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Women Of The C-Suite: Melanie Testa Hallenbeck On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A C-Suite Senior Executive

Don’t just take the job for the title. You need to consider what else is the job doing for you. I once had an opportunity to be in the C-suite at another company, but I was more interested in growing my own team.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Testa Hallenbeck.

Melanie is the Chief Growth Officer at Elevate. Melanie spent 13 years at WageWorks, taking it from a venture-backed startup to IPO to acquisition by HealthEquity. During this time, her team was directly responsible for generating over 25% of company-wide revenues through over 100 partnerships and large Fortune 100 relationships. Between WageWorks and joining Elevate, Melanie led growth at BenefitExpress to a successful strategic acquisition.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thanks so much for having me. I was a single mother at ADP in the 90’s working in client service so I could afford a master’s degree–ADP was offering to pay for education. I did it for a while, but it wasn’t enjoyable because I realized that my personality wasn’t a great fit for a desk job. I knew I had to try something new.

There were other job openings at ADP, so I applied for the implementation role where I would be in charge of setting up client programs. I got the gig and shortly thereafter, started to travel with the salesperson and meet with clients to start implementations–I loved being on the road meeting with clients. I then decided to apply for the sales consultant position, which involved doing demonstrations and talking about implementations. My boss said, “Hey, I think I see something in her from a sales perspective, why don’t we give her an opportunity? We’ll give her five accounts that nobody has been able to get and if she gets any of them, we’ll give her a bonus.” I think the bonus was about $10,000 — which at the time to me, as a single mom with two kids, seemed like a million dollars. I ended up closing a large sale for ADP — and the rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Early on, when I was starting out in my career at Benefits Express, we were actively selling ourselves and we had to decide if we were going to go the private equity route or if we would approach a strategic buyer. My boss at the time invited me to sit in on these meetings. It was a great growth opportunity because I had to think about how to position myself to sell a company — not just a service. The entire C-suite was not even involved in these meetings, just me and two other people. I often think about opportunities like this one that I would not have had if I didn’t take the right job. You always have to look for that opportunity to grow.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My very first cold call landed me an opportunity at a biotech company where I had to sell a brand new product that had no clients. I was so excited because it was my first cold call experience and I was lost in the moment. Not only was I not even an established salesperson, but I was also selling something that was not even a full-service product yet, so I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was accurate–normally, when you buy the product you get the service too. A seasoned salesperson would be prepared and know exactly how the system worked before they talked to a prospect. This could have become a huge problem, but luck was on my side that day: the prospect ended up just wanting the product, not the service, so it didn’t really matter. I dodged a bullet and it was definitely a learning lesson for me — it’s all a team effort. People buy from people but when it’s a large sale you need support and knowledge from your more experienced colleagues!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s actually an amazing tale. When I took my first sales job, I didn’t know how to cold call. In the 1990s there weren’t a lot of women in sales, so I bought a book called “Cold Calling for Women” by Wendy Weiss. I decided to call Wendy (I found her number in the yellow pages!) and asked her if I could hire her to teach me how to cold call based on the premise of her book. She agreed and helped me with my ADP story notecards. During my very first cold call, I got an appointment that led to a sale, which happened to be a very meaningful and large sale for ADP. I owe a lot to her because she was willing to help a stranger.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m both a very high-energy and spiritual person, so to help relieve stress I like to meditate as well as ride my Peloton. I also like to listen to music before big meetings or important talks for motivation. In the early 2000s when I was at ADP, a salesman got sick right before his demo in front of 150 people at the Pepsi Amphitheater. The solution architect reluctantly asked me to step in and I told him I’d be fine. I knew my product so I was confident. If you believe in your product, it should be very easy. When you’re talking to people about what you know, then you aren’t selling to them. Today, I still like to imagine myself in that meeting room.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Direction, inspiration and motivation often come from the top, before flowing through an organization. If you want your business to thrive, you need to be inclusive of the kinds of people who you want to engage, both in the short and long-term. That’s why a diverse executive team matters. It influences the rest of the organization.

In sales, you need a diverse workforce to be successful. When evaluating who you are selling to, your messaging should resonate with the people you are reaching out to, no matter the product or industry you are working in. This mindset of inclusivity is key in attracting new employees with new thoughts, different experiences, and fresh points of view. The number one thing I focus on is making sure I build my team with people who have done a variety of things in different roles and industries. This is how you break new ground in the name of innovation and progress.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

You need a thoughtful and responsible approach to ensure that you are fostering an equitable society — in business, government, education, and more. In my business experience, there is often a struggle between hiring a candidate for a job–and hiring the RIGHT candidate for a job. The former is often the easier, quicker route, especially these days when it’s even harder to find employees — but in the long run, it’s really not. Doing it right for long-term success requires more forethought and the process will likely take longer, but you must dedicate the time and effort. If you keep the question, “Who will make the company a better place?” in mind, you will stay on the right track and make the most informed choices.

