February 2, 2010

Successful Women in Sales: Mary Kay Ash

By Gerhard Gschwandtner, Founder and CEO, Selling Power

Mary Kay Ash (founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc. ) proved to be one of the most successful women in sales of all time.

When she died in 2001, her company had more than 800,000 sales representatives working in 37 countries, and total annual sales in excess of $200 million. Today, her company pulls in over $3 billion in revenue; and the current Mary Kay CEO is a billionaire.

Common Challenges for Women in Sales
Before founding her own company, Ash worked in sales for 25 years. Despite being a top earner, she was passed over for promotions time and again. Meanwhile her male colleagues climbed the company ladder. Often, she trained men who were then promoted to executive positions, while her career path remained flat.

In 1963, she left her job. Ash spent six months writing a book, which turned into a business plan for her eponymous cosmetics company. She launched her business at age 45, using $5,000 she borrowed from her son.

How Mary Kay Gained Influence and Success
Mary Kay’s enormous success was attributed to a few factors. Number one, she trained her salespeople to approach selling as a service. Two, she pioneered rewarding and motivating her sellers. Her company’s top earners were recognizable by the pink Cadillacs they won in sales competitions. “Recognition is key,” said Ash (as quoted in her New York Times obituary).

In this interview from 1982, Selling Power publisher and founder Gerhard Gschwandtner talks to Ash about:

  • The sales opportunities she created for women
  • Why she liked to start her day at 5 in the morning
  • Why competition in sales doesn’t have to be “dog eat dog” to work
  • The greatest contribution leaders can make to their employees

Mary Kay: The Make-up of Sales Success

On Friday, the 13th of September, 1963, Mary Kay rented a storefront in Dallas to start her own company.

Today, with sales approaching $600 million, she reflects on her humble beginnings. “One of my strongest motivations for starting was the determination to give women an opportunity that I was denied when `I worked for others.'”

What Mary Kay created amounts to an unbelievable success story of America’s most dynamic saleswoman.

In this interview with Selling Power, Mary Kay has agreed to share the basic principles that account for her inner growth and sales success.

SP: The first thing that strikes me about your organization is the incredible enthusiasm that is expressed by your staff and your beauty consultants. How do you generate this enthusiasm?

Mary Kay: Somebody said, if you act enthusiastic, you will become enthusiastic. We try to generate enthusiasm by example.

SP: What are some of the things you do to set the example?

Mary Kay: One of the things that I do, personally, is to keep some really good books on my bedside table that keep reminding me of what life is really all about. There are some days when you wake up and you really don’t feel all that enthusiastic. I think that is true of every person.

SP: It’s true. What kind of books do you feel are helpful for those days?

Mary Kay: Besides the Bible, there are some very good motivational books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, or one that inspired me and turned my life around at one time, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill; and of course Psycho Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. All of these are not exactly the newest thing on the market, but I keep reading the new ones and reread the old ones. They keep me enthusiastic.

SP: How do you help your salespeople to maintain their enthusiastic attitude?

Mary Kay: We have a lot to be enthusiastic about. But even back in those days when the success was small, we found ways to be enthusiastic about the things we did have. There are many ways to create enthusiasm in a group of salespeople. For example, we hold most sales meetings on Monday morning to challenge the “blue-Monday syndrome.” To me, Monday is a new beginning, a fresh start and a new chance to do something positive. So, we start by singing songs. I feel very strongly about the effect of music and the action of singing. When you go to church, invariably the hymns are sung first. They create a very special feeling which leads to a positive attitude.

SP: You’ve said once that the test of a champion is “to be able to put on a happy face when deep down you are suffering over a serious problem.” No matter how bad you feel, you must always go in enthusiastically. When your hostess says, “Hello, how are you?” the consultant must respond, “Wonderful, and how are you?” Isn’t that a form of self-denial?

Mary Kay: No, I don’t really think so. I think it has a therapeutic effect. For example, one of our directors, Rena Tarbet, has hit the Million Dollar Club for the third year. She has had cancer for seven years. Twenty-two days a month, she is on some kind of treatment that would normally put most of us in the hospital. Her doctor says, “Rena is living with cancer, not dying with it.”

Just recently, one of her family members called me and they thought she was working too hard – she is now working on her fourth million, it is incredible – and I called her doctor to get his views. He said, “It is my opinion that it is that incredible, indomitable spirit of hers that keeps her going and that is why she is where she is today; and I think she should be allowed to do anything she feels like doing.”

SP: Rena’s work seems to prevent her from getting worse.

Mary Kay: Right. You heard about the man who said that “If I only went to work on the days I felt like it, I never would.” If Rena stayed home and focused on the fact that she is ill, she would probably get worse.

