Building a Diverse Sales Team Takes Work, but It’s Worth It

It’s good for business, and it’s the right thing to do.

Written by Brian Nordli
Published on Nov. 24, 2020
Building a Diverse Sales Team Takes Work, but It’s Worth It

Andre Walker learned his most valuable management lesson 25 years ago.

At the time, Walker was the head of customer service for the advertising publishing company Standard Rate and Data Service. It was his first managing role, and he had been proud of the team he put together. While he hired great employees, his mentor and the company’s VP of HR posed a question that has stuck with him for the rest of his life.

She asked him to walk around the floor and describe the team that he put together. Walker surveyed the floor and responded that he saw people who were energetic, dedicated go-getters.

“She said, ‘Let’s walk around again and describe the people,’” Walker recalled.

It was then that her point sunk in. He had hired two African-American men and two African-American women in their 20s. People just like him, who reminded him of the people he might see at a wedding or a school reunion.

“She said: ‘Exactly. You need to make your workforce look like the world,’” Walker recalled.

While Walker’s team’s diversity problem differed from that of most sales teams — sales reps disproportionately tend to be white — he sees it as an important illustration of our tendency to hire people who look like ourselves.

“She said: ‘Exactly. You need to make your workforce look like the world.’”

Today, Walker is the director of sales enablement at the technology recruitment firm RK Management Consultants, where he leads a team of three that includes a white Texan in her 50s, a Latinx woman and a white Millennial man.

Walker’s early experience helped him realize how easy it is for a sales team to end up looking just like its manager. It’s for that reason that Walker has walked into countless meetings at other jobs where almost every person in the room is a white man in their 40s, 50s or 60s.

That’s also the driving force behind the lack of diversity on tech sales teams today. Sales has had a history of being dominated by white, cis men. While more women are in sales than most other tech industry specializations, the field remains predominantly white: 79 percent of sales reps are white, according to the 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Report.

As we covered in a previous story on Built In, that lack of diversity can create challenges for people from underrepresented backgrounds in the profession. It can become a self-perpetuating cycle, where underrepresented minority groups often struggle to find managers and mentors who understand their experiences.

The good news is that more companies today recognize the need for diversity and have been outspoken about it. And there are plenty of specific steps sales leaders at all levels can take to create more diverse and inclusive teams.

Tips for Building a Diverse and Inclusive Sales Team

  • Conduct a diversity assessment your team and hiring process. This will help identify areas for improvement and next steps. 
  • Build connections in the community. Taking the time to get to know people outside your usual network will help expand the pipeline of candidates.
  • Create a safe environment for employees to speak up. Microaggression training and employee resource groups can help create a more supportive environment.
  • Train sales reps in management before they lead teams. Success as a rep doesn’t always translate into leadership.  
  • Audit your evaluation process and standardize performance metrics. Clear standards help level the playing field for all employees.


Pink and Green pattern
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Conduct a Diversity Assessment

There are two common myths ModelExpand founder Paria Rajai hears about from managers across all teams when it comes to diversity and inclusion — the myths of the pipeline and of meritocracy.

The former claims that there just aren’t enough candidates from diverse backgrounds, while the latter insists that diverse candidates aren’t qualified for the roles. Neither theory holds water.

If a company is serious about improving its diversity and inclusion, Rajai said the first step is to do an internal diversity assessment and culture survey. The assessment should analyze both the demographic make-up of the team and the hiring funnel. This can help the company identify biases in the hiring process that may be preventing candidates from underrepresented backgrounds from advancing.

“Given this data, you can say, ‘We have an issue with X, Y and Z.’ And that’s going to help you define what diversity is, which will help you set goals for the company.”

Meanwhile, the culture survey includes questions like, “Do you feel like there’s a career trajectory for you?” and “Do you feel like you can have a differing opinion?” When broken down by demographics, those results can help a company figure out where it might be favoring certain groups and what inclusivity work it needs to do, Rajai said.

“Given this data, you can say, ‘We have an issue with X, Y and Z.’ And that’s going to help you define what diversity is, which will help you set goals for the company,” Rajai said.

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When it comes to building those goals, it’s important to set actionable targets and create a deadline to accomplish it, much like building a business plan.

Once a company expands its recruitment network to address areas where it wants to be more diverse, it doesn’t take long to realize there was no pipeline issue, Rajai said. In addition, creating a structured candidate assessment rubric helps companies recognize the flaw in the meritocracy myth.