When I started out in sales, there were barely any women — at the company I worked for and in the industry overall. The irony at the time was that we were mostly selling to women, so it would have made sense to have more women working there. No one knows women better than a woman herself, so the company should have spent more time making sure they had the right team. Studies also show that people are more likely to like someone who is similar to them. If the person you are selling to likes you, then the chances of you getting that deal increases significantly.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives are the face of the company. We oversee all day-to-day activity within the organization. We help set company culture while making sure the company is profitable and following protocols and policies. We also create plans (both short-term and long-term) for how to reach our goals. If we don’t meet them — then we figure out how to pivot to get to the next level.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

People always say that the CEO and executives only care about the bottom line and revenue but that’s not true. At one of my former jobs, employees referred to the executive board as the ivory tower because the doors were always closed and nobody was attainable. Here at Elevate, it’s 100% about culture and how to keep talented employees–that’s the culture and mindset we want. Any good executive would want to put their employees first. If you don’t treat people well, you won’t have good people or a good company.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think I’ve been told “You’re too emotional” many times, to which I respond, “Well, are you emotional enough?” How is it “too emotional” when you are reacting to something you feel strongly about?

I also think that there are a lot of women who are not paid fairly compared to their male counterparts. Someone who once worked for me as part of a company we acquired had her contract modified without her input–her stock was diminished so she would get paid less. And she accepted it. Shortly thereafter, she became angry and said “my male counterpart would not have done that.” I pointed out to her that some females in the same position would not have accepted it either–including myself. Women need to make sure they stand up for themselves, not sell themselves short and show businesses what they are worth.

The first nonprofit board I was on said they only took ex-CEOs as board members, and to be on the nonprofit board you had to pay. However, I pointed out that having a salesperson on the board would be a great way to help them raise money through fundraising. I also pointed out that the overall male to female CEO ratio is not even, decreasing the overall opportunity for women to join executive boards. I was granted a seat!

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I knew coming into a startup that I would be asked to do anything on any given day and that working 9 to 5 was going to be an unlikely schedule. However, everyone on the Elevate team is amazing, we are like a close-knit family. Our product is innovative, so it’s been fulfilling to hear that other people are excited about it and want a demo. I knew we had an amazing product, but I didn’t expect it to pick up as quickly as it did.

Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A lot of people get into it for the wrong reasons–they picture the executives who pull up at the airport with someone carrying their bags. Other people get into management when they are not prepared because they want it on their resume or to be able to brag about what they think is an impressive title. I will never hire a person who just wants “a seat at the table.” Everyone needs to earn their way there. Specifically, someone who is driven, hardworking, and willing to put in the time and effort to help build the company to the next level.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Never settle. Never take a job, client or whatever it may be, because it’s comfortable. This will foster repetition which ultimately does not challenge people to do great work. If you can demonstrate a healthy balance of organization and process along with risk taking and intuitive decision-making, you will be able to inspire your teams while maintaining institutional integrity.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’ve done some nonprofit work in Connecticut to help raise money, specifically for children so they could go to camp or receive school supplies. I contribute locally. Anytime there’s an opportunity to coach a woman or empower women to do better, I love to take the time to do that as well. I always look for any opportunity to give back.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I wish someone told me that you have to make the hard decisions, especially with family and work. You also have to find the perfect balance between the two but it’s okay to pick work sometimes and family the other times. When I have hard decisions, I often like to create a pros and cons list for myself.
  2. Don’t just take the job for the title. You need to consider what else is the job doing for you. I once had an opportunity to be in the C-suite at another company, but I was more interested in growing my own team.
  3. Always look for the growth opportunity in anything that you’re doing. How do you make yourself better? It might be tempting to take a higher-paying job, but growth is always the most important thing. I always made sure I took the job where I had growth opportunities and it ended up in my favor. I was able to get opportunities and experiences I would never have gotten had I gone for the title or money.
  4. Education is not always necessarily needed. In the U.S., we often require people to go to college and we think it’s the right place for many people. I wish someone had educated me on what else I could have done. What classes could I have taken? What trade schools could I have attended?
  5. Be a good leader and the rest will follow. You can be great at what you do and you might want your team to hit X sales by the end of the quarter. However, the most important thing is to make sure you are a good leader so that your team feels supported, empowered and safe. This will encourage them to work harder and the rest will follow.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s crucial, and one that is very close to my heart: child hunger. If a child is hungry and malnourished, then that child has no chance to achieve their full potential. Then, not only does that child suffer, but so does society overall. I feel there needs to be increased focus on this issue from the government, to ensure that children are receiving consistent, healthy meals — be it through school programs, community centers, or wherever they can be most effectively reached. I have worked with non-profit organizations on this issue and will continue to focus on it whenever and wherever I can.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Comfort and growth cannot coexist.” Many of my salespeople had been in a sales job for a long time. They were doing the same thing because it worked for them for many years. I would tell them that they needed to break out of their comfort zones–otherwise, they would never grow. They’d just be comfortable. I often tell my daughter that she’s never going to grow if she doesn’t do something uncomfortable.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to sit down with former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I think there are very few women politically that have stood the test of time and were as classy, talented, and educated. I just find her so incredibly smart and so inspiring. I don’t think many could have done what she did.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Charlie Katz

Charlie Katz

Executive Creative Director at Bitbean Software Development

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