SP: Is it true that some of your salespeople start their workday at 5 o’clock in the morning?

Mary Kay: It’s true. You know, if you get up at 5 o’clock three times a week, you’ll gain an extra day. You need to try it a few times, because you’ll realize a great feeling of satisfaction at 8 o’clock in the morning when you’ve already finished what would have taken you six hours to do after 8 o’clock because of the interruptions.

It’s not infrequent that I get a call at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and I always know that it is one of my eager beavers who is already up. An example is one of my top producers, Helen McVoy. She made $310,000 last year.

SP: So, you feel that you’ve had a headstart while other people are still sleeping.

Mary Kay: Yes. By the time they get out of their beds, you’ve already finished half a day’s work.

SP: It seems that you have learned to work hard at a very early age.

Mary Kay: I think I probably had a different situation than the average child. I don’t ever remember my mother’s being there to bake cookies or do any of the things that most mothers do, or help me with my lessons and tie my shoes. She had the very inconvenient situation of being away from me; and I think perhaps she felt a little guilty about not being able to be there to do the things that she thought that she should be doing. So, she used the telephone. You know that old saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.” My mother applied that principle. Over the telephone, she would tell me exactly how to do every little thing that I needed to know as a child. She always would say, “Honey, you can do it,” or “Anything anyone else can do, you can do better.” I think that the reason she would constantly add, “You can do it,” was because she wasn’t really sure I could.

SP: In a way, your mother’s expectations seem to have translated into your expectations of your people in the Mary Kay organization where you encourage others by saying, “You can do it, too.”

Mary Kay: Right. That’s what we do on a constant, everyday basis.

SP: It’s a very powerful principle.

Mary Kay: It worked for me. And it’s working today for a lot of people. I am amazed at how many people come up to me and say, You know, I met you in Chicago and you took my hand and you looked in my eyes and you said, “You know, I just know that you can do it.”

SP: Do you feel that women need to be motivated differently than men?

Mary Kay: In some ways, I think men are motivated more by money than women. I’ve often heard men say, “Why do you spend all this money on a mink coat? Why don’t you just give them cash?” I don’t think that the women would be as motivated by cash as they would by the possibility of having a mink coat that they have dreamed about all their lives. If they received the cash, it probably would go for a dishwasher or something like that.

SP: What do you feel is the number one motivator that women respond to?

Mary Kay: Recognition comes first, self-fulfillment second and then third, I think, is pride.

SP: Self-fulfillment would mean…

Mary Kay: Accomplishing something that probably their husbands didn’t think they could do or maybe they themselves didn’t think they could do.

SP: In a way, you create a competitive situation that allows them to get recognized and feel fulfilled.

Mary Kay: Well, we’ve created a competitive situation, but we’ve removed all the “dog-eat-dog” jealousy factors and all the scratching somebody else’s eyes out to get where you want to go.

SP: What do you do to prevent that?

Mary Kay: In some of the companies that I was in, there was always a first, second and third prize and invariably there were always three “hot shots” in the company who would win those. So, what’s the use of trying? We put everything on a plateau basis. In other words, if we have a contest, you know that it will take X-number of dollars wholesale to get into that rank. You don’t have to step on anybody to get the reward; you can all reach for it and get it. In essence, our salespeople compete with themselves.

SP: Do you feel that this system leads to a better overall attitude among salespeople?

Mary Kay: Absolutely. We are talking about creating a go-give attitude. If you give the very best you have in whatever you do, the best will then come back to you in a kind of boomerang effect. It certainly has worked for me and the more I give, the more it comes back. And yet, you don’t ever think about it. I mean, I never think about that when I am giving, I’m going to get a whole lot back. That doesn’t work. You give without any expectation of a return.

SP: You also suggest to put God first, family second and career third.

Mary Kay: Right. If you put God first in your life, you don’t have to worry about much else. Then, your family should come next. It is my opinion that if you make the most money in the whole world and in the process lose your husband and your children just for the dollar, then you’ve failed.

SP: Life would lose its meaning.

Mary Kay: Yes, there are a lot of things more important than just making money.

SP: Managing a family and a career calls for a certain amount of organization skills and good time-management habits.

Mary Kay: Yes, it does.

SP: What are some of your success principles that you’ve developed for yourself in this area?

Mary Kay: Well, one of the most important principles that I ever learned is to write each evening the six most important things I have to do tomorrow. I also number them in the order of their importance. You need to make that decision because a woman can walk into any room of the house and find six things that need to be done. By deciding what’s most important, I can follow what I set out to do and don’t get off on all kinds of tangents.

SP: Why six items and not 10 or 12?

