For this #ayaniwomen interview, we’re talking to Sonna, a Business Development Director at Westcon Comstor.
Here we chat about everything from her professional journey, how the world of sales works, the books she recommends and what confidence means to her. This one is full of insights. Enjoy the read!
Ani: Could you please describe your background and professional path till now?
Sonna: I’ve studied Business Administration and Hispanic History and Language, quite a while ago and I finished my studies with the degree Diplom “Kauffrau" which is the German equivalent of an MBA.
I finished university in Mannheim around 2002 and I got into the workforce during the dot-com crash and frankly there was no “space” for me. I wouldn’t say I was a bad student, but what I underestimated is that grades play a big part in getting your first job. As my grades were average it was hard. I was frustrated. Then my elder brother who had founded a company in Berlin reached out as they urgently needed an assistant to the CEO. So I packed up my car and drove here. I ended up working there for two and a half years, being assistant to the CEO, doing the whole controlling and finance piece as well. But after a while when it was not new anymore I was bored as hell. One day my boss actually told me: "I know this job is not what you like to work on. Your work quality is deteriorating. As I really personally like you, I will give you half a year to figure out something else because this is not working any longer.".
I still remember how shocked I was! I went home, cried and called my best friend. She, my partner at the time and other friends told me to do what makes me happy. After university I wanted to work Sales, but no one would hire me for it here because I didn’t have a study focus there (majoring in International Management and logistics).
But then, I took the chance and applied for a sales job at a startup. And as they really offered it to me I took it. 3 weeks after my boss told me that I have half a year to find something else, I told him that I would like to leave the job in a week. I’ve been with this startup for 5 and a half years. I’ve learned a lot about resilience, picking up the phone again and again even if people are yelling at you. About thinking on the spot and finding quick solutions. After two years in sales I began to help build the whole client relations department there for the European continent starting with the german speaking market, one region after another was added to my responsiblities. It became very challenging: As I always say, Sales is the last place for divas. I had a lot of different characters to work with. Normally this should be a fun challenge. But in the end juggling that many people, countries and escalations I was just burned out.
So after 5 and a half years I decided to leave. PayPal offered me a great job opportunity so I moved there. I gave up all my leadership responsibilities, learned about banking and finance SaaS products and just did Sales. Sales felt like a haven to me because I really burned out on all the drama connected to client relations. It was just not for me. From the all the sales experiences I had in my life, selling to CFOs was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done. The reason is that the conversation is grounded in facts, there is not a lot of emotion and open discussions about needs and wants are the norm. After 3 and a half years I left PayPal and went back to the startup world. Tried new things and took on leadership responsibilities again because had I missed those. Right now I do Business Development for a mid-size global company. It’s a more peaceful job than jobs in the volatile start-up world, but of course frustrating on other levels. Still, I enjoy the challenge a lot as one of my key values is growth and I learn a lot about corporations and channel sales. Yup, that's my brief (not so brief :) ) background information.
Ani: You mentioned you're most passionate about Sales. What exactly excites you about the field?
Sonna: I seriously mean it when I say that it’s the last place for the divas. Sales is where all people end up that do not fit corporate patterns perfectly: emotional people, passionate people, people that should have been artists in another life. Sales is the most diverse place to be.
Ani: Sounds like advertising.
Sonna: To me marketing people are more “corporate zonish". They’ve to sell to the sweet-spots, adapt to management more. But if your numbers are okay, sales people do not get pushed as much to fit the “corporate picture”.
I realise now that at that time I was beginning to lose true contact with who I was. If you are lost and don't know what is important and what your guiding light is, sales can accelerate the issue. On the other hand, I always enjoyed sales as a kid. For me sales is a lot about helping people solve issues and challenges. It’s one of the reasons why I like B2B sales more because I feel it's more honest, it’s business person to business person. You are not selling a used car to a person who does not have a clue about cars.
So overall I would say that it's a little bit of all of that. There is freedom in sales work. It is challenging and you learn a lot about yourself and other people.
Ani: What are the key elements to succeed in the sales field?
Sonna: I think you need a certain amount of resilience. Because you will fail a lot, there can be a lot of pressure and you will have to deal with that. You have to want to connect with a lot of people and understand them. I think that you need a positive mindset as well. You have to believe that what you are doing is working and in being successful. You also need tenacity to not be put down the first time people say no. It’s proven that most sales happen after the 18th or 20th contact. If you really believe that the person needs the product, then you should really keep on trying and find new ways to reach out again.
Ani: One thing you mentioned was dealing with the pressure. For sales the pressure is huge. How do you deal with it?
Sonna: What I’ve learned is: At the end of the day, a sale is about the other person making a decision, not about you. You definitely should reach out to enough contacts to make sure you achieve your targets. But honestly, if you see the world today, in all companies - even the stock exchange listed companies - the numbers people want you to achieve seem more and more fictitious. They’re sometimes far away from the reality you and your clients live in. If you are burning out trying to reach this type of numbers it’s not right. I always try to do my best but if somebody just pressures me for the sake of numbers, stocks or due to being pressured by people who have invested in the business I believe at some point you need to let go and not stress yourself. From my experience that’s not a sustainable way to treat people and manage a business. Being constantly scared and under pressure does not lead to true creativity or innovation.
Ani: Talking about working hours, we hear stories about people working 12 hours a day to get the most out of it. What do you think about this? What works best for you to get the most out of your day?
Sonna: Regarding the hustle, optimizing your hours and working long hours which is what makes you "an amazing employee”: For me it’s complete bullshit because life is not your value as an employee. What I’ve learned over time from the jobs that I have had and situations I have been in, it is the company’s responsibility to always be able to replace you. And that’s nothing personal against you.
