What we think | Practitioners Perspectives

How A Caring Sales Leader Is Using Coaching To Improve Team Culture

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Practitioner:

Sarah Bowden

Digital Sales Director - Microsoft Australia & New Zealand
Sarah Bowden is the Digital Sales Director at Microsoft and leads the teams in Australia and New Zealand. Sarah moved to Microsoft after spending 11 years in Fuji Xerox as the National Business Development Manager. At Microsoft, Sarah rose from a Corporate Account Manager role where she was handling 50 Government accounts to being the SMB lead. She has also been instrumental in establishing the business’s One Commercial Partner Strategy. Sarah is a people leader and loves developing and nurturing talent.
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You have made some strategic transitions in your career. Tell us about some of those inflection points that drove those transitions.

I don’t know about strategic, but it was more a feeling that I was on the wrong path. When I came out of University, I joined a bank in London in a management accounting role. I wanted to be in a bank, but I didn’t want to be in a management accounting role. And I realized that the kind of people I was working with and the type of role I was doing was quite repetitive. Month on month it was the same processes and I got bored very quickly and felt it wasn’t a role that I could be creative in. I came to New Zealand and worked in PwC in the same role, but in finance. And then I moved to Fuji Xerox into a management accounting role again. And the pivot for me – was when my cousin died suddenly. She was only 28 and none of us saw that coming. It triggered in me that life is so short, and I shouldn’t be in this career, where I get up every morning and I have that Sunday feeling of ‘Oh gosh, I have work tomorrow.’ And I realized I was on the wrong path. So I took myself back to University, and I wanted to learn, be curious and understand what other roles were out there for me. I did a Masters in International Business with Japanese and did my thesis on sales and marketing, and how two different entities come together. And as a result of doing my research, the Director of Marketing at Xerox said to me that I knew more about the organisation that he or anyone else did, so I should join the company. And that was the pivot, and I haven’t looked back since.

Sales seems to have a poor reputation. So, what triggered the interest in sales?

There are two things. Being in finance, I got to see the results. I would look at management accounting results and wonder why one branch was doing better than the other branch. So it got me curious about understanding what was behind that and what was motivating it. Was it the people? Was it different market dynamics? So, there was a curiosity there. I recall this incident when I was a child, where I used to work at a local riding school, and I had to sell pony rides or horse riding lessons to people. And what I found out quite early was that I could sell quite well. Instead of mucking out the horses, the owners put me in the office because they couldn’t believe how well I was doing in terms of selling and booking horses in advance. For example, a mother would come and say, ‘Hi Sarah, little Charlotte wants to ride this pony.’ And I would say, ‘I’m sorry, that pony is gone. But if you pay an advance for two weeks and lock it in, no one is going to take that pony,’ and they would say okay. So the owner would open up the till box, and there’d be all this cash and they would ask me – how did that happen? And I told them that I forward sold all of those rides. So I knew I had it in me and that I could do it. I resonated well with people. When I joined Microsoft and I was assigned a quota, I was not worried about the big number and how I’m going to close it. I ignored that to some extent. And all I thought about is, how do I serve my customers? And how can they use me to help them achieve what they wanted to achieve in their organisations?

Being clear and providing positive affirmations that the team member can do it, and that you believe in them goes a long way in making the individual believe in themselves.

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How can more women think more like you about sales?

I suppose I would first challenge the thought and ask if it is really a female thing or a male thing. Because I recall a male who came to me and said that he did not want to be a salesperson. In Microsoft, when I first joined, there were more women account managers in my team. There is a natural ability to have that EQ and to be empathetic, to listen, to lean in and to not be a ‘know it all.’ I’m not a technologist. Customers would talk so much about it, and I didn’t even know what the word meant, let alone how I could add value. But having that curiosity, fessing up, and admitting that you don’t know the answer or how you can help, but that you will find out and get back to them, goes a long way. What I’ve experienced in my career is that there are way more women coming back into the workforce after having children. I was connecting with someone this week who had returned from maternity leave. I asked her what she had learned in the last six months, and she said – I’ve learned how not to put myself first and how to put others first, and how I need to be better with time management. So there are so many qualities that women can bring to sales and we’re seeing more and more of it, particularly at Microsoft.

You are in the technology industry. There is so much changing and every day there is something new. How do you stay ahead of the change?