Mary Kay: You need to balance the number of tasks with your possibilities of completing them in the time available. If you would write down 26 items, you’d get frustrated and say, “I can’t do all that” and end up doing nothing. But six things you can do. And then I always say, with a smile, “If you get those done, you can take the rest of the day off with my blessing.”

SP: Do you always begin to work with a clean desk in the morning?

Mary Kay: I usually start with a clean desk.

SP: And when you finish the day?

Mary Kay: I take it all home.

SP: The reading matter?

Mary Kay: Oh, I have it in nice little piles here. One is to read, one is to sign and one is for dictation. I like to work on these things early in the morning while I’m real fresh. There is another little habit that applies to time management and organization. I’ve discovered that whatever is on top of your incoming mail, you take it and finish it. I don’t go on to the second no matter how enticing. Normally, you tend to go through the pile and think “Oh, here is an easy one. I’ll do that one first,” and “I don’t know the answer to this one, so I’ll put it aside for awhile.” My suggestion is: to tackle one thing at a time and finish it, no matter how difficult it is, or how easy it is. You don’t handle any piece of paper twice.

SP: Sooner or later, you’ll have to make the decision anyway. So, it’s better to make it now.

Mary Kay: Right, get it over with.

SP: Doesn’t it feel good to cross things off your list?

Mary Kay: Yes, I love it.

SP: How do you deal with procrastination? I’ve heard that sometimes there is a little problem with follow-up calls.

Mary Kay: Yes. It is caused by fear of rejection when they think “Oh, my goodness, that lady may not like it…Maybe I couldn’t answer her question. Maybe she’s not at home.”

SP: Even though they may have the item on their list, this fear prevents them from completing the job.

Mary Kay: Yes.

SP: How do you suggest they deal with it?

Mary Kay: Well, by discipline first of all. I suggest that they put aside one hour, put a sand-timer in front of them and talk to one person every three minutes. Make that call and succinctly ask the questions that need to be asked, do whatever has to be done and get off the phone to call the next person. Many consultants have a tendency to talk too long and talk for 35 minutes because they enjoy it. If she would keep these calls short and businesslike, she would keep her business in fine shape and would keep her bookings and her production going. Our top producers say that an ounce of pink tickets (follow-up call reminders) is worth an ounce of gold.

SP: You were once quoted as saying: “One intense hour is worth a dreamy day.” What did you mean by that?

Mary Kay: Well, Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands to fill the time available for it.” If somebody called you from the airport saying, “We just arrived in town and we’ll be there in half an hour,” you’d get your spring cleaning done in thirty minutes, when you might have spent a whole day on it. Whatever length of time you have available for a project, like these follow-up calls, you get it done.

SP: So if you don’t develop sound time-management principles, you won’t be able to reach your goals.

Mary Kay: Right.

SP: What are some of the success principles you use that apply to goal setting?

Mary Kay: Well, first of all, you’re never going to get there if you don’t know where you are going. I think most people plan their vacations better than they plan their lives.

SP: So you recommend that they set realistic short-term and long-term goals?

Mary Kay: I think that short-term goals are more applicable. I know, for example, I find myself thinking in terms of what’s going on today and the rest of this quarter. Richard (president of Mary Kay) is already thinking about 1985. As far as I am concerned, it’s not ever going to happen.

By the way, Richard just brought in this picture of our new office complex that we are building on 177 acres. Almost every department will have its own building. It’s like a little city with a lake in the center, a marina, and eventually we are even going to have a hotel.

SP: When do you start building?

Mary Kay: The first building was started October first.

SP: It sounds as if the success principles you’ve applied in your company since 1963 have helped you grow far beyond what you imagined you could do.

Mary Kay: Well, I feel that God had a very important job to be done here. You know that I am a great-grandmother?

SP: Right.

Mary Kay: So I realize that time is precious and that I don’t have forever to do all these things. For this reason, I am trying to set the concepts so that other “Mary Kays” can carry on long after I am gone.

SP: How do you think this will happen?

Mary Kay: I think this will come about through my national sales directors who, in essence, believe in everything I believe in and who are where they are because they are almost stamped out copies. I have just returned from a 10-day trip with the top-ten nationals. Just being with them everyday was an interesting experience – it was almost like looking into a mirror.

SP: It appears that one of your greatest contributions to the expansion of your company was to motivate a large number of people to use their own capabilities and to apply many of your proven success principles.

Mary Kay: Yes, I think that is really true. I think that one of the greatest contributions we have made is to help people realize how great they really are and to reach their potential.

SP: Thank you for sharing your ideas with the readers of Selling Power.

Mary Kay: You are so welcome. Thank you very much.