Iesha Small

speaker, writer, communications professional

Helping working class and introverted professionals thrive.

Why we all need to be sales people

Your good work is not enough. We all need to be sales people

Taken at White Cube, London.

Being good at what you do isn’t enough

I hate self-promotion. I’m terrible at sales. I used to think that all you need to progress in life is to do good work.

I was wrong.*

If you do good work but nobody knows then it won’t change anything and it won’t affect anybody. You need to sell your work. Literally or metaphorically.

This is true as an employee or a freelancer or a creative. I’m currently all three depending on what day it is.

Dr Small? Sorry, but no.

When I was a school child I worked hard and I got good grades. As a result, I got recognized with end of term awards and such.

At A level I wanted to become a medical doctor. So I applied to medical school. The grades weren’t in doubt. But it wasn’t enough. I had to impress at interview.

I didn’t know anybody in my family who was a doctor so I did work experience at hospitals, and went to Saturday courses but it wasn’t enough. I failed at interview. I didn’t sell myself in a convincing enough way to be admitted to the medical schools I applied to. I was rejected from every single one on my application form.

Be the solution

Later I ended up being a mechanical engineer. Here I learnt my lesson. I got my graduate job by writing to lots of companies and offering my services. They hadn’t advertised positions but I found out about the industry and the specific companies I was interested in. I did my research about them. I found out what they needed and presented myself as the solution.

Two replied and invited me to interview probably out of curiosity. Whatever the reason I walked away with two job offers. I’d managed to sell myself well.

Selling in education

Later as a maths teacher I just wanted to teach interesting lessons, do interesting projects and improve results in my classes and (later, when I had more responsibility) of those I line managed.

I thought being good at my job was enough and it kind of is when you are only responsible for yourself if you have an observant boss.

But the truth is that you need people to be aware of what you are doing. So your work can be used by more people. So you can be promoted. So your ideas can spread and benefit others. You need to sell yourself as a competent and worthy person but also sell your ideas so that people will want to implement them. Sometimes I succeed at this and other times I fail.

I spent 14 years as a maths teacher and any success I had was not just about knowing my subject but also selling the following concepts to the pupils in my classes:

  • I am trustworthy, fair and a good teacher
  • The thing I am teaching you is worth your time and attention
  • You have the ability to learn and improve in maths

Being scared of selling is about ego

When I first started personal creative work I was too shy to share it. I felt like a fraud. “I’m only a hobbyist photographer” I thought “I’m not as good as professional photographers.” “I don’t want to be that annoying person who is always self promoting on social media.”

Then Andy, one of my volunteers on my multimedia project Mindshackles about mental health told me I had a duty to share it because it could help people.

He was right.

I’d never thought of it like that before. I was too wrapped up in my own ego, worrying if I was good enough, if my work was good enough or would I come across as self-absorbed to share my creative work that I wasn’t focusing enough on what it might do for other people.

Then I received feedback.

I received feedback from my volunteers telling me that that taking part in the project had allowed them to be open about their mental health issues for the first time with friends and family. I received feedback from other people that reading stories on Mindshackles had helped them make changes in their own lives.

It was then that I consciously became a sales person. I began to understand that selling is about solving a problem. It’s easy if you believe in your product. I know knew that my writing and photography could help people feel less alone and start to find solutions to issues in their own lives.

I began to understand that selling is about solving a problem. It’s easy if you believe in your product. Click To Tweet

Selling is hard if you don’t believe

As a teenager I had a job selling double glazing one summer. We had to go through the phone book and call people. We were packed into a dingy room with no windows trying to create leads for a few pounds an hour.  I was trying to pester people to make appointments they didn’t need for a product they didn’t really want to buy. I was rubbish and half-hearted  because I didn’t believe in what I was doing. I walked out of that job after about two weeks I don’t think I even bothered to collect my (measly) pay.

Selling is easier if you believe in the product. Whether it’s a physical product. An idea or service or if you are the product.

Sharing is caring

I have interesting ideas about society and education and I have learnt how to manage mental ill health and create a more meaning full life for myself. I’m still learning but my ongoing journey can help others who are interested in similar things. So I share my ideas.  My ideas and my world view solve a problem for some people. Not everybody but definitely some. They read what I write. They listen to what I say. They give me a job or ask me to speak or to write or consult.

We can see keeping our work to ourselves as being humble but what if it’s being selfish?

We can see keeping our work to ourselves as being humble but what if it’s being selfish? Click To Tweet

If you’d discovered the key to cancer would you keep it to yourself or share it with everybody you met.

“But Iesha I don’t have the cure to cancer.” No, neither do I but you do have a solution for somebody. Maybe you taught a great lesson that will be useful for another teacher in your department.

Perhaps you had an insight that will help other leaders in your organisation lead their teams better.

Maybe you have a product that can remove a problem for a certain subset of people.

If so, you are a salesperson.

Stop being shy and use your idea, product or creation to improve somebody’s life.


Enjoyed reading this blog post? Subscribe for future ones  you’ll also get a free copy of my ‘9 Lessons for unexpected leaders’ pdf.

If you are a school leader who feels like you don’t fit the traditional mould, then my book The Unexpected Leader is for you. Read about it and pre-order on Amazon 

*one big thing I’ve omitted in this blog is that sometimes hard work isn’t enough because of structural inequalities faced by certain groups (this report by the social mobility commission gives a good overview). These do need to be addressed but they are not the focus of the article and I’d argue that disadvantaged people need to learn how to sell and market ourselves to create more opportunities until we live in a more equitable world.

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Why we all need to be sales people