You never do! If you look at some of the products – they release an update every day, which is pages and pages, so you can never keep up. Microsoft has a learning day every month on the second Friday of the month. So, learning time is carved out. I read books; I listen to podcasts. I am not a technologist at all; I don’t know code; I don’t’ have a computer science degree. So that creates a little bit of vulnerability for me because I feel like a fraud sometimes in this role. But what I do is, I take myself out of my comfort zone. And COVID was a trigger for me. I had more time because I was not commuting, so I committed myself to do the Microsoft fundamental exam. There were nine different exams, covering Azure, Modern work, Theorem, ERP power platform, AI, etc. I put myself out there and every quarter I was giving an exam. So I’ve completed all nine of them now. But I failed one of them seven times. I got to the stage where I thought someone was going to call me and  tell me to give up because I’m never going to pass that one. But I kept going and I’ve now passed them all. And it gave me an understanding of what are the capabilities of these products and solutions? What does that now mean in business sense? How could that be a new product or service for a customer? How is it going to reduce costs, complexity, or security? etc. So having that curiosity keeps you up to date. I wouldn’t say I’m ever ahead, but it keeps me up to date.

Your business is large and there are multiple people. Also, in the technology business, you need to look at both depth and range. How do you manage that?

I’ve learned to manage it. Coming from the UK and moving to New Zealand was a real eye opener for me, because in London, you’d have one role and that was it. You stuck to that swim lane, and you didn’t bump into anyone else. But when I moved to New Zealand, I had to wear 15 different hats. Ten different people would have done these jobs in the UK. But I had to get on and do it myself. I created that mindset where I had to think of scale, but at the same time identify what is important, what is the priority and what is important and difficult. I had to look at the metric and identify what I’m good at. To think about how I’m going to prioritize my time and energy to focus on things that are important and if they are difficult, how am I going to help others help me. So, you can’t only focus on one thing because you’re going to create this wave of unsuccessful areas where you’ve not got enough pipeline, or you’ve not got enough opportunities. So, you’ve abandoned customers and competitors have moved into them. So it’s very much an emotion that the team has to balance, and I have to balance. Thinking about the short, mid and long term are motions that are fully on with everything that I do. And it changes based on other people’s priorities and what our core strategy is. But it’s something that I’m good at. And I’ve learned all this because of working in New Zealand.

What have you learned about building other greater leaders and sales teams?

When I moved into a leadership position at Microsoft, I had massive imposter syndrome. I felt I was not good enough and that I don’t belong here. We all have a bit of that. I was leading people at the time in my first leadership role at Microsoft and it had tenure, which was 25 years at Microsoft and that was a bit daunting. But I treated it as an opportunity to identify what every person in my team needed from me? How can I help them be successful? How do I create that psychological safety where they feel I’ve got their back? I’d give them enough safety to try and test and learn and fall over and pick themselves back up again.

What you see is what you get with me. There’s no pretence and I genuinely care. We spend so much time at work and it’s important to me that people see me for who I am, and what I can bring to them. And as I said before, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know everything. And so to surround myself with amazing people is important. The other thing that I  look for in a team member is people who are hungry and who have that aspiration to dig deep and learn and try new things. If you can create that culture, which has psychological safety, and also that innovative ability, where everyone’s got an equal voice, and everyone feels heard, then that’s where the magic happens. And that’s what I try and create in the teams that I lead.

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How are you marrying all that caring with coaching?

I think with COVID, we’ve all accelerated into that caring mode. We check with people if they are okay, and we ask them what’s happening at home? How can I help? How can I support? Etc. We have to balance that with pay, targets, big numbers and achieving what is expected of us. And that is an absolute fine balance. Over the last two years, what I’ve realized is that creating clarity is so important – What is expected of you? What does good look like? What does great look like, and what is stopping you from moving towards great? Being clear and providing positive affirmations that the team member can do it, and that you believe in them goes a long way in making the individual believe in themselves. It creates self-belief that people can or can’t achieve it. Where people can’t, there are so many different scenarios. I look at the last 24 months and there were people who had personal issues like a death in the family or marriage breakups. Having that listening ear and putting the right support in front of our teams and helping them recover is important. We can then lean on the team and make sure that we move forward together. And if some people want to change or pivot, I’m supportive of that. So, we need to go in with that coaching mindset and get to the crux of what is the challenge for the individual. What can I do to support them? What do they need to be successful? And also, what do they think the answer is? All this helps navigate that coaching and caring motion.

