14 September 2017
This month I spoke with Nicole Smith, Global Sales Operations Manager at BigCommerce. Nicole is an expert in Sales Operations and is well-versed in all things Salesforce.
Having recently been promoted into a much more demanding role, she gives some great advice on the challenges of moving from an individual contributor to a management position. Her approach to customer service is something all leaders should consider adopting inside and outside of their organisations, and she challenges us to be a disruptor to create change in our community!
Tell me about your career progression into your current role.
I graduated high school early and started going to college, then realised that I was not creative enough to be a graphic designer which was ultimately my goal. I wanted to draw and thought it was cool - but when I did it, I realised I had no artistic ability! When 9/11 occurred, I wanted to do something to help, so I joined the army. That was where I got introduced to technology. I didn’t get trained on computers, but that’s where I ended up working the entire time I was there. That put me right into the realm of technology. While in the army, I started going to school for Information Systems. When I got out, I decided to stay in Texas - the weather at home in Chicago is rough! I worked as a Systems Analyst in San Antonio for a couple of years with the Army, improving systems and training others how to be successful with those systems.
I spent a lot of time in Austin, to the point where Austin felt like home. There is such a unique, creative culture of people trying to do big things. I got a job at Pervasive (later acquired by Actian Corporation), an integration company, and that’s where I was introduced to Salesforce. I kind of got thrown into the platform without understanding it, and had to learn it from the ground up. I was implementing a product that we built on the platform for our customers. Before I knew it, I was helping implement Salesforce for these companies. I got to learn so much about the platform itself - not only from a user standpoint, but from an administrative standpoint. And I knew nothing about Salesforce previously!
I left for a while to pursue some entrepreneurship and started a technical fitness company with my husband. We built an app, and I set up a lot of the back-end infrastructure - we were using Salesforce and Mindbody. I set up all the business operations for the company, and once everything was set up, I decided I wanted to get back into technology.
I worked as a Business Analyst on HomeAway on the Sales Operations Team. It was fun to start digging back into Salesforce. Every company uses Salesforce differently and it’s so robust, you learn a lot of cool ways to use the platform (and how not to use it!) I’m a big believer in service - it can be the worst product ever, but if the service is amazing, I’ll keep going back. I believe in providing the best service possible and being accurate, fast and not letting the end result be subpar to get it out quickly - it should be done right the first time. I decreased the turnaround time it would take to get things done for the sales team by over 400%.
I got to a point where I wanted to do more. I found BigCommerce and it opened a huge door in my career. BigCommerce is amazing, it’s a company that is full of very smart, driven people on a mission. We are on a mission to help companies from mom-and-pop shops making a life for themselves to mid-market businesses growing into the enterprise market. There’s nothing better than that. I quickly grew into an Architect role, developing solutions for the sales team. Growth happened very organically for me. Contributing to the success of the sales team and building strong relationships with everyone helped elevate my career further into sales operations as the technology manager. Leadership has a lot of belief in me, which makes it a lot of fun and gives me more confidence to do well in my position.
What are the challenges of moving from an individual contributor to a manager role?
One of the hardest things is trusting others to get the job done. When you’re an individual contributor, you generally rely on yourself. You have the knowledge and skill to get things done. As a manager, you have to depend on others as you get more involved in strategic initiatives. You need a team you can trust to get the job done. You have to be very collaborative and get involved while also having a desire to help others become leaders. I've always been one to mentor others, and there’s a different sense of responsibility there. A team is a direct reflection of their manager. If you can create leaders, and help them to become better versions of themselves, then that is truly a success.
On average, the percentage of C-Level positions held by women fluctuates around 20%, give or take. This number has not been growing - what do we need to do to get more women in the C-Suites?
I’m a firm believer in being a disruptor. You don’t get anywhere by sitting around and watching things happen. In the past, I’ve been hesitant to speak up. I think it was because I was afraid of what people would say or think. I’ve learned that you have to kick down the door and push out your ideas.It’s hard to make an impact if you aren’t putting yourself and your ideas out there. If you are wanting to progress your career, you have to make yourself known - be a disruptor. Take risks. Don’t be afraid to speak up! That doesn’t mean that you'll always have the best ideas, or that you won’t make mistakes. That’s how we grow and learn. I think it’s important when I fail - it’s a learning experience. Use that as an opportunity to guide others and help them grow, and not make the same mistakes. Help others to think outside the box, and that’s how you make change, progress and elevate your career.
What are your thoughts on the glass ceiling? Does it exist, and if so, how can professionals navigate that?
It does exist to an extent. A lot of it depends on the culture of the company. They have to embrace diversity. Sometimes, a company won’t realise it’s there until someone says something. It can be easily glossed over. Again, be a disruptor! Some companies still have the mentality of the boys’ club. I read a study that when there are two or more females in executive roles, companies are 40% more successful. That speaks volumes! I hate to think that anyone would say “oh, women shouldn’t be in these roles”. Getting women into technology is important as well. Everyone is smart - your gender doesn't define that. I’ve met smart men, and smart women. The most important thing is, finding the right company that’s going to support you and that understands the value of diversity.
What are some of the attributes of an organisation that fosters an inclusive environment for all demographics?
Finding a company that promotes their core values is important. Make sure you understand what those are, and how they apply to you. If you are not on the same page with your company’s values, it probably won’t work out. BigCommerce stays actively involved in the community, holds events to support non-profit organisations, and contributes to various organisations and initiatives. Additionally, they support the growth of their employees and value the success of our customers. That’s such a cool thing. Finding a company that aligns with your values is extremely important and fulfilling.
Additionally, we have a unique hiring process in that we look at your skills, but more importantly, your mindset, ability to get things done, and your alignment with our culture and values. You can teach skill, but you can’t teach personality or character. We’ve always found amazing candidates, but if we don’t feel a real personal connection, we’ll wait!
Is there value in finding a mentor/being a mentor?
Absolutely! I find value in both. My CFO/COO is one of my biggest mentors and always provides me another viewpoint. A lot of times, it’s easy to only see things from your perspective and get complacent. When you have a mentor, you can put the shoe on the other foot. That’s very important in developing character, humility, understanding, and patience. A mentor helps you look at your problems as opportunities.
Being a mentor is so fulfilling, because it's really fun to watch and help others grow to become better leaders. It's also a great learning experience for me that encourages me to improve and grow as well. It makes my job all the more enjoyable while having the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life.
If you could go back to when you were just beginning your career, what advice would you give yourself?
Speak up and embrace failure. I was concerned about how my opinion would be perceived. You may have a great idea, or it may not be so great. But don’t be afraid to speak up. I get so mad at myself if I’m not successful at something. But we’re human - we must let go of perfection, and understand that every failure is a learning experience. Ultimately, failure helps you to learn and grow and become a better version of yourself.