PODCAST 60: Effectively Giving and Receiving Constructive Feedback w/ Alyssa Merwin

This week on the Sales Hacker podcast, we speak with Alyssa Merwin. She leads LinkedIn Sales Navigator in North America. She joined the podcast today to discuss the power of customer impact and how her journey to LinkedIn allowed her to break norms, show her vulnerabilities and become the leader in hiring.

If you missed episode 59, check it out here: PODCAST 59: Assessing How Vs Why of Your Product w/ Scott Armour

What You’ll Learn

  • Tactics for cold calls
  • The leadership skills you learn right out of school
  • Deciding whether to put someone in a leadership position or a contributor position
  • Providing effective feedback
  • How to become a leader in the hiring process

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Show Agenda and Timestamps

  1. Show Introduction [00:09]
  2. About Alyssa Merwin: An Introduction [05:00]
  3. Lessons From a Former BTR [08:17]
  4. Management vs Individual Contributor: The Debate Continues [22:53]
  5. Being a Leader of Leaders [25:00]
  6. Demonstrating Vulnerability in the Feedback Process [32:13]
  7. Sam’s Corner [47:22]

Show Introduction

Sam Jacobs: Hey folks, it’s Sam Jacobs. Welcome to the Sales Hacker podcast. We have an incredible show for you this week. We have Alyssa Merwin, who is responsible for LinkedIn Sales Navigator and VP of Sales Solutions for North America for LinkedIn.

She is an incredibly accomplished, and talented leader, and manager, and sales person. And she has a lot to share with us about how you use trust and vulnerability, and authenticity as a mechanism, and as a driver to lead, and manage high performing sales team. It’s a really, really good conversation and a topic we don’t cover often enough on the show.

We’ve got two sponsors on the show for you today. Conga is the leading end-to-end digital document transformation suite. With Conga, you can simplify documents, automate contracts, and execute e-signatures so you can focus on accelerating sales cycles and closing business faster.

Our second sponsor is Outreach, the leading sales engagement platform that enables sales reps to humanize their communications at scale, from automating the soul-sucking manual work that eats up selling time to providing action-oriented tips on what communications are working best. Outreach has your back.

About Alyssa Merwin: An Introduction

Sam Jacobs: Walk us through a little bit of your background. How did you get into sales? I was doing research on LinkedIn earlier, and it looks like you went to Smith College. Tell us about those experience coming out of undergrad, and how you got your start in this world of sales.

Alyssa Merwin: When I think about how I ended up where I am, it really came down to the network. So when I was graduating from Smith, which was a wonderful liberal arts college, with a double major in political science, with a focus on Sub Saharan African politics, and French–I was very clear about nothing.

In terms of what I was going to do with my career, I actually thought I wanted to go into politics in perhaps in the Foreign Service, or work in an NGO… and I had a couple of former Smithies who were at this somewhat small but fast growing company in Washington DC called the Corporate Executive Board, and I reached out, and they got me [an] entry level role at CEB–a sales job. So, it was certainly not by design that I ended up in sales, but it was the fastest path into the company. So, that was how I landed my very first sales role.

Lessons From a Former BTR

Sam Jacobs: When you joined as a salesperson, were you doing outbound? Was there the concept of an SDR function? What were your initial set of responsibilities? And how did you evolve within CB over the course of those years?

Alyssa Merwin: I was a BTR. That was the entry level role, and so I was paired up with a single account executive when we were buddies, I was there to support him, and my primary responsibility was cold calling Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 executives in the finance space.

So, Investor Relations, treasures auto executives, controllers and CEOs, and setting up appointments for the account executive that I was partnered with to go, and meet with them live, because it was a pretty good, and an incredibly effective sales process. We were going out, and selling at the time, five figure solutions to a problem you probably didn’t know you had before we walked in the door. It was pretty methodical, and such a great place to learn the art of sales.

The Secret to Effective Cold Calling

Sam Jacobs: You must have been very good at cold calling. While we’ve got you on this, what were your key strategies? What were your tactics? What did you learn about how to deliver a great cold call?

Alyssa Merwin: One, I tried to get as educated as I could to sound like a credible person that they’d be willing to engage with, and hear me out long enough to compel them to take a meeting with the account executive. That meant getting smart on our research, and insights, so that I could call up a CFO, and say, “Let me tell you why 30 or 60 minute meeting with this executive is going to be worthwhile”.

It was leading with content, and insights, that was enough to get our foot in the door. All joking aside, I think the persistence was paramount.

Also, being creative. I was calling in off hours, and also building relationships with the executive assistants, and trying to find new, and creative ways in.

I was always following up with a touch point in the next step, in fact, I’d call and if I got a voicemail, I would continue to leave a couple of politely persistent voicemails, and just inform them that I’d continue to call until I heard back from them, and so… Sometimes they would preempt with a response, and we’d schedule a meeting, or they quickly let me know that they weren’t interested.

