How to Jump From a Door-to-Door Salesman to a Fortune 1000 Sales SVP

Jim Norton
Jim Norton



jim-norton-aol-senior-vice-president-of-salesYou're in sales and you want to accelerate in your career fast. You're hitting monthly quota and ready to start making more money stat. But despite your endless confidence ... you're not ready yet.

As the head of advertising sales for AOL, I see countless young sales professionals eager to make their name in the field. They’re smart, motivated, and willing -- but they’re also all making the same big mistakes in their craving for the fast track. 

I get it. I've been there. But take a step back and realize that in order to speed up, you need to slow down.

I started off my career in an old-school sales job, selling office equipment for Pitney Bowes. My next job: banging on doors, selling 60-second radio ads. These gigs didn’t earn me barrels of money. They didn’t give me exposure to executives. They didn't even look particularly impressive on my resume. What they did, however, was give me a rock-solid foundation of training and experience -- without which, the rest of my career would not have been possible.

The point is, now is not the time to try to become a superstar. Now is the time to build the strongest foundation possible. In short: Learn as much as you can in your twenties and then earn as much as you can in your thirties and forties. This post goes into how I did just that.

Look for a job with the most training, not the most compensation.

Find a company that will invest in you. Immerse yourself in their training. When I started at Pitney Bowes, they put me in a classroom for six months and taught me sales fundamentals: how to listen, how to prepare for a call, how to present, and how to close.

Today, I have more than 500 direct reports and am responsible for more than $1 billion in annual revenue. And, it may sound cliché, but it’s true: The fundamentals I learned 23 years ago as an office equipment salesman have stuck with me to this day.

So sure, your friend may get a head start on you by taking a bigger paycheck from a company that doesn’t train him. Just trust that in time, your preparation will pay off. It’s like racecar driving. Yeah, he could get a few laps out in front of you by skipping the pit crew, but by stopping to equip yourself with the necessary tools, you’ll soon be cruising by on a full tank of gas and fresh tires. 

Experience leads to selling, not constant job changes.

I see too many Millennials impatiently jumping from company to company every 18 months, in pursuit, I suppose, of "experience."

I have nothing against learning about different industries or exposing yourself to new environments, but I get nervous when I see people bouncing around more than every 2-3 years, particularly if they aren’t actually advancing.

My advice: Get hands-on experience selling. Take all of those lessons you’ve learned from all of your training and, you know, use them. And use them again. And again. And again. Eventually, sure, go ahead and make a move. Try sharpening those skills in a different industry. But ultimately, the way to move up in sales is to get really good at selling. And the only way to get really good at selling is to sell.


I started off selling office supplies. I moved to radio advertising. Then television. Then new media at Google, and now AOL. These are wildly different industries, and yet, the sales fundamentals I learned back at Pitney Bowes have been a constant.

Good salespeople can listen and understand the needs of their customers. They are continuously curious about their customer’s business. Learn how to prepare, present, and provide great customer service. Keep that focus on service -- making it easy and enjoyable wins you business and always will -- no matter what industry you’re in.

So don’t worry so much about the pace of your career advancement. Understand that intelligence and drive are no substitutes for experience. And above all, trust that investing in yourself now will give you the fuel you need to find and -- just as importantly -- stay on the real fast track.

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