A 33-year career journey in recruitment consultancy gives you a unique ability to advise those starting out on their own career in sales. Executive Board Director for PageGroup, Gary James, shares some key lessons he’s learned over three decades spent helping to steer careers in the right direction.

1. Never Mind the Brand, Does the Culture Fit?

Just like a new pair of jeans, in your first job, no matter how impressive the brand might sound, ultimately it all comes down to one key requirement – how well does it fit?

For the first job in particular, the culture of the company has to speak to you as an individual. Otherwise, Gary warns, you won’t get any gain in return for that initial effort.

“Those first 6 to 18 months are tough. It’s all new, and you’re being set goals and tasks to stretch you,” he notes. Added to that is the clear pressure of expectation. “You know that you’re being evaluated on your performance and there’s a necessarily high expectation to perform – especially in a sales-based environment.”

Coming through this period will initially have the good days and tough ones. As such – ask yourself a basic question. Do those around you seem happy and motivated?

“You need to be in an environment where you feel enthused, and to feel that you’re contributing to something, as opposed to just turning up to do a job.” Simply put, feeling demotivated can be corrosive:  “You won’t perform or feel fulfilled in what you’re doing: and in the worst case you’ll end up in a new job, starting out again.”

Work where you feel enthused, not bored.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Fair Targets

For many new recruits with a convincing nature and a positive outlook, a sales environment can promise you a faster track to potential financial independence. Yet another part of you says, after all those years of studying, do I really want a sales target over my head?

For Gary, while numbers might at first feel intimidating, the key question to ask is whether or not they are attainable. After all, an environment where winning is possible, and where it get rewarded, could potentially be a lot of fun.

“Goals and output targets need to be realistic,” he notes bluntly. “If they’re not, they’re demotivating.” As he notes, for the right individual who thrives on having a goal and gets energised and enthused by a deadline, the promise of recognition and reward can make it worth the slog. And the main thing to assess is whether in a team environment, you’ll get the support to achieve your best. “Sure, it’s stressful at times: but given we work in teams, with strong leaders there’s always someone to lean on for advice.”

Try to avoid companies where nobody ever meets the targets, he notes. “Employers have the power to quickly demotivate people with targets,” he notes. They’ll say,

“Someone’s asked me to do something which isn’t actually practical – they want me to reach for the stars, but that’s impossible.” You’re basically setting them up to fail – and where’s the enjoyment in that?

Goals and outputs should be realistic

3. Don’t Worry. Failure is Supposed to Hurt

No matter how well the early part of your career starts, everyone eventually arrives at that moment when your stomach drops through the floor – and when, plain and simple, you’ve blown it. Gary says those who tritely advise us to “embrace failure” are just missing the point. Failure properly stings.

“At the time you feel it’s catastrophic,” he accepts. “And it’s all very well for me to say, don’t dwell on it, but those first few times it happens it’s all-consuming. You do believe it’s the end of the world, because you’ve set yourself this goal or they’ve been set for you, then you’ve put yourself in a situation where you said or did the wrong thing, and haven’t achieved it. You do dwell on it.”

Yet the bruises can over time be meaningful too. “It takes those failures, of which I’ve had my fair share, for you to realise that the world doesn’t come to an end,” he notes. “You’re better off learning from the experience rather than dwelling on it: and then getting back out there.”

And those who take failure too easily? Maybe they’re not invested enough. “Some people don’t dwell on it at all,” he adds. “But if you don’t care enough, then you’re not striving to do your best – and you’re never going to fulfil your potential. So in that way it’s a good thing to care about it.”

Failure is ok.

4. Your Mindset Will Make the Difference

One thing however is clear: a sales environment is not for people with a predominantly negative outlook. While psychology may not be key to sales, training yourself to believe, certainly can be.

“To be successful in sales, you’ve got to have a very positive mindset, plus a certain self-belief,” Gary advises. These qualities will come about thanks to a mix of preparation and practice, he notes. “And it’s about proving to yourself that you have the skills and the capabilities to do the task at hand. Of course that takes time, but practice will give you the confidence to say, ‘Yeah I can do this.’”

Ultimately, this awareness can prove a real asset. “You’ll have got the mindset to say, ‘This is achievable, this is attainable.’ Which is a powerful thing to know.”

You have the skills and capabilities

5. If it’s Fun, Roll With It

In 33 years advising people on their careers, Gary advises that while it’s good to have a goal starting out, being willing to adapt to the environment around you, can be the secret to a meaningful career. In short: if it’s proving to be fun, it may just be right for you. 

“A lot of the time, people come to us not really knowing what they’re looking for. Or they come with perceived ideas on what they want to do next,” he says. “The reality is, there are probably two-to-three other things they could be doing, which they haven’t been exposed to.”

“The fun of it, and the fulfilment, is being able to provide opportunities to individuals that they’d have never even considered they’d be capable of – or even knew the role existed.”

Walking into a company that in 1984 was 200 people, he says this was his own experience too. “I didn’t join Michael Page with a view that I’d be here longer than 18 months to two years. I had no real understanding of what recruitment consultants did. But what attracted me to it was the opportunity as it was described to me, and how if I was successful, I could help grow and develop businesses.”

“The fact I’m still here 33 years later, with around 6,000 people in the company, and having worked in four continents, is a testament to the people I’ve worked with along the way. But it certainly wasn’t quite what I was thinking when I walked through the front door,” he notes. “I guess I was open to give it a go.”

I'm here 33 years later.

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