Claire Edmunds: the answer to greater diversity is inclusiveness

Claire Edmunds

The business case for diversity is increasingly understood by business leaders. Strong research underlies the promise that diversity can bring many benefits to an organisation, through increased performance, innovation and competitive advantage.

Employees tend to be happier and perform better in diverse teams. Top talent is attracted to more diverse companies. Diversity of thought makes for better decisions, and better customer alignment. The brand halo benefits of supporting diversity are potentially huge.

Diversity in business is in any case becoming a fact of life. Globalisation and economic growth in developing nations are two powerful drivers. Others include advances in technology, the ageing population and increasing numbers of women in leadership roles, all suggesting that, in the future, our workplaces are set to become more diverse. These macro-trends will only increase the diversity of customer groups.

Buying decisions will continue to move away from autocratic towards consensus-based decision-making. In response, sales organisations need to plan, to align their sales teams to these more diverse buyer groups, and to lead the change to take advantage of the performance gains.

Yet, as a profession, sales is not that diverse. An EY Study ‘Competition, coexistence or symbiosis?’ identified the average sales leader as a 44-year old male who has been in the role for 4.66 years; only 14% of CSOs are women. He holds a Master’s (37%) or a Bachelor’s degree (36%) and very few have any sales-specific qualifications. Of course we do not all reflect the average sales leader but we could certainly benefit from increasing the breadth of participation at this level.

How, then, can our profession tackle diversity? Should we wait to have quotas imposed upon us from above in an effort to increase headcount in under-represented groups? Or should we nod enthusiastically at the worthy efforts of D&I groups and then resume our business as usual?

We do either of these things at our peril.

A third, and potentially more successful, approach is to see the question not in terms of mere headcount, but to think instead about inclusiveness. Diversity is not about counting people, it is about celebrating differences and developing talent.

We will only be able to maintain a truly diverse sales community by creating an inclusive sales community. This requires individual sales leaders to create an inclusive sales climate.

As a profession we have to distance ourselves from outdated and stereotypical sales cultures, which revolve around unprofessional – even unethical – sales practices and alpha male, boys’ club behaviour.

How sales leaders can create an inclusive and high-performing sales culture is the question that the APS D&I group has set itself to answer. We see this as one of the fundamental questions that faces the sales profession today.

The APS wants to increase the number of sales leaders who are genuinely curious about the business advantages of increased diversity. We want to encourage them to take personal accountability for how to deliver these within their own sales organisations.We believe that if we arm sales leaders with insight and recommendations, they can start to engage with D&I teams on their own terms, making requests for support and driving the agenda.

We are all embarking on a journey to understand how to increase diversity in sales. We appreciate this won’t happen overnight, but steps are already being taken to raise the awareness with impressive results; Royal Mail shifted the dial and increased D&I awareness from 76% to 92% within 12 months and other sales organisations are implementing initiatives on both large and small scale budgets – and although currently in their infancy, they are expected to deliver improvements in sales performance over the coming years.

The APS is committed to raising the profile of these D&I programmes and of successful individuals who have promoted inclusivity, so it can start to develop recommendations and best practice which deliver real results – we welcome any examples of best practices to share with the sales community.

The APS has amongst its membership some of the cleverest minds and a vast wealth of experience. As we seize the opportunity to consider ethics and professional development, we must also embrace this chance to build a truly inclusive profession that welcomes and celebrates diversity.

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