Seona Tully, Hubspot: Unconscious bias, diversity and believing in yourself

Seona Tully, UK country manager, small business & mid market, Hubspot, shares her thoughts on gender diversity in sales.

Seona Tully, Hubspot

You recently conducted research into changing company culture within sales. What were the findings from that study that really stood out to you?

There were a number of statistics that stood out for me – interestingly with conflicting narratives. The report found that 59% of respondents agree that their environment has become less competitive and more collaborative, which has had a positive impact on gender equality in their workplace. This shows a massive step forward towards workplace inclusion.

However, whilst attitudes in the report were positive, the percentage of women offered financial bonuses has dropped from 41% to 33% since the beginning of the pandemic, while the percentage has only dropped 1% for men, down to 56%.

What is quite clear from the findings of this report is that, although colleagues may feel like they are well supported, there are still underlying biases that need to be addressed, in order to ensure the changes in company culture are inclusive for all.

What kind of impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on sales teams and company culture?

I truly believe that the future of sales is remote. Before COVID-19 touched down in our communities, the transition to fully remote sales teams had already begun across industries, and around the globe. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, remote selling is here to stay– and for good reason. Practically every aspect of your sales organisation will need to become more digitally savvy in order to stay relevant (and cost-effective). Managers will need to learn how to coach and manage remotely by cultivating inclusive and collaborative virtual environments, sales team leaders will use new software to recruit and train new team members, and sales representatives will need to adapt to innovative sales technology in order to be in a position to drive future success.

I think the most significant impact that will have a long term effect on company culture is this shift to remote working, which has changed hiring patterns. Our report showed that 16% of companies are less focused on location when it comes to hiring employees as a result of the shift towards remote working, with some sales teams removing geographic requirements altogether, which will allow candidates of all backgrounds and geographical locations to join a company. This, coupled with a very active focus on inclusivity, will eventually create a more diverse and equitable workforce.

In what way do you feel the sales environment has become less competitive and more collaborative, and how is this impacting gender equality in the workplace?

The pandemic has taken a toll on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and the result is that sales teams have become more collaborative and supportive – with 17% of respondents to our research noticing more support for employees.

Our research shows that 22% of salespeople feel 2020 increased feelings of trust between employees and employers, and that’s a statistic that I hope continues to increase. In 2020, employees looked to their employers for support and timely, trusted information. That increased sense of transparency and trust will, I believe, make companies more attractive to candidates and keep employees more engaged.

Our research has revealed that the overwhelming majority (76%) of respondents feel these changes have made it easier for colleagues to balance work with family or personal life requirements. Unfortunately, the pandemic has disproportionately affected women and many have been forced to make tough decisions to stay home to care for their families over having a career. My hope is that the more employers can build flexibility for balance into their culture; we’ll be able to bring women back into the workforce in the future. .

Why do you think gender imbalance still persists in sales, and what do you think companies should be doing to address this?

According to the Gartner State of Gender Diversity in Sales report, 74% of female respondents and more than half of male respondents saw their organisation’s sales culture as a male-dominated, which would explain why our results for the UK found the average sales workplace is 62% male and 38% female.

These statistics are, unfortunately, not new information. There are a lot of reasons that could lend to the gender imbalance in the sales industry – not having an inclusive culture, lack of opportunities for women at a young age to see a potential career in sales, the stigma around needing dominant skills to be successful, and more.

The truth is, the issue isn’t that women are unable to succeed in sales roles. In fact, research shows that women salespeople often outperform men. To close the gender gap, companies need to focus on diversity-focused recruiting, female mentorship programs, better coaching and development training, and more promotion opportunities.

Why do you think females working in sales are still less likely to be offered financial bonuses than males?

The short answer is – unconscious biases still permeate sales departments. For instance, our report showed that 23% of female employees were incentivised with vouchers compared to just 8% of their male colleagues. Not only that, but women were also twice as likely to be offered a holiday as a bonus compared to men.

The assumption that women will prefer additional holiday or vouchers, instead of money, suggests underlying biases that many would argue are a reflection of society’s stereotype of women.

Is there anything male sales people could be doing to better support their female colleagues?

The inequalities highlighted in the report need to be challenged by everyone, not just male colleagues. The first step salespeople can take to help challenge inequality is to attend an unconscious bias training, which will help them uncover and unlearn the potential bias they still have at work.

Aside from this, salespeople must, if not already, be making a conscious effort to challenge any differences in behaviour towards colleagues of different genders – and though we’re talking about a male-female imbalance, this also applies to transgender or non-binary colleagues – inclusivity should be for all.

What was it like for you starting out in sales and working your way up to sales director at HubSpot? Were there any particular challenges you had to overcome?

When I finished university I was hired to work on the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program. The role gave me the opportunity to interview top Irish CEOs for a few months each year and understand how they scaled their business, where they failed along the way and what they attributed to their success. I was also lucky enough to be inspired by many female entrepreneurs who were part of that program.

Following a transition into sales and having worked successfully as an individual contributor for a number of years I made the move to sales manager. This was the biggest challenge in my career. The skills that make you a great sales rep are not the same as those which make you a great manager. The role of the sales manager is to help your team develop a consistent process, coach them to excel across the required skills and create an inclusive environment where the team collaborate and succeed together.

At the beginning I struggled with coaching. I actively engaged in deals to help reps reach their number or tried to help ‘save’ deals which were going south. Once I realised that I needed to coach reps and enable the team to set themselves up for success, things began to flourish.

What advice would you give to any women considering a career in sales?

Sales is a wonderful career for women. As both a working mum and a woman in sales I feel that I have control over my career path. Sales is a merit-based profession. Therefore, I get both promoted and compensated based on results and impact. It also offers great flexibility as a parent.

The advice I would give to any women considering a career in sales is to make an active choice to believe in yourself. Work with mentors who can help you develop your skills. You don’t know what you’re capable of until you push yourself outside your comfort zone. It helps to build both skills and belief in what you can achieve.

Likely there will be some failure along the way but fail fast and learn from the experience. Finally when you advance in your career, ensure that you dedicate time and energy into helping others to grow their careers. Be an advocate for the women around you and coming after you.

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