How This Sales Leader at Sysco Continues to Elevate Her Career

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Photo Courtesy of Sysco

Photo Courtesy of Sysco

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June 19, 2024 at 1:6AM UTC

Liz Phillips, Senior Director of Sales Operations at Sysco, has been with the company for 15 years. After cultivating a career in sales, her time with the company has been equally split between time “in the field” working directly for a specific location and the corporate office, working on sales strategy. 

Throughout her tenure, Phillips has held over 10 different positions.  She credits the company’s many resources and supportive leadership for helping her advance her career and is returning the favor today. “I try to be the boss I always wish I had,” says Phillips. “I found that I really enjoyed and felt fulfilled when I was helping others out, so it became important to me to prioritize that” she adds.

In a recent interview with Fairygodboss, Phillips gave us a closer look at the career path that led her to her senior position at the company, talks about her leadership style and how she prioritizes mentoring women at the company who are looking to build a career in sales. Keep reading for her insights.

How long have you been at Sysco and what about the company first made you want to join?

I've been with Sysco for just under 15 years. Prior to that, I was in sales for a company that manufactured amenities for the hospitality industry. I was pregnant with my first child at the time and having worked for a small family-owned company, there was not a lot of support for someone in terms of benefits once you had a family. I was looking for other options but I had always enjoyed sales and the hospitality industry and thought “If you’re going to sell something, it might as well be something you’re passionate about and you love” and food was that opportunity for me. To continue to work with restaurants was exciting, so I explored the opportunity with Sysco. I was eight months pregnant with my first child when I interviewed with Sysco and started shortly after he was born, and it’s been a great fit ever since.

Tell me a little about your current role. What about this work excites you?

My new role was developed about six months ago, and it is a combination of work streams including compensation strategy for our sales associates, in other words, understanding the right metrics to incent and drive the right behavior and activity in the field. I am also responsible for performance management — which is really important to us so that our teams are prepared with the insights they need to coach and know how to best support their front-line sales associates. We’ve been developing tools to equip our frontline sales leaders with more impactful data to support them in their coaching responsibilities with their teams. This is a big area of opportunity for us because we are developing more consistency in this process across the enterprise. By bringing this work all together, we are able to understand what activities are impacting our results and where the opportunities exist to improve our collective success.

I also have the opportunity to work with our national sales operations team. We have recently brought together our resources to serve both local and national customers. Our support for “local” business involves independent restaurant customers, like mom and pop restaurants, diners, and single unit establishments, whereas the national sales business is focused on supporting larger customers such as multi-unit restaurant chains. These customers have very different service needs and opportunities for our teams to support their businesses. Our team works closely with internal sales leaders, merchandising teams, suppliers and national customers to look for opportunities to grow their business more profitably, regardless of if they have one location or multiple locations.

How would you describe your leadership style?  

I would describe my leadership style as “Trying to be the boss I always wish I had”. By that, I mean you can learn just as much, if not more from having difficult leaders. I've had both good and bad leaders over time, and I feel I’ve really soaked up qualities and attributes that were meaningful to me. I’ve had leaders that emphasized the fact that families come first, and you should never have to feel guilty or afraid to ask for time to attend a child’s soccer game or leave early, because those are moments you can't get back. And I have three kids myself, so that’s always been important to me. When I’ve had leaders that have shown me that they trust me and made me feel like it is acceptable to indicate when things are important to me, it makes me want to work harder for them. I try to do the same for my team by letting them know that I value them as an employee and acknowledge that family comes first. That is my biggest priority.

The second part is to try to listen more than I talk. That’s been an evolution throughout my career. You learn through experience. Earlier on, when I had an opportunity to be included in key meetings with senior leaders and a chance to speak, I felt like I had to get everything out and show that I belonged there. Over time I realized that it's not about just sharing everything you know, because that overwhelms people, and that you learn so much more by listening and asking pointed questions. So I try to be open with my team and give them chances to lead and have their own voices and not tell them how everything has to be done, and be there to give feedback and guidance that can help take them to the next level.

What are your favorite aspects of the culture at Sysco? 

One of the most exciting things about the culture at Sysco is that everyone puts the customer first and wants to ensure that we are doing everything to help our customers succeed. That’s a mindset, it’s not a guideline or rule. We try to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes to try to be a better partner for them in everything we do, whether that customer is an external group or an audience of internal associates that we are supporting.  We have sales consultants and business specialists working directly with our restaurant customers to understand the challenges they face and help to provide solutions, whether it be adjusting their menu offerings due to Covid restrictions or developing social media plans to drive more foot traffic to their restaurant; everyone has a goal of helping our customers achieve their greatest success.  Within my current department, our “customers” are the internal Sysco associates, and our focus is to develop strategies, processes and tools that ensure that they are equipped with everything they need to support THEIR customers.  My peers and I are fortunate enough to work for an incredible leader who ensures that all the work we focus on adds value to the business.  That can be hard when different groups have different priorities and projects pile up, but when you stop to consider where and how we can add the most value and do the most good, the rest all falls in place.  

What are a few qualities you look for when you’re interviewing a candidate for a sales role? 

