Most MBA students dream of exciting jobs formulating strategy for some of the world’s leading brands. There are endless stories about the great Marketing Generals who spotted a chink in their enemy’s armour and exponentially boosted market share with that killer ad campaign. We all dream of that flash of insight, the Eureka moment, without the naked dash across a boulevard of amused fellow MBAs of course, that revived the fortunes of our brand and set us on a course for career Nirvana (also defined as every Executive Search Firm on the planet beating a path to our door!!).
But not many of us dream of being victorious ASMs or Regional Sales Managers who deliver 120% of target for 12 quarters consecutively, and then get job rotated into a Head Office role with the Marketing crowd. We can actually feel the crisp transfer letter in our hands (okay that was pre internet era) but few of us can conjure up the 12-quarter grind that led to it.
The million dollars question every newly delivered MBA must grapple with is Sales OR Marketing?
Since I teach at a Business School many of my students bring this dilemma to me for debate. Here is some advice I often give them.
Firstly, it is the wrong question that’s being asked. Nobody should treat Sales and Marketing as mutually exclusive options. You need both if you have serious ambitions about career success. No running away from this reality. Let me explain why.
Nobody ever ran a business successfully without actually being in the front line where the goods and services made by the firm were converted into cash. Traditional Indian business families will typically make the newest family entrant in the business spend his first 12 to 18 months in a factory or warehouse or sales depot writing the books of account. Learning the minutest components of the business such as manufacturing, inventory, receivables, expenses, freight, the list goes on, ensures that nobody can cook the books and get away with it. Smart promoters who have cut their teeth “in the operations of the business” will rarely ever be taken for a ride.
The modern-day equivalent is the Sales stint. I began my post MBA career as a Management Trainee and my first posting was as a Sales Representative in a remote territory, now called Chattisgarh. This, after growing up in Bombay, and never being away from home. In the field I managed distributors, supervised their salesmen and delivery teams and went from shop to shop selling the company goods. It was humbling to be rejected by aggressive shop owners who were in it for the profit and didn’t care for my MBA. Doing forty calls a day and being rejected forty thousand times a month was an experience that I never forgot. Years later, when my business proposals were challenged and often “bounced” I was better prepared, mentally.
What Sales does for you is teach you how to manage numbers, cope with target pressure, handle teams who will sometimes let you down and drive your business on the frontlines where brands are built and broken. Persuading retailers to give you a little extra shelf space for free, using and managing wholesale markets where price and profit are king and fighting “stock infiltration” will show you what lies beneath, a view of the business world that is rarely visible from the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin. You will also come to respect the loneliness of the salesman’s journey cycles that never end. Later, when you have moved to HO and become a “Sahib”, you will never forget where the actual wins are taking place and at what cost.
Over the first 10 to 12 years of your career if you have spent roughly equal time in Sales and Marketing, you will have gained knowledge of both conceptual and operational aspects of the business. That will then make you a stronger candidate for the next big role than a colleague who has had only one view of the world.
New MBAs often worry about getting stuck in Sales. This suggests that Sales is a non-job with no career prospects. Nothing can be further from the truth. A year in Sales is as valuable as a year in Marketing. Which is why you need both, to build a balanced skill and experience set. By the time you complete the first ten or so years of your career, you will have the capability, exposure and confidence to take on any challenge.
Remember, the sooner you do a couple of tours of duty in the Sales trenches, the better. One day soon, you will get married, have kids, your parents will age and your priorities will overwhelm you. Best thing is to grab an upcountry posting and master the business where it all happens.
Final words – Just Do It. Now. It will be your best decision, ever.
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