A Conversation with: Jan Oncel, VP of Sales at Forrester

As a young girl, Jan Oncel would ride her bike through the Silicon Valley orchards where present day tech powerhouses were just being built. Surrounded by the excitement of developing companies for most of her life, it’s no surprise that Jan took to the business world well herself. After graduating from Santa Clara, she began her career at Intel, and has since worked her way up to being the Vice President of Sales at Forrester Research. We sat down in Jan’s home in San Francisco to discuss how growing up in Silicon Valley changed her perspective, her journey as a woman in the business world, and her advice to young entrepreneurs or students pursuing careers in today’s demanding sales environment.

[Conversationalist note: My interview with the inventor of the first commercial microprocessor, Federico Faggin, provides some excellent background for the technology Jan describes in this interview, and also the environment in Silicon Valley itself. Take a look for a more complete picture!]

Jan’s career in sales is rooted in her passion for and understanding of the power of technology. She began as an analyst at Dataquest in 1983. Dataquest Inc. provides the technological and financial communities with market intelligence coverage of information technology and communications. At a time when technological advances were often seen as daunting and incomprehensible, Jan dove in, using her statistical knowledge and desire to learn. She learned all about microprocessors and semiconductors with enthusiasm, never frightened of the uncertainty of it all.

“At that time I learned technology, and it didn’t scare me. And that was really critical because a lot of people didn’t understand technology. We’re talking the ’80’s when it was just emerging!”

She witnessed a dramatic change in the technological field with the 2001 market crash. By this point, she had made her way into the sales world, and thrived in this capacity. In our conversation, she described the essential elements of being successful in sales, and how those criteria have changed while being a manager.

One of the pieces of advice Jan presented is making tangible products intangible, and vice versa. For example, if you’re selling a car, you’re not really selling the car. (Think Matthew McConaughey in his Lincoln commercials) You’re selling reliability, sexiness, or power, depending on your brand strategy.  Jan’s speciality is selling information, which means she must take this intangible idea and make it tangible for the consumer.

“In my business, I’m selling information. A very wise man once said to me, ‘when you’re selling a tangible, make it intangible. And the reverse.'”

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These strategies for success have changed with her promotion to Director of Sales, and currently, Vice President of Sales at Forrester. As a prominent leader in the company, Jan explains she has to be much more aware of her presence, a phenomenon her company describes as the “shadow” you cast. For example, if Jan comes to work in a poor mood, her subordinates may wonder if there are problems with their own performance of the company as a whole causing it.

Jan describes the major characteristics needed to be a good salesperson, and how she adjusted to the shift in responsibility as an executive.

I asked Jan if her ascension up the career ladder came organically or if she had to actively seek her promotions. She explained how specifically in seeking out her current Vice President of Sales position, she would consistently check in with her boss about how she could get to the level, but her promotion occurred only after documenting her desire for the position. This started an interesting discussion about how women often feel uncomfortable in actively seeking advancement within a company, specifically, in asking their bosses for these opportunities. We dove deeper to analyze Jan’s journey as a woman in the business world.

Jan has thankfully seen a decrease in sexist tendencies over time, yet still faced the difficult balance between maintaining her career and raising a family. She was constantly traveling across the country for work on a weekly basis. One tremendous help in this period was her husband’s willingness to stay home with their daughter, and his mentality surrounding success. Jan describes how her partner complimented her well in this aspect:

“It goes back to the question of what’s your definition of success. When we first got married, my definition of success was about money, making a lot of money. And in sales I could make a lot of money, and that drove me. And my husband’s definition of success was not about money, it was about being happy. And I’ve learned so much from him over the years that the essence is being happy it’s not about how much money [you make].”

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Over time, Jan’s focus on money being a key to success has shifted, and she remarked how if that is what you’re striving for in life, you will never have enough money. This is really interesting feedback to hear from a woman so advanced in the business world. It is almost as if her sense of balance has improved even as her responsibilities have increased. Although, she did comment how her sense of work-life balance is both complicated and eased by technology. She has the ability to better communicate with colleagues on-the-go, but this also means that her smartphone often sits buzzing on her bedside table when she wants to relax. Jan says this is the nature of being in sales: your autonomy grants you freedom in work, but that comes with a great sense of individual responsibility to perform around the clock.

This fast-paced, changing sales environment is the one Jan grew up in, thrived in, and continues to contribute to! She explained how a large part of her personality was crafted from her surroundings, specifically, living in Silicon Valley and California. She elaborated on its influence in her life, and how she’s seen California change in her over time.

This is just about a quarter of the conversation Jan and I had! If you want to hear more about her thoughts on millennials in the workplace, her perspective on the current global sales market, and how she maintains work life-balance, check out our full conversation.

Listen to my podcast episode below, which includes further information about Jan, research on women in the business world, and some background about our conversation. This podcast is available on SoundCloud and iTunes.

Subscribe to The Conversationalist on iTunes to keep up with these podcasts.

Thanks for reading and watching!

Speak to you soon,

-Nora

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