Regina Jaslow, W’97, President of the Wharton Club of New York.
The business degree I attained at Wharton was in marketing, entrepreneurial and strategic management. The one highly valuable thing I didn’t learn at Wharton was sales skills. The ways I learned this skill were by trial-and-error on the job, reading lots of sales books, and observing effective and ineffective sales people pitching solutions to me. Honing one’s sales skills is crucial to career advancement, especially if you covet the CEO role. After all, activities such as fund raising or even interviewing to obtain a job all require sales skills.
In the first 8 years of my career, I focused on marketing. Later on, I took on a job at a firm with a small team that required me to handle not only marketing but also sales and customer service. That was my first time handling the other two functional areas besides marketing. Because the team was small, even though I was the department head, I had my sleeves rolled-up in the trenches doing everything hands-on from answering phones to sending outbound emails and responding to inbound inquiries, dealing with irate customers, handling PR and advertising, doing sales pitches, as well as the operational aspects to ensure a well-oiled machine. I honed my skills in these areas for over 10 years.
When I had about 20 years of work experience, I was offered my first C-suite role as a Chief Revenue Officer where the tech startup had me oversee sales, marketing, and customer success. Most people might have functional experience in 1 or 2 areas but not in 3 areas. When you have a skill combination that creates unique value, it makes you more sought after. All C-suite executives have to oversee multiple functional areas, and that’s why having “comb-shaped” skills in multiple disciplines is an important step towards gaining a C-suite role. If you care to get into the C-suite and don’t have experience in another functional area, make plans to gain that experience and be willing to take a step back just to gain that experience so that you can spring forward later.
Throughout my career, I changed industry with every new job to figure out which industries I really enjoyed. I tried everything from engineering, financial services, online publishing, hospitality, telecom, education, healthcare and technology. When I was in my late 30s, some peers who had spent all of their post-college career focused on one industry rose up to EVP or SVP ranks. My self-assessment at that time was that my trying out different industries had hurt me as a “rolling stone gathers no moss”. However, when these peers’ industries collapsed, they had trouble pivoting to new industries. Turns out part of charging forward on the battlefield of one’s career includes dodging bullets by hedging your industry bets.
What’s also an interesting discovery is that my varied experience in different industries gave me lots of frameworks for problem-solving. That said, it’s a good idea to explore several industries and decide on one to gain deeper knowledge in. Yet, always keep learning about other industries as you never know if the industry you decide to grow roots in might not turn out to have as fertile soil as you had hoped. Even if you don’t end up working in too many industries, learning more about other industries provides ideas of new frameworks that could be applied in innovative ways in your own industry that could set you apart from your competition.
My key advice is to broaden your experiences in both industry and functional roles, and to build depth in competencies in at least 2 functional areas to be a valuable combination to employers.