I always try to understand how people got where they are and how they feel about that journey along the way. I’ve interviewed both sales reps in the field and associates for corporate roles and I’m always looking for someone who can think farther and deeper than just hitting a sales goal or target. Someone who is comfortable making mistakes knowing they will learn from them, and isn’t afraid to ask questions to ensure they understand. When interviewing people, I love to hear about what has gone wrong and what they learned from that experience. You learn a lot about someone when you can hear how they approached a problem and how they moved forward.

What benefits or programs has Sysco offered you that have contributed to your success?

When I first came to Sysco Corporate after working in the field for many years, I learned about an organization called Women's Foodservice Forum that Sysco partners very closely with. It's an organization that is devoted to the professional and personal development of women in the food service industry, including distributors like Sysco. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the annual WFF leadership development conference and it felt great to be surrounded by like-minded women. Many of whom also juggle the internal conflict of wanting to be a good mother as well as have a successful career and not feel ashamed to have both. From that initial exposure, I began to look at ways I could help within Sysco, and found that one of the best ways is to remember where you came from and reach back and pull somebody along with you. Very informally, I started getting requests from people who are younger in their tenure about how to navigate their sales careers at Sysco and I really enjoyed that. A small group of fellow female leaders at Sysco were able to develop an Associate Resource Group for women leaders at the corporate office called IMPACT.  It has been exciting to help build out the group to support networking, career guidance and professional development opportunities for women at Sysco. Through IMPACT, I have met women across many different functions within Sysco, and those relationships help to open doors for a stronger understanding of the business as well as opportunities to help others along their career journey.  

When do you make time for mentoring?

You really have to be grounded in reality, because it is not always possible to have a perfect balance between work and personal life. When you have ebbs and flows within your schedule, lean into one or the other. What I found was that I really enjoyed and felt fulfilled when I was helping others out, so it became important to me to prioritize that, and I had to learn how to manage my calendar to allow for that. I never look at it as a burden when people reach out and ask for my time because I remember how valuable it has been in my career to have someone that was willing to talk to me and share their own experience or advice. I have learned that the key to better time management is to put blocks of time on my calendar each week to ensure that I have the time to think, plan, and be flexible as needed. If it weren’t for that, my calendar could easily be over-run and it would be more difficult to find the time. I try to be intentional around making time for the activities that I know are definitely worth it.

What’s something you find unique about Sysco that you didn’t know prior to joining? 

That despite being a “food company,” you don’t need to be a chef to succeed at Sysco. When I first interviewed for an entry-level sales position, I was intimidated by that — I was nervous that I wouldn’t know what to do or say when I’d be faced with a Chef that had more experience than me and that I would fail. That misconception was blown out of the water very early on, because I realized that it’s not only about selling groceries, even though that’s at the core of what we do, but Sysco is also very much a solutions company. That was the part that really hooked me and I became passionate about. Our goal as salespeople was not just to sell products, it was to become a partner in our customers’ business, and it’s about the value we bring to their business. When I joined Sysco, I learned quickly that we have an army of resources there to help customers succeed, such as Product Specialists, Culinary Specialists, Marketing Specialists — so I didn’t have to be the expert in everything,  I just had to know how to use the resources available to me.  I learned how to understand the specific needs my customers had and how to match them with the solutions we provide. It is about building long-lasting relationships rather than short transactions. When you are able to help show a customer all the ways in which you are there to help their business succeed, your own success can follow.

There are so many different directions you can go with a career at Sysco, without ever leaving the company. I know there are a lot of people today that want to get a more well-rounded experience and often have to jump to other companies to do that, but I’ve been with Sysco for 15 years and have had at least 10 different roles, all of which presented me with new and different challenges, while I was still building upon the credibility and experience that I had. The opportunities I have had to work on different projects have helped to show my work ethic and value so that I have been pulled into new challenges with my credibility already established, whereas if I were to be starting somewhere else, I would be starting from scratch and would have no equity built up in my personal brand. It’s rare today to be able to experience so many different roles within the same company as you continue to grow in your career, and I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I have had with Sysco 

What has been the proudest moment in your career?

I had an incredible opportunity early on in my career in the corporate office to work on a potential merger and I was pulled into a very small project team that was charged with coming up with the plans for bringing these two companies together. I walked into the project feeling confident thinking I knew what life in sales was and would have no trouble providing the perspective needed. During the time I was involved, I felt like I got a PhD in business because I was part of a small nimble group from all different functions and was exposed to aspects of the business that I had never been part of before. I came out of that experience feeling like I was a different thinker and approached problems more thoughtfully and that has really shaped my career ever since.

What advice do you have for women who are looking to either begin or elevate their career in sales?

To be successful in sales, you need to find that balance of being humble enough where you can learn and admit that you have more room to grow, but still confident enough to garner the respect that you deserve. It’s that fine line between not coming across as arrogant, but also not making people question “Does this person know what they’re talking about?” If you’re able to project to people a genuine level of care and knowledge, then people will gravitate towards you and listen to what you have to say.  Success in sales comes when you understand your customer, you know what matters to them, and you are able to show them value.  None of that is possible without asking questions and seeking to understand their motivations, challenges and needs.  When you allow yourself to learn and help your customers to see that you are committed to using that knowledge for their benefit, great lasting partnerships can be built.


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