Will I Encourage My Daughter into a Sales Career?

As it stands, possibly not.

17 March 2020

In 2017, we wrote an article on our failings around gender diversity.  It was a confession (we only placed one female candidate into sales leadership that year) and a public commitment to do more.

We’ve wanted to write an update for a while. Honestly, I think we were waiting to have “arrived” at a more polished state of diversity. The horizon kept slipping out of reach. In the end we decided there is value in transparency, in the process and in getting some feedback from our network. This is a snapshot of our progress and what we see in our sector. But it is mostly an opportunity to ask difficult questions.

Our headhunting firm fills sales and commercial leadership positions. The roles are extremely well paid and influential and it is important men and women have an equal shot. Have our diversity efforts made a difference? We have placed more women into sales and commercial leadership roles. We’re at about 20%.

As headhunters, we are uniquely positioned to have bird’s eye view of the hiring practises of dozens of organizations. We are privy to private conversations with their leadership and backers. Many are gunning to improve diversity, but the reality lags behind. The following thoughts are the product of hundreds (maybe thousands) of conversations. It isn’t meaningful data, but I hope it offers some interesting insights.

The Fear Veneer

I run my own business so I don’t need to manufacture a veneer of diversity outcomes to appease shareholders, boards or consumers. I’m conscious that the companies I work with are often held hostage by PR constraints. In reality systemic improvements around diversity might be flawed or clumsy and transparency could leave them exposed to legal recourse. They fear reputational exposure. With the pressure to look polished (and mistakes swiftly buried) can companies – or people – learn and evolve?[1] I think this can hold back genuine progress.

[1] Matt Syed’s book Black Box Thinking covers this beautifully.

The Nature of the Sales Beast

Female sales leadership is woefully under-represented – even taking into account that far fewer women start sales careers. It is inescapable that much of this is to do with family life and flexibility.

To reach sales leadership women need to run the gamut of demanding middle management roles – often coinciding with a relentless stage of family life. Imagine a 50+ hour week, ambitious personal sales targets, 3+ inexperienced direct reports, no administrative Salesforce support, an evolving product in a competitive market, regional travel, no flexible hours, no working from home, 24/7 emails from global clients, a teething baby, a nanny on PAYE with a broken arm, a husband making partner somewhere and a hefty London mortgage.

The roles we headhunt for are beyond this stage, at the top of the pyramid. They afford more flexibility and autonomy, but so few women make it there. Where do the others go?

I used to think sales was the ideal career for women because numbers do the talking. Unconscious bias loses ground to data. My background is economics and it makes sense at every level to get women into well-paid roles. But does the sales ladder have rungs missing if women want a family? Are they being set up to fail?

A head of HR at a large software firm recently asked me what we were doing around diversity. It is one of the only times I’ve been asked by a prospective client. On reflection, I wish I had pressed them about what real steps they take to promote women in sales leadership because any hope for change lies with employers.

I could caveat this post with a thousand qualifications to avoid offending anyone, but I’ll just do one; I hope it hasn’t offended, it was written with the best of intentions to seek solutions and expose what we have repeatedly come across. We want to improve too so please don’t hold back if you have comments.

I leave you with a galvanizing quote by Edmund Burke. Sales leadership is dominated by men – particularly in technology. So, if you are a man in a position of influence in this area, please don’t be tempted to skirt the issue:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

We would love to hear from you. Please email ryan@herringbonesearch.com privately or please leave a comment below.

A small tip if you are looking to attract more woman (and men for that matter) – if you offer flexible working be very specific from the outset as to what it looks like day-to-day – whether it is an advert online or in recruiting conversations and interviews day-to-day. If people get in at 7am but leave at 3.30pm – and it’s not frowned upon or even noticed, then say.