Why Sales Can and Should Be Part of Every Top School MBA’s Career Journey: A MIT Sloan Career Development Office Q&A with Frank Cespedes, Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Business School  

Q.  Consulting, finance and tech sectors continue to attract the most elite MBA students. What is the reality for employers seeking to hire students interested in business development and sales-related roles at their firms?

A. (Cespedes) At first glance, it may appear that only a small percentage of students are attracted to sales roles. For instance, “business development” roles are listed for about 7% of graduates annually from MIT Sloan, HBS, and Stanford, and some MBA career centers don’t even have “sales” listed.

But the numbers are deceptive. In an increasingly services-driven economy, many business development roles are not called “sales.” Those people are called Associates, Partners, Managing Directors or another term, but selling is what they do. Second, the interest in entrepreneurial careers means that founders and early-stage employees are almost always involved in sales, even if they call it “customer discovery” or searching for “product-market fit.” Third, data indicate that about 50% of college graduates, no matter what their major is—business administration or art history—wind up working in a sales job at some point in their careers. The role is alive, pervasive and relevant.

You also ask what MBAs and employers expect. I’ll address that from the supply and demand sides.

For employers, there have always been challenges in sales recruiting that don’t exist to the same extent in most other business functions. If you want to hire someone for a finance or accounting role, you can go to a school and find people who majored in those subjects. The same is true for engineers and computer programmers. But at the undergrad level, less than 300 of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. even offer a sales course and, until recently, the topic was under-taught in MBA programs as well. So, it’s a role where many employers rightly assume a need to provide training. In interviews, those employers are often screening for the interviewee’s interest in that role. The advice to MBAs: if you are interested in this role, say so in interviews; you will likely be considered for sales without hurting your chances for a finance, marketing, or other job at that company.

For students interested in a productive business career, it’s important to remember the basics: growth is vital in business, sales is usually vital to growth, and both rewards and promotion opportunities tend to correlate with company growth and skills in customer acquisition. Consider consulting: new associates are generally hired for their analytical skills, but as you ascend in that up-or-out hierarchy, the ability to bring in business—not only analyze the business—increases as a promotion criterion. For years, one of the major strategy consulting firms had a ritual: when someone finally made it to Partner, a Senior Partner would congratulate that person and say, “welcome to the sales force!” There is a similar shift in valued skills over time in PE, VC, Investment Banking, and other industries where MBAs interview.

Q.  What are three recommendations that you have for individuals looking to break into sales careers; to develop key skills necessary for job advancement, and to future-proof for career sustainability?

A. (Cespedes)  First, recalibrate your mindset if you take on a revenue-producing role. Sales is probably the most context-specific activity in business. Selling software is different from selling capital goods or professional services and so on. It’s also culturally-dependent: selling in North America is different than selling in Latin America or Asia or the Middle East—something, by the way, that many US tech-centric Sales courses in MBA programs fail to recognize adequately. But if you’re smart enough to get into MIT Sloan, you are also smart enough to learn about the industry, the products, and the relevant customer segment in your first 6-12 months on the job. That learning-by-doing is built into most sales roles.

Second, my bias is that graduates should aspire to build and run something that adds value and creates opportunities for others as well. So, I advise MBA students to view Sales or Finance or any other job in your first 5-7 years after graduation as a pathway, not the destination. Culture eats strategy for breakfast and for lunch and dinner as well. In some firms, spending some years in Sales is a de facto requirement for getting a general management or P&L position. This was true for years at IBM and, more recently, at LinkedIn. In other companies, Sales is well-paid if you make your numbers, but not seen as a pathway to the top. I’ve been at Board and management meetings in some tech firms, for instance, where it’s mainly about Product; and Sales is essentially invited out of the room when the topic is pricing or strategy. If you’re the interviewee, ask: where are people who start in sales roles in your company after 3 – 5 years; what are they doing in your firm, or somewhere else?

Third, in terms of skill development, work on the basics and, because Sales deals most directly with change in buying journeys and market structure, recognize the importance of continuous learning. The basics include a genuine curiosity about customers; the willingness to make cold calls; persistence and a temperament that can deal with “no” from many people you call on. And especially communication skills: no matter how smart you are, I guarantee that the people you meet in business are not mind readers. Communication skills are table stakes for a successful sales career. If you’ve already graduated, consider investing in your personal development by taking courses such as MIT’s Communicating Data Through Storytelling course.

Finally, pay attention to what others do in their customer interactions. Learning in sales is a prime example of what theorists call “modeling behavior.” Salespeople learn and retain the most, not from seminars or courses (talking about selling is not the same as selling), but from watching the best of their peers in action. They pick up important lessons and behaviors about, for example, how to deal with price objections, frame the value proposition, or identify the key decision makers in a prospect organization. Seek out these opportunities throughout your career because the market and buyers have no responsibility to adapt to your strengths and weaknesses; in business, and especially in sales, it’s your responsibility to adapt and manage today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

Frank Cespedes teaches at Harvard Business School, ran a business, serves on Boards, is affiliated with VC and PE firms, and has published in Sloan Management Review, European Business Review, Organization Science, California Management Review, and The Wall Street Journal, among others, and is the author of six books including Aligning Strategy and Sales which was cited as “the best sales book of the year” (Strategy & Business) and “perhaps the best sales book ever” (Forbes). His newest book is Sales Management That Works: How to Sell in a World That Never Stops Changing (Harvard Business Review Press). He has an M.S. from MIT Sloan and Ph.D. from Cornell University.

Partha Anbil is a Contributing Writer for MIT Sloan Career Development Office and an alum of MIT Sloan. Besides being VP of Programs of the MIT Club of Delaware Valley, Partha is a long-time sciences consulting industry veteran, currently with an NYSE-listed WNS, a digital-led business transformation company, as Senior Vice President and Practice Leader for Life Sciences practice.

Michael Wong is a Contributing Writer for the MIT Sloan Career Development Office and an Emeritus Co-President and board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association. Michael is a Part-time Lecturer for the Wharton Communication Program at the University of Pennsylvania and his ideas have been shared in the MIT Sloan Management Review and Harvard Business Review.

By MIT Sloan CDO