When speaking with business school students, I have heard an assumption made over and over that sales is for men. This is true. Sales teams do largely look the same and are mostly staffed by men. There is a perception that because sales (especially in sectors such as FMCG, automobiles, and durables) is considered tough where one has to rough it out, and is therefore challenging, it is not a top option for women executives starting their business careers. Many perceive these to be societal challenges too, such as the assumption that women cannot travel as much or as frequently as sales jobs demand and therefore do not progress up the ladder.
The key is to understand the “for men” mindset and shift it, not just in sales, but across the organization, and sales teams need to be built with intentionality.
Why is this an important priority? Diverse and inclusive companies directly fuel innovation and growth through the richness and value that multiple viewpoints bring in. Gender diversity in sales surely drives this, which I have seen firsthand. I have also experienced greater cultural cohesion in gender diverse teams, which ultimately helps us advance the organization’s goals and drives new routes to growth.
I am a firm believer that the benefits of doing this should be clear for organizations. However, the reality is daunting. I have heard industry leaders speculate that women comprise only 15% or less of supervisory level sales (data as given by a few Industry leaders). This clearly needs to shift, and organizations need to have a clear game plan on how to successfully bring in the right set of talent and capabilities.
As I look at it, the following ’3 Shifts’ are key to building a gender-focused sales organization -
Driving belief in openness to choosing a career path you are passionate about
Last year, I was at a pre-placement talk at one of the leading business schools in India and amidst a host of questions, one student remarked, “We had a guest speaker from a large FMCG organization who mentioned that sales is not the best profession for women. Is it true?” I was taken aback. How do we help people believe that gender should not restrict us in choosing a sector or profession that we wish to pursue?
This belief will come when the organizations and Hiring Managers genuinely act upon an understanding that gender diversity is a huge advantage to any organization, both in terms of pushing the business forward and creating an inclusive culture.
I have stumbled upon a classic paradox where a lot of organizations and Hiring Managers believe that their organization needs the right diversity ratio, yet when it comes to recruitment they remark upon the lack of women executives at the supervisory level in sales, and a lack of interest by new joiners to get into sales.
For me, this is the intentionality challenge. Of course, there is a dearth of women managers/supervisors in Sales and therefore the pool doesn’t exist. So, what do we do? The answer is "Get intentional".
Let me give a few examples of intentionality, some of which I have used in the recent past, with effective results.
- Looking beyond the industry: At times, we are fixated on hiring managers from the same industry and are apprehensive about reaching out for talent from other/similar industries. What we need to look at are the right behavioral competencies. Functional competencies can always be built. Organizations and Managers need to break the “same industry” fixation and look out for the right talent from other industries.
- Strong programs for management trainees: Organizations need to get intentional while hiring right at the campus level to build a strong & diverse talent pipeline going forward.
- Working closely with recruitment consultants: Recruitment consultants are the first point of contact for potential hires for many firms. It is important to bring them on board and have them be advocates to potential candidates who fit the behavioral competencies and the culture you want to drive. This will involve a larger pool of candidates, because of the talent crunch I mentioned. For this, hiring teams need to invest time and be completely committed.
- Have a well-balanced interview panel: Including a gender-balanced panel while interviewing also helped provide fresh perspectives on talent fitment and technical proficiency.
Employee support and welfare
Once a hiring pipeline is established, an organization will have to make a few conscious changes and need to work arduously and think out of the box, to create and reinforce policies to support employees in sales. This includes updating employee safety policies, upgrading security infrastructure, and providing an option of flexible working as well as leveraging technology to integrate systems between integrating systems across suppliers, inventory management and distributor management. Another functional benefit organizations can provide to overcome societal barriers and support work-life balance is expanding on location-agnostic roles for sales.
Organizations must also work with women employees through mentorship to help them build a career path in sales.
I do believe that Intentionality & Belief are going to be the game changers for building a gender diverse organization, and that while many of these learnings can be applied across functions, these are clear steps that we can start with to create an inclusive environment for sales in organizations across India.