key is to ensure alignment around the company’s priorities, she says –– the organization’s quarterly objective and key reports (OKRs) and long-term goals. She also makes certain her sales operations partners are in the room when issues are debated and decided.
If everyone has context around the inevitable escalations that arise, you can quickly decide whether competing priorities align to the overall mission. But, she admits “it’s almost a daily battle, even as an aligned organization, to ensure you have the resources for the stuff that matters.”
Credibility comes when you communicate the ‘why’
Every year, Kate spends an ever-greater portion of her time on communication and communication strategy –– “making sure each team has information when and where they need it.”
It’s “playbook for any kind of change management,” she says, to “communicate the why of what you’re doing across groups. People can still be impatient, they can still be frustrated … but hopefully you build credibility. If you have a long enough tenure, you can point to things that have broken and that you’ve fixed.”
It’s an approach rooted in respect. Every team member needs to feel that if they have a concern, they are heard.
“If you can show you listen and understand, solve small issues and give people that win, then when something really big hits, you have a foundation to build upon,” says Kate.
The people you lead “need to be empowered to make decisions,” she adds. “I’m a big believer in that and would encourage anybody in my organization to, if they don’t have the context they need or don’t feel empowered, to raise their hand.”
That’s one of the most important things you can do as a leader, she notes.
“The magic is the chemistry of your team, and having that trust in the things you do and create.”
This article is based on an episode of Sales Assembly’s podcast, Taking The Lead, which features top female B2B Tech Revenue Leaders, VCs, Advisors, and Icons. Bi-weekly episodes dive into a tactical topic to help listeners (regardless of gender or seniority level) learn how to be better, faster, and smarter as they navigate the craziness of the Revenue world within B2B Tech.