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Editor’s note: Today, September 22, we celebrate American Business Women’s Day, a day set aside to honor the accomplishments of business women across the nation. With that special purpose in mind, here is a powerful true story from Lorraine Ferguson’s book The Unapologetic Saleswoman that illuminates a core leadership and management principle for success, one that is particularly relevant to women: distinguishing role from identity. Lori’s empowering example underlines what we celebrate today, namely, the right of women to define themselves.

In 2005, I made the best decision of my life. I purchased a Sandler franchise in Albany, New York. Little did I know that my early lessons about people and the importance of a strong self concept would form the basis of what my team would be sharing on a daily basis with the selling professionals seeking our expertise. The following true story illustrates what I mean; it is one I have shared often with women from all walks of life.

Years before, back when I managed a sales team for a technology company, I had the pleasure of hiring a young woman named Lori. She had no related work experience but had an excellent academic background from a prestigious school, along with a personal presence that radiated confidence. Since this was a smaller company, it was not unusual for employees to wear many hats. While Lori was hired to be a computer technician, she jumped at the opportunity to train our clients on how to use the software applications and administer the system.

Shortly after, Lori shared the exciting news that she was pregnant. She explained that she wanted to continue to work from home for at least the first six months after her baby was born. I asked if she would be open to taking on an inside-sales role for the newly formed computer training business. With some reluctance and trepidation, she agreed.

Despite her hesitation, Lori’s technical knowledge, discipline, and strong desire and commitment to making it work led to amazing results. She single handedly filled our classrooms through her ability to connect with people and work with them to understand their needs. Lori was a sales superstar!

One day, Lori’s parents were scheduled to come for a visit. Lori shared with me that her parents did not know she was a saleswoman. I was surprised, considering how well she was doing and her excitement about the position. She explained that her parents would not be happy knowing that she had a master’s degree but was in a sales role. When they asked her about her job, she said she was a technology consultant.

Clearly, Lori did not perceive sales as a prestigious profession. While she was performing well, she was what I would call “not- OK” (that is, she was personally uncomfortable) with the various connotations associated with selling. I asked her why she felt her parents wouldn’t approve, and she said, “Well, they would think I sold myself short by settling for a sales job. They would wonder if I was not cut out to really use my education. I don’t want them to be disappointed in me.”

Think about how often you judge your own self-worth by how others perceive you.

What is the value you place on someone else’s opinion of you, versus your own?

Lori was letting someone else’s perception of her impact her own self-image. It took a shift in belief and selling approach to reach the conclusion that in fact she was a professional. Lori made that shift. She was—and is—a sales professional, and there is never any need to apologize for that.

Your own mindset or concept of yourself and how you will be perceived are what define you as a professional and as a business woman. Self-concept plays a critical role in differentiating highly successful people from mediocre or unsuccessful ones.

This brings us to I/R Theory, an important underlying theory behind the selling process and the work we do with our clients. Here is how it works. There are two aspects of “you”: one is how you perceive yourself as a human being—your self-worth or self concept, i.e., your identity; the other is the roles you play.

Roles are what you do. Throughout the course of a day, you perform many roles. These may include: mother, sister, friend, mentor, spouse, golfer, sales representative, driver, and dog walker. Your list of roles is unique and seemingly endless.

Your identity is how you feel about and perceive yourself as a human being—your self-concept. Your identity is not to be confused with your role.

Some people have a very high self-concept and perceive themselves in a very positive light. Others, not so much. They have what is referred to as low self esteem, in which they place a low value on themselves as a human being. It is not unusual for them to measure their self-worth in comparison to other people’s perceptions of them.

Try this exercise. Quickly write down what words finish a sentence when you start with the words, “I am…”

Did words like “confident,” “a risk taker,” “awesome,” “comfortable in my own skin” appear on your paper? Or were your words along the lines of “not good enough,” “trying too hard,” “unsuccessful,” and “insecure”?

I/R Theory maintains that people perform in a manner consistent with their self-concept. Simply put, if you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t.

Let’s take Lori as an example. When I asked her to write down her words, she wrote down “a nice person, honest, caring, confident, and smart.” I asked her to rate herself on a scale of 1–10, with 10 being high self-worth and 1 being low. Lori rated herself as a “10.”

When I asked Lori to describe how well she was performing her role as an inside sales representative, she said an “8.” I asked why not a “10”? Lori felt that she was more than capable of doing the job, had made some mistakes, learned some lessons, and was getting more comfortable with dealing with rejection. She explained that she was not yet as consistent as she could be in her control of the sales situation. These were areas she was working to improve.

Lori’s high self-concept (“10”) gave her confidence to take risks and to step out of her comfort zone. It allowed her to not take things personally or, if she did, to bounce back quickly. As a result, her role performance was high. If Lori did not have a high self-concept, she would not have taken the risk of moving to an inside-sales role in the first place.

While Lori had some head trash about how others perceived her in a sales role, she overcame this concern when she realized that what she valued in herself was directly linked to what a sales professional does.

It turns out that the attributes many women have are exactly what is called for in the selling profession. These include our innate ability to nurture and care about people, to get to the truth through our inquisitiveness, and to connect with others.

Lori realized that her original perception of selling was not what she was doing for a living. She enjoyed her interaction with others, the problem-solving aspects, and the independence that came with the profession. As an avid learner, Lori found the technology industry challenging; she was even more challenged and intrigued by the psychology of understanding and communicating with others. (She also didn’t mind the high compensation that goes along with professional sales.)

Lori eventually overcame her high need to have her parents’ approval for what she did, and she told them she was a sales professional. Although they responded as she knew they would and she valued her parents’ opinion, her own self-concept and worth were what she knew were the most important. If you ask Lori today what she does for a living, she proudly tells you she is a sales professional.

How you feel about yourself as a human being will have a major impact on your success as a sales professional, as a business woman, or in any role. It takes a strong belief in yourself to have the confidence to step out of your comfort zone. A professional selling role requires taking risks throughout your selling career.

People often perceive salespeople as unprofessional, and as a result they may try to treat you unprofessionally. You will encounter many people who will want to diminish your self-worth through their words and actions. If you allow them to define you, you will be placing their opinions above your own and eventually self-doubt will replace self-confidence. When people express disdain, it is not you personally they are putting down but your role as a sales professional. Successful sales professionals, and successful business women, learn to separate their self-worth from the role they play. They employ an approach that focuses on the human element of selling.

By learning, developing, and reinforcing your skills, in selling or in any other field you choose, you will boost your self-confidence and perform your role in a way that will be perceived positively by others. Lori’s example is a good one for all of us to follow: If you want to change what you achieve in life, start by changing what you believe.

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