How does caring and coaching help in keeping people accountable?

Coaching is a great notion. I recently put myself through the ICF coaching accreditation. This unlocked something in me that was already there but was not structured in a way where I was able to use it in a practical way, or I didn’t have the confidence to execute it. Creating accountability is not, for example, a scenario where you and I connect and I say, ‘Right Venkat, you need to have done ABCD. Okay, did you get that?’ Instead I would ask open ended questions like – “We’ve got a gap here. Do you recognize the gap? What do you think is causing the gap? What ideas do you have to close this gap? What plan do you have?” And asking those open ended questions is putting it back on the individual. And at the end of that coaching conversation you ask them to take you through the next steps. And that triggers the person to think about the plan and verbalise it. And that creates accountability because they’ve shared openly what they’re going to do. And then you move on to the next question, which is – “when will you get part A of ABCD done?” And that’s where it kicks in.

You have a lot going on. How do you balance your body, heart, mind and soul?

This is something I haven’t done well. But as soon as New South Wales came out of lockdown after 106 days, I decided I have to do something. So I started going to the gym, which I haven’t done for 20 odd years. I remember after the first session; I fell down the stairs because my legs felt like jelly. But I realised that getting up early and going to the gym was good for me. I felt like I’m achieving something. The other thing I do is to go for regular walks with my lovely dog Lulu. And I use that time to observe my environment, focus on my breathing, and getting joy from Lulu. There is a lovely walk that I do around a place called Beauty point. It’s a track that follows the coastline and it’s quite beautiful. And there’s a beach I found at low tide, and it’s got this rock on it, which I now call my ‘ponder rock’. So, when it’s low tide, I sit there and watch my dog having a swim. And over the past few months at low tide, I noticed there was a whole load of glass on the beach. I’m a big ‘greeny’ at heart, so I started using the poop bags to go pick up all the glass. And last weekend, I couldn’t find any more glass. So, over the last few months, I have cleaned that beach and I walked away feeling this amazing sense of fulfilment and achievement. There was glass on that beach for some reason and now it’s super clean. So it felt good. These are the kind of things that I like to do to ground me. That is my ‘me’ time and that’s important to me.

How did you discover your larger purpose in life?

I remember when I was 13, I said to my friend that life is going by so quickly and I want to live another 100 years. So, my life purpose was to live till I was 113! We all have that need and that want to leave the world in a better place than we found it. I discovered over the last two or three years that moving more into the field of sustainability is the heart and soul of who I am. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 18 months old. I am always recycling, getting food scraps and putting them in the compost, cleaning up beaches, cleaning up rubbish, and championing sustainable farming practices. Having our own mini farm in New Zealand with chickens and sheep taught me a thing or two about managing stock, creating a quality of life for these animals and nurturing the land.

One of the things that I’ve done in my current role is create sustainability in our small, medium and corporate businesses. So I’m leading on that, and we’ve got an amazing team of about 30-40 people who are dedicating their time and energy to help us learn more about sustainable practices at home. But more importantly, engaging with our customers to help them create more sustainable business models, and also understand how they measure their current sustainability scores. So, I’ve managed to use Microsoft as a platform for my life purpose. I’m excited to see where that goes and creating impact for our customers. But above all, making me feel like my life purpose is being fulfilled.

What advice would you give to other leaders to have a great career in sales and leadership?

So many people give you advice along the way. I’ve learned over the years to pick and choose what I want to hear and what I want to believe. But the humans that stand out for me were people that saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. And it was their advice or their guidance that triggered me to start looking a bit more inwards and to stop worrying about what others felt or thought about me. So, my advice would be to surround yourself with a team of advisers and people that you can trust. And also people that know you and have seen you in different shapes and forms over the years and can give you open, honest and sometimes hard to hear feedback; but more importantly guidance that can help you move forward. And that’s something that I lean on. If I’ve got challenges, I’ll lean on that network, and they will put me back on course and I’ll be off again. So that’s how I’ve navigated it.

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Curator:
Swetha Sitaraman is a Business Content and Communications Manager who spent 15 years working with British Diplomats. She creates and edits content assets that include articles, case studies, company profiles and thought leadership interviews along with handling internal communication. When she is not immersed in a sea of words, Swetha enjoys diving into the world of watercolours.

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