June 3, 2013 was the start of a great adventure; my first job and that too, in the FMCG industry. Getting a foot in this glorified sector is the dream of many Indian b-school grads. Most of us begin our FMCG journey by roughing it out in the big, bad world of Sales. After understanding how FMCG Sales works, we eventually move to other roles.
I, as ASM Telangana Upcountry, handled a territory comprising 9 districts (listed by Wikipedia as the Naxal infested red corridor of India), 6 field officers, 80 salesmen, 44 distributors, a retail universe of 7,000 outlets and an annual turnover of close to INR 90 crores.
What makes my FMCG journey unique is the fact that I was one of the few women ASMs in the country, not just in GCPL, but among all FMCG companies. Some years ago, very few members of the so-called fairer sex would have breached this male bastion, but nowadays many women are storming into this field. Still, the gender ratio in Sales is worse than that of our country. But at least things have started looking up.
I often refer to people in Sales as ‘Ninjas’, for most ASMs develop traits that make them stand out from the rest of the human race. An ASM, be it a man or a woman, needs to be extremely adaptable and deal with situations with an ingenuity that few possess. Sales, by virtue of being a challenging profession, is considered to be unbefitting for the faint hearted, ones loving their peace of mind, and women.
To the uninitiated, it is a game of chasing monthly, quarterly and annual targets. But there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. It requires a masterful jugglery of multiple business priorities across large territories and artful people management. An ASM is always on her toes, shuttling between towns for market work and stakeholder management, tracking multiple business agendas and constantly firefighting.
I am often asked if I had to encounter specific challenges owing to my gender in this realm of patriarchy. And if I would recommend another woman to partake in this vocation. The answer to both the questions would be an emphatic Yes.
I faced ample challenges, which persisted throughout my tenure, but I worked hard to assuage their impact to the greatest extent possible and figured out ways of working around them.
Establishing an eco-system conducive to work
Many of us ASMs find ourselves posted in far-flung places, thousands of miles away from our loved ones. We are required to travel to different corners of our territories on a daily basis. Mostly, we hit the road at 7 AM, only to return back post 8 PM. With different areas of our subcontinent plagued by various threats, ranging from insurgency, naxalism, dacoits, lawlessness and mafia to name a few, an ASM needs to ensure that she manages to do her work, while ensuring her safety. Through trials, errors and multiple bad experiences, we end up finding trusted cab drivers to ferry us around and hotels where we feel safe retiring for the night.
Establishing a supportive ecosystem is a challenge for both genders. But a woman travelling alone to towns – big, small and minuscule enough to not be visible on the map – must take extra precautions about the cab she travels in, the hotels she decides to use as her pit stops, and the time at which she returns to the safe confines of her abode.
Proving the detractors wrong
Initially, I faced scepticism regarding my ability to handle a territory fraught with multiple challenges, partly owing to my gender and partly, my inexperience. As a woman manager, there were certain constrains like being unable to sit at a distributor point till late in the night, or staying overnight in many towns owing to concerns about safety. It took time for me to prove that though my methods of working might differ from that of a man, I was just as capable of delivering 100% of my targets on a monthly basis and leading my team just as well as a male manager would.
Dealing with the great Indian male ego
Every female ASM must figure out her own technique of dealing with the great Indian male ego. 99.99% of the people one encounters possess the XY chromosome. Starkly different in age, experience and background from the men one mingled with during one’s pre-sales days, these shrewd, business minded veterans of the field are under no particular obligation to listen to a 25 year old woman. Building a rapport with men not accustomed to dealing with women beyond the ones in their families and certainly not with those in positions of authority, requires both time and consistent effort. Getting through to a team is easier for male bosses. It is usually accomplished using a heady concoction of alcohol after meetings, hanging out after work hours and using tactile cues. Women, on the other hand, must try different iterations to maintain a dignified distance and yet fraternise and get through to the team. As a young woman leading a team of men almost double my age, I made it a point to deal with my team members with a certain reverence. I was aware that I would have to command and not demand respect from the team, through the value my skills and education could add to their years of experience. Through consistent effort, I tried to make it clear that my job was not to establish one-upmanship as a boss (something that is very prevalent in Indian FMCG Sales), but to ensure that the team worked as a cohesive unit and delivered consistent results. Once I managed to win over different stakeholders, I never felt discriminated against, disrespected or unsafe around the many types of men I interacted with. My team was immensely protective of me and we got along exceptionally well and delivered some great results.
Sales: the great equaliser
I realised that once you breach the initial barrier of scepticism regarding your gender and learn to work around the operational chinks, Sales can be a great equaliser. Here, numbers provide testimony to one’s capability. Subjectivity is limited and everything measured on a scale. No other entry level post MBA job allows one to lead a team and manage a business worth hundreds of crores at a mere 25 years of age. In Sales, you are empowered to take decisions, your viewpoints are respected and dissent is not quelled. As a woman manager, I competed with my male peers on an equal footing and held myself just as accountable for my deliverables. I knew that while, as a woman, I might require certain concessions in travel and the way I operate, my end results and what was expected of me, were at par with what one expected of a male manager. I saw myself as the manager of a territory, before I saw myself as a woman.
Sales: a profession of choice for the fairer sex?
Would I recommend sales as a profession to another woman? Yes, I would! Very few professions allow a 25 year old woman to lead a team and entrust them with a responsibility of crores of rupees. Once you deliver your targets, Sales as a profession is gender blind. It takes you to the corners of the country and sensitises you to people of all socioeconomic strata. It shoves you out of the comfort zone of an AC office and into the dirt and grime of the real world. It toughens you up to deal with all types of people, situations and challenges. It leaves you with anecdotes that would make for the most interesting conversations. Also, for anyone aspiring for a career in FMCG Marketing, Sales provides a window to the reality out there. Sure, it is difficult and often uncomfortable, but it does end up making one practical, driven and goal oriented.
Can women thrive in Sales?
A woman can do a pretty darn good job at Sales, provided we iron out a few chinks and provide her a safe environment to operate in, with all the support she needs to thrive. Having a network of mentors within a company that one could reach out to, would help women firmly establish their foot on the ground. As there are very few women in Sales, we often look for role models in the initial days, to figure out how to lead a team and deliver results, regardless of the teething troubles we might encounter. While we do seek help and advice informally from our peer group, we mostly shy away from reaching out to the senior management. An official network comprising of senior managers, sales professionals, human resource partners, and other women who have taken the sales route in the past would make it a lot easier for us to reach out, seek advice and ask for help without feeling awkward about it. It would help us get perspective from veterans on how we can deal with challenges and work in a way that helps us optimise our performance. A responsive network would also convey to young managers that there is a whole system out there to support them when things go awry. This would be very reassuring for all young managers and challenging roles like Sales and particularly for women. Encouraging diversity in Sales would bring a different perspective and culture to Indian FMCG Sales. It is high time more women storm into this field and make their mark here.
Apurva interned with GCPL in 2012, when she won the Godrej Gurukul Best Project Competition for her work on the Godrej Expert brand. She joined GCPL full-time as an Area Sales Manager (ASM) in the India Sales team in 2013, after completing business school. She has now moved to the Innovation Team.