If that isn’t enough, Rajai said a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study revealed that companies that claim to be merit-based are actually more likely to discriminate because their leaders didn’t take the time to understand how bias was affecting their decision-making.

But none of this will work if the hiring managers don’t get involved.

More on Diversity and InclusionBlack Sales Reps Face Challenges Their Managers Overlook


Sales Leaders Should Get Involved in the Community

While executive leadership can make diversity and inclusion a priority, and recruiters can make an effort to bring in more candidates from underrepresented groups, it’s the sales managers who have the final say in hiring.

That’s why it’s critical for them to partner with the recruiter and take ownership of the goal of fostering diversity and inclusion.

That realization shaped CEO Shelton Banks’ approach toward building the curriculum for rework training, a nonprofit that strives to diversify tech through training sales candidates from Chicago’s underrepresented communities.

“If you really want to be diverse and inclusive, you have to step outside of your box.”

Since sales is predominantly about forming relationships, it’s important for sales leaders to build connections within their own communities. Rather than just train candidates for sales jobs, Banks has sales managers from hiring companies come to rework training and coach the candidates themselves.

This helps the candidates learn the fundamentals of sales, and it breaks down biases a manager might have as they expand their network.

“In volunteering, there will be candidates where they’re like, ‘Oh this person is pretty cool.’ Now they know this person as a human and they look at them through a different lens,” Banks said. “There’s less biased thinking of like, ‘I don’t think this person has potential.’”

It can also be valuable to reach out to other community organizations. Walker said he’s sat in on Women in Tech meetings, attended LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce functions and partnered with the Chicago Urban League.

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For Walker, building a diverse hiring pipeline is all about being curious and learning about different cultures.

“Some organizations have wonderful sales programs, but do you really understand the person you’re working with?” Walker said.

Ultimately, these experiences can introduce people from underrepresented backgrounds to a career in sales that they may not have considered before, and it expands the hiring manager’s understanding of who can be a salesperson.

“If you really want to be diverse and inclusive, you have to step outside of your box,” Banks said. “It’s going to require you to do it more than just during the nine-to-five working hours.”


Blue and Black Design Pattern
Image: Shutterstock

Be Thoughtful About Sales Culture

When it comes to culture, sales teams can be among the most tight knit within a company, thanks to team outings to baseball games, wine-and-cheese celebrations or cold-calling competitions.

Those activities can create the bonds necessary to survive a high-stress environment, where every month is a sprint to meet quota. However, it can also be a double-edged sword leading to an environment that is isolating and breeds microaggressions.

“If you’re not thinking about inclusive culture — from the time that you’re assessing candidates, to the time that you’re interviewing candidates to when they start — people are going to leave.”

Without the proper focus on building an inclusive sales culture, all of that work recruiting diverse candidates is likely to go to waste as employees feel pushed aside and leave the company, said Sonja Gittens-Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at Asana.

“If you’re not thinking about inclusive culture — from the time that you’re assessing candidates to the time that you’re interviewing candidates to when they start — people are going to leave,” Gittens-Ottley said.

To address this, every manager at Asana goes through training for how to handle and address microaggressions. Employees also attend a training led by Conscious Leadership Group to understand how to approach issues related to diversity and inclusion. And the company has resource groups where employees can go for support.

The goal of these steps is to create spaces where employees feel supported and are able to speak out when necessary.

When it comes to celebrations, it’s important to balance the types of activities to appeal to everyone’s preferences. Rajai suggested conducting an anonymous survey to understand what activities motivate each individual. Walker and his team try to celebrate each cultural holiday with food and education to broaden each other’s perspectives.

It’s also worth noting that some challenges are rooted in interactions managers have less immediate control over. Salespeople can encounter microaggressions or overt racism with customers.

Former tech sales rep Jabril Baker, who is Black, told Built In he would often hear overt racist comments on sales calls. In one instance at the deals tech company he worked at, the customer didn’t want to lower prices out of fear that it would invite an “urban” crowd.

Those experiences can exact an emotional toll, which is made even more difficult when there isn’t a space or plan in place to address those situations.

During a discussion with the diversity and inclusion platform Crescendo, Looker Global Head of Diversity Cornell Verdeja-Woodson said it’s crucial for company leaders to know where they draw the line. At a minimum, a sales manager needs to address the situation.