For me that means that I don’t have the responsibility to burn myself out for them. My company won’t miss me for too long. But my family and friends will. So if it’s your about ego, and empty things like buying the bigger car - then that’s your way to go. I try to honor my commitment to the company, to seriously deliver good quality work 8 hours a day and that’s it. Afterwards it's about my family, my friends and caring for myself. For example I use mediation and yoga to unplug. If I take the time to invest in the things above, I’ll definitely do better at work, as well. If more people work like this, the fear of losing our jobs will go away, because we are not dependent on work as the sole source of self worth any longer. I believe, we do our best work when we are happy and when we feel safe and connected, not when we are feeling stressed out and threatened every single day.
Ani: You just said something about your morning routine. Can you describe it further for us? And how it helps you at work?
Sonna: Yes, I try to get up 1 and half hours before leaving my house. First thing I do is meditate for 20 mins and then I do yoga. Then I get ready. I’m not a breakfast person. I’m just not hungry in the morning so I take just drink water and make some green tea to go and leave for work. Usually, I listen to some podcasts during this time. This way when I’m arrive at work I am directly ready to get started.
To deliver good work, I need to be in balance with myself. This routine helps me with that. If I’m connected with who I am, it saves me from a lot of imposter syndrome situations, doubts and rehashing work related conversations in my mind.
Ani: What helped you overcome the lower points and darkness in your life?
Sonna: We all go through bad times and sometimes we just get out of them again without actively needing to change anything. However, the last time it happened, I ended up in a very bad place. I guess it got that bad because I believed if I can just make everything look good on the outside it will become ok again. But the opposite was the case: I suffered in my relationship, my work life suffered and it got progressively worse. And honestly, “fake it till you make it” - was a big part of that, at least for me. At that time the only thing I was yearning for was peace. I just wanted a moment when the “inner critic” in my head would stop yelling at me, telling my that I was just not good enough to deserve better. It took me years to realise that I was the only one that could get me out of this situation and finding the strength to do so.
As a first step I started yoga - just the moves not the full spiritual package. I think spirituality helps you get out of bad places. But when you are in a bad place that’s one thing you don’t want to touch. Yoga gave me a little bit of peace but soon that was not enough.
Then my sister-in-law asked me about Headspace and if I knew about it. I checked Andi Puddicombes TED talk out and the message resonated with me. I started meditating with it 3-4 years ago and I’m still doing that. The gamification within the app help me to build consistency and routine. And then slowly without really realising it, I was healing. I got out of my relationship. And began to actively take control of my growth journey. I read a lot of Brené Brown and Pema Chödrön. These books were my guiding lights and I’m still checking back in to their work when I struggle with things and need guidance. I am still working on developing myself everyday. Sorry guys, it’s not a quick fix. It takes time. But it’s worth doing it. You can come out of the dark place, there’s a blue sky out there. Face your fears and accept that the only way out is through.
Ani: Especially as women, we overlook on the topic of savings the most. So what is your approach to it and what have you found the most effective?
Sonna: What’s important to me, what my mom told me when I was little - to always earn more than I spend. And with working in sales, to correlate my spending with my basic salary not my bonus salary. You shouldn’t be dependent on the money you might or might not earn. I always put money aside - every month, even when I don’t need to for sudden emergency expenses. I’ve never ever bought anything on credit and I’m 40 now.
The whole investment thing I struggle with still. But there are so many smart women who’ve written about investing money - read those blogs and books. I’m still figuring bits and pieces out.
Ani: Talking about books, what are the 3 books that had a big impact on you professionally or personally?
Sonna: I’m a voracious reader, so this is really hard for me. To boil it down two of the key books I’ve read - The Places that Scare You and When Things Fall Apart by the same author - Pema Chödrön really have helped me. These are spiritual books - Pema is a buddhist nun. I’m sure that’s not for everyone but they really spoke to me. I learned great actions from Pema that still help me when I need to face challenges today.
From a work perspective, what I would recommend is the newest book of Brené Brown called "Dare to Lead". That’s her learnings from all the research and books she has written translated for the business world. Hard conversations are needed in the workplace and those do not happen enough to day as they are uncomfortable. Brené has great advice on how to start and navigate through them and begin to reconnect with people with courage and vulnerability again. Ultimately, pushing your company forward means finding ways to make work sustainable and I believe that Brené Brown’s work is essential in finding our how to do that.
Ani: Anything specific for sales?
Sonna: I read more about sales online. What I currently read the most when looking for sales related advice is the blog of close.io which is a CRM system. The thoughts on their blog (often from the founder Steli Efti) and how they approach and explain the sales process is great.
Ani: My last and favourite question - what is confidence for you?
Sonna: Confidence for me is to be fully connected to all of me and unconditionally loving myself including all of my strength and my weaknesses. Confidence is integrating that love into all the things that I do.
I’m a big fan of Maya Angelou, who wrote a great poem that says “because I’m phenomenally woman.” I think that is what confidence essentially is. If you are fully integrated with yourself, love yourself including your flaws and behaviour patterns that you struggle to love about you, if you see yourself clearly and still believe that you are phenomenally woman and love who you are, then that is confidence for me.
Ani: Thank you so much. This interview has been wonderful filled with so many learnings!
If you would like to get in touch with Sonna, connect with her on LinkedIn.
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Many thanks for the interview, Ani!
I had such a good time and cannot wait to do it again ;-)
Talk soon and a big hug,