It was a combination of, “Let’s lead with insights, make it something that’s compelling, and that there’ll be some value in the meeting for them.” And then just being willing to pick up the phone 1000 times.

Management vs Individual Contributor: The Debate Continues

Sam Jacobs: You mentioned the concept of a player coach. Most of the people I know are coming down, and saying, it doesn’t work, and that you kind of need to make a commitment as an executive team to either put somebody in a management position or make them an individual contributor. What’s your point of view?

Alyssa Merwin: It’s mixed. I mean, having done it myself, I appreciate how hard it is to do it well. If you want to invest in helping other people and have them be successful, perhaps you should take a little bit less on, because it just makes it really hard to know if you’re paying me, and measuring my success based on my personal number and yet you really want me to do the coaching development, it’s really hard to figure out that balance. And, in some ways, is in really direct conflict.

We’re in a position right now, where I’ve got about 40 plus leaders on my team. And there are a few more people that are really interested in leadership, but we don’t have a job available for them yet. So I’m entertaining this idea of doing a player coach role for them. This is a stretch opportunity, recognizing that it may not be ideal, but if they’re really passionate about leadership, and I don’t have something for them yet, let’s try to be thoughtful about how we construct it in a way that it can be more successful than what I experienced, and probably what a lot of us have experienced.

RELATED: 5 Suggestions for Building a High Performing Sales Team

Being a Leader of Leaders

Sam Jacobs: You have 40 leaders on your team. From my experience, often, there’s a jump in skill set that’s required to be an individual contributor to be a manager. But then there’s a whole other jump, and skill set, to be a manager of other managers. What have you learned? What are your tactics for leadership when it comes to leading a team that large?

Alyssa Merwin: It’s been a journey of lots of learning. I think once you get into leadership, no matter what the scale is, and no matter how many people are working under you, you realize very quickly that, you know, I have control. It starts with recognizing that you can influence, and you can guide, but you can’t control the outcomes in the same way that you could as an individual contributor.

So what do you do? That’s where you’ve got to be able to cast a vision. And, more importantly than even figuring out the right vision is figuring out how to bring people along. Helping them understand the why of the things that you’re asking the team to focus on.

There’s also this theme around finding opportunities for observation. You’ve got to create opportunities, whether it’s shadowing team meetings, or shadowing one on ones, which can be a little awkward, but finding some moments where you can really see, “how’s my team showing up? And how are they doing? And, how can I make sure that I’m giving them the coaching development that they need?”

You want to find that right balance of enough distance, and autonomy, but also enough opportunities for observation so that you can help make sure that they’re doing the right things in the right ways, and you’re helping them get better.

Demonstrating Vulnerability in the Feedback Process

Sam Jacobs: How do you structure the natural tension between being called out in public on something that you need to improve with the underlying fears about job security?

Alyssa Merwin: There’s a there’s an important step before we get treated to feedback, which is creating a safe environment, and demonstrating vulnerability. It’s demonstrating that, as a leader, I’m willing to put my own feelings, emotions, insecurities out there. And I’m creating the space, and setting the tone for the conversation I want to have. And, by the way, I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t care. You can’t just launch into feedback in front of a group of people without having the foundations of trust and vulnerability.

It’s only the teams where there’s real trust that we can start to have these kinds of conversations. I’m sure that there is some fear, and insecurity, when we start to have these exposing conversations. But at the same time, we’ve got enough of a track record of being really thoughtful, and investing in the individual, and giving them time, and space to improve that, I don’t think I’ve ever actually let someone go because of the stuff that’s come up in these conversations.

If it’s gone that way, it’s probably been a mutual decision that this just isn’t the right environment, or the right kind of growth that they’re interested in.

Sam Jacobs: I’m also curious about your perspective on feedback in general, and how changeable are people? How do you structure feedback to make it as useful, and as practical and as actionable as possible?

Alyssa Merwin: I learned, from one of our leaders in Shapiro, who had this perspective of,

“You can certainly try to go fix people. But wouldn’t it be more powerful if you can help them improve, find the one thing that if they can go from good to great, or the one thing that they can make progress on? That might actually be more impactful than going, and trying to fix something that somebody doesn’t have that capability.”

Sam’s Corner

Sam Jacobs: Hey, folks, Sam Jacobs, it’s Sam’s corner. That was a fantastic conversation with Alyssa, just a lot of really important insights about the skills, the personal, the human connection skills that are required to be a great leader, and a great manager.

What We Learned

  • Tactics for cold calls
  • The leadership skills you learn right out of school
  • Deciding whether to put someone in a leadership position or a contributor position
  • Providing effective feedback
  • How to become a leader in the hiring process

Don’t miss episode 61

Of course we want to thank our sponsors. Conga is the leading end-to-end digital document transformation suite. With Conga you can simplify documents, automate contracts, and execute esignatures. Our second sponsor is Outreach. Outreach is the leading sales engagement platform.

If you want to reach out to me with feedback, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

This has been the Sales Hacker Podcast. Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.

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