“Silence is an act of acceptance,” Verdeja-Woodson said on the podcast. “Not saying anything doesn’t make you neutral — it makes you part of the problem.”


Take the Time to Understand How Other People Learn

Sales managers often come into rework training thinking they’re great coaches, but over the course of the program, they often learn that they’re not effective as they thought they were.

That’s by design. One of the most important takeaways Banks hopes sales managers receive in his program is that not everyone can be coached the same. Sales processes often rely on repeatability to hit quotas. Developing a blueprint to resonate with prospects and make a sale can be a fast way to grow the organization.

But this can also lead to a situation where feedback and coaching is geared toward individual differences, like critiquing the words a rep uses or the way they speak, rather than on sales strategy. In rework training, managers play an active role in developing the candidates and learn how to adapt their coaching style to resonate with the students.

“When you get to know the individuals, you’re able to see that coaching is done differently,” Banks said. “The most effective managers come through and start to see that maybe they’re not as effective they thought. Then they’ll learn that coaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and they need to adjust for the individual.”

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Banks also recommends changing the way sales managers are hired. In most cases, a successful individual contributor gets thrust into a manager role and is told to teach others how they succeeded. This creates a situation where managers aren’t trained or prepared to bring out the best in each individual.

“When you get to know the individuals, you’re able to see that coaching is done differently.”

Instead, companies should consider moving a high-performer into a hybrid sales lead role, where they are responsible for selling and supporting teammates. If they prove they can help teammates succeed in that position, then they can move into a manager role, Banks said.


Green and Orange Design Pattern
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Create Standard Metrics to Provide Fair Feedback

A lack of diversity can also create a situation where the feedback women or people of color receive is different from that received by white men.

During Banks’ training program, he recalled a competition where students practiced interviews for sales jobs and the training managers provided feedback. One candidate received a perfect score of 50. However, when Banks asked the manager if they’d be prepared to hire the candidate, they said they still had work to do.

“It meant you had no feedback for this person. They did a perfect job,” Banks said. “The lesson to be learned for the volunteer was that you don’t have to change your approach. It doesn’t mean you don’t give feedback because you’re fearful of how it’ll be taken.”

That lack of feedback was a common experience for Banks in tech. Often, when he did hear feedback it would be subjective and negative. A manager needs to take the time to provide fair feedback, both positive and constructive.

“As a sales leader, you want to do an audit of what you are evaluating. Are you favoring certain actions over others?”

This is where a standard evaluation metric that takes into account all of the different values of a successful salesperson comes in handy. The metric removes the role of bias in evaluating a person’s performance and celebrates the skills each person brings, Rajai said.

For example, Rajai said women can be more effective than men at forming relationships with clients and collaborating on business solutions. So at Slack, the sales team celebrated and reinforced employee collaboration, making it a place where women could thrive, she added.

“As a sales leader, you want to do an audit of what you are evaluating,” Rajai said. “Are you favoring certain actions over others?”


Brown pattern
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Promoting Diversity Is the Right Thing to Do

Walker doesn’t have a large team at RK Management Consultants, but he’s always looking for ways each employee can learn something new from their coworkers. Often, he’ll partner employees together for sales competitions, where they can build on each other’s strengths.

This year, he recognized that there was one coworker he hadn’t partnered with before. So, he took the time to understand her background and interests, which happened to be in women in tech and health initiatives. Then, he worked with her on building marketing strategies and sales initiatives to further those causes in tech recruitment.

“The end goal is to increase the bottom line, but it would be so helpful if you had people who were different from each other to exchange ideas and foster growth.”

Those experiences have helped Walker and his team build more effective campaigns and close more deals. That’s the business case for diversity and inclusion.

“The end goal is to increase the bottom line, but it would be so helpful if you had people who were different from each other to exchange ideas and foster growth,” Walker said. “It only makes for a more harmonious sales team.”

But there’s one more argument that’s inherent to Walker’s approach — it’s the right thing to do. Rajai calls this the moral case for diversity, which she said is growing in popularity.

“With Generation Z coming to the workforce, this is a moral issue. They don’t care about the business case and they aren’t interested in coming into companies that are homogenous,” Rajai said. “That moral case is becoming the business case in terms of resonating with employees and consumers.”

Ultimately, it’s on sales leaders to make sure their teams reflect the diversity of the world — not just for the business, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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