The sales industry has long been dominated by White men, but Donna DeBerry, vice president of Global Inclusion for software company Seismic, is an advocate who is actively challenging that.
The fight for greater diversity and inclusion in sales is nothing new, and many chief diversity officers have already laid the groundwork for change, she acknowledged. But a gap remains between the high achievement of marginalized folks in sales, and the opportunities they're given for growth and promotion.
Women are underrepresented in business-to-business sales, for example, yet are more likely to achieve their quotas, a 2019 study from Xactly revealed.
So, what gives? An opportunity gap, according to DeBerry. Below are recruiting imperatives she recommended for business leaders who want to put their money where their DEI statement is and, specifically, support Black and brown folks in sales.
Tip #1: Destroy the idea of what a salesperson ‘should' look like
"We really need to start removing our biases from the recruiting process and start burying these old stereotypes of what we think salespeople should look," DeBerry told HR Dive. In practice, this looks like HR professionals considering people without college degrees as candidates and focusing more on the "innate ability to connect with people."
DeBerry also brought up the need for more people in sales who speak English as a second language, have accents or speak different dialects, like African American Vernacular English. For too long, sales leaders have been nervous about the way certain Black and brown candidates or co-workers speak. DeBerry said those worries are the result of bias; clients and customers won't be at some great disadvantage by interacting with people who sound different than they do.
Tip #2: Be more thoughtful when crafting job descriptions
Along with dumping college degree requirements, DeBerry recommended recruiters scrub out gendered language from sales descriptions. For example, words like "aggressive" and "rockstar" may serve as dog whistles for gender bias, sources previously told HR Dive.
Instead of more "male-dominated language," talent teams can speak more to the "growth mindset" they're looking for in potential candidates.
Tip 3: Embrace accountability
Lean into accountability. "We can't show up at the table unless people are having authentic and transparent conversations. I think that's what's really critically important — when it stops being the elephant in the room and we just say what it is, own it and admit it," DeBerry said. They recounted how Seismic has embraced accountability by joining a coalition of companies advocating for DEI in sales.
The company's CEO, Doug Winter, "is not only putting his money where his mouth is. He's looking at this as an industry-related issue, with an industry-related solution," DeBerry said. CEOs who think like that, with inclusive leadership? They bring their competitors together."
Tip 4: Invest in a diverse leadership pipeline
"Step up your recruiting initiatives," DeBerry said, but be intentional about it. Go to historically Black colleges and universities and join communities that are diverse. "The one big thing that we do is we've created this bottom-up and top-down approach. It's okay, if you start at the bottom — you know, start hiring people and sales development rep and business development rep roles, and then build this pipeline of leaders."
Tip #5: Dismantle the old boys club
Part and parcel of promoting women and people of color up the corporate ladder is revamping the informal ways employees are allowed to campaign and vie for top spots.
For example, DeBerry said, carefully weigh the use of sports analogies and team references that permeate sales conversations — are they culturally resonant for everyone in the room? If business deals are being brokered at happy hour, consider the employees with kids who can't hang out at the bars downtown.
"It's those type of things. It's always been the way that we communicate and speak to each other — this kind of ‘old boy' system. Sales has always been a field where it's been the guys promoting the guys and the way [the leaders in the industry] interact with women or people of color, we come in with these biases on what we think that people may or may not possess as far as skills are concerned."
DeBerry issued a challenge to White, male corporate leaders: Don't just promote people who went to the same colleges or have the same interests. Get to know the people who are different than you, learn all about their culture and respect it, give them the opportunity to shine and excel.