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Two diversity myths that every sales leader needs to debunk

By Ryan Barretto / January 14, 2020

As a person of color leading a global sales and customer success team, diversity in tech hits close to home. There aren’t many who look like me at the executive level in most tech companies, and in most organizations, this is more pronounced the higher up you go.

Tiffani Bova, the Global Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce, succinctly summarizes the value of diversity in sales: “If a sales team isn’t diversified, how can it represent or understand the diverse community it’s selling in?”

If we think of the people who comprise our target audience, they span all types of genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. Women, for example, make up over 50% of the U.S. population but only comprise 39% of the sales workforce and hold just 19% of leadership positions in sales.

The numbers don’t look much better when we break down the sales industry by race. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that 78.3% of people working in sales are white. The lack of representation across gender, race and other demographics can lead underrepresented individuals in sales to feel isolated, and even like they don’t belong. And when they also don’t see leadership that looks like them, it can lead to sales professionals questioning their own ability to advance in this field.

When we examine the qualities of what makes a great salesperson, it further solidifies the case for diversifying the sales industry. Emotional intelligence is an essential skill for salespeople who are expected to build relationships with a diverse set of people, influence various stakeholders, and ultimately get buy-in across many different personality types. Research demonstrates that women have greater emotional and interpersonal skills compared to their male counterparts. Negotiating is another quality of a great salesperson; I imagine parents of young children have more experience with this trait than most.

For sales leaders committed to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their organizations, there’s a lot to get done. But, that’s a good thing! Having so much to do means that there’s plenty of opportunity to grow.

I believe that sales leaders want to work on diversity, but many simply don’t know where to start. In particular, I’ve seen two common myths that every leader defaults to when asked about their DEI efforts.

Myth #1: The pipeline of candidates isn’t diverse

For many sales organizations, efforts to diversify stop before they’ve even begun. As resumes and applications come in, it’s clear that the candidate pool itself isn’t very diverse.

Or is it?

Consider how the language used in your job postings might dissuade a minority candidate from applying because they don’t feel qualified. If applications don’t reflect a diversity of backgrounds and identities, it’s time to question how you describe the ideal candidate. Here at Sprout, for example, we dropped the requirement for a degree and created impact-based job descriptions to give candidates a better idea of what they can expect from the role. These descriptions focus on the job responsibilities and experience to be gained at one, three, six and 12 months, rather than the experience applicants are expected to bring to the table.

In an open job posting for an Agency Account Executive, for example, we list out what a candidate can expect to contribute at their three-month mark. From our recent posting, within three months candidates can expect to:

  • Become fully ramped in their role as an Account Executive.
  • Manage a strong pipeline of qualified leads and begin the process of building relationships with key strategic stakeholders.
  • Meet and exceed monthly activity, pipeline and new business metrics.

…and much more.

Where and when a company advertises job openings and hosts recruiting events also matters. Teams should be held accountable for seeking out places where more diverse candidate pools can be found, thereby making opportunities known and accessible. If you consistently host recruiting events at the same universities, for example, it shouldn’t be a surprise when all your inbound applicants look the same year over year. In addition to working with our people team, I’ll spend some time doing my own prospecting to find candidates in my network who fit the profile we’re looking for.

One great example of this in action can be seen with re:work training. A nonprofit founded and led by Sprout Social alumni Harrison Horan and Shelton Banks, re:work training’s mission is to recruit, train and place candidates from underserved communities in tech sales jobs. As sales leaders, we need to be thinking creatively about our recruiting approach and how we train candidates with no previous sales experience.

For people who haven’t been exposed to it, a career in sales can feel out of reach. Those questions of “Do I belong?” or “Am I good enough?” crop up.

Horan knew there were qualified people who could do the work, do it well, and get on a tech sales career path—if only they were introduced to these opportunities. It wasn’t that these potential candidates weren’t seeking job opportunities; they didn’t know those opportunities even existed. Leveling the playing field to make access to jobs in tech sales more equitable requires work. At Sprout, equity means systems-level change and we understand candidates won’t always come to us but rather, we should seek them out and introduce ourselves to potential candidates as an option.

re:work did just that. The program has placed more than 70 candidates in the tech field, and takes in more participants every year. And while re:work operates solely in Chicago, similar programs can be found in other major cities if you look for them.

Myth #2: Diverse workforces are automatically inclusive

SaaStr founder Jason Lemkin recently tweeted that he had asked 40 leaders for help with diversity, and only got one reply. While the response was disappointing, I don’t think Lemkin’s Tweet implies sales leaders don’t care about diversity and inclusion. Rather, I believe most leaders don’t fully understand the task at hand or where to focus their efforts. They know that only 39% of workers in sales are women and the lack of representation is a problem, but how do they begin to tackle the issue?

In addition to improving hiring practices, we also need to consider the environment we’re bringing diverse individuals into. Sales teams don’t always have a great reputation—raise your hand if you’ve ever heard that we’re pushy, manipulative and competitive. Unfortunately, this perception doesn’t create an inviting environment, especially when you consider that candidates may already feel like outsiders.

You can hire the most diverse team in the world, but if your workplace isn’t a place where someone can bring their whole self to work each day, they can’t perform at their best.

There are questions you can ask about your work environment to gauge inclusivity. For example, do you:

  • have resource groups for hires to get support and find mentors that look like them?
  • educate employees on unconscious bias and commit to mitigating bias when speaking to both colleagues and prospective customers?
  • celebrate important milestones for all of your employee populations, such as Black History Month and LGBTQ+ Pride?
  • provide flexibility that allows nursing parents to pump or encourages parents to leave early to pick up their kids?

These are just a few examples from a very long list—one that nobody has in completion. At Sprout, I challenge my sales team leaders to assess their teams and consider what they are missing when it comes to diversity in race, experience and thought. Once identified, I ask where we can find more candidates to fill those deficits and whether or not our current sales culture meets our standards of inclusivity. Compensation and promotion are also important factors when building an inclusive culture. Our sales team leaders regularly review these practices to ensure they are fair and employees are paid consistently based on their work and their seniority.

As I mentioned before, this may sound like a big endeavor. It is. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent. A single step in the right direction is a start. Ideally, it’s the first step of many on the path to a stronger and more successful organization.

Get out of your comfort zone

When it comes to DEI and sales, there is no silver bullet to resolve all of the industry’s problems overnight. Improving racial and gender diversity on sales teams is going to take time—and it’s not always going to be easy.

Sprout’s own DEI leader, Michelle Y. Bess, captures this challenge by emphasizing that “if a company’s diversity work feels comfortable, then they aren’t doing it right”. I think that perfectly sums it up. Diversity work that actually moves the needle is uncomfortable, because the need for it to exist at all is uncomfortable. And for many leaders, admitting that we don’t have all the answers—or even most of the answers—can be difficult.

For those who are unsure where to start, consider Jamie Gilpin’s piece on how marketers can rewrite the book on inclusion. It’s a great example of how we can turn to our colleagues and other leaders in the industry for ideas, and share ours in kind. We can’t complete the work ahead of us alone, nor should we. The important thing is to stop avoiding it and to simply get started.

Ryan Barretto

Ryan Barretto

Ryan Barretto is the SVP, Global Sales at Sprout Social, where he oversees both the Sales and Customer Success organizations. Prior to Sprout, he was the VP of Global Sales at Pardot–a Salesforce company. In his spare time, Barretto keeps busy watching Toronto Raptor Games and/or partaking in princess plays put on by his two daughters.
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