Why Culture Is the Cornerstone of a Sales Organization

December 6, 2018

Sales Organization Culture

Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Hayden E. Stafford, Corporate Vice President-Global Microsoft Business Applications. The post originally appeared on LinkedIn.  

Peter Drucker’s quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” is a favorite of Satya Nadella’s. It reflects an emphasis on a growth mindset, an expansion of personal and business horizons through curiosity, openness, and trust. It’s a mindset that should also inform selling, as I discussed in my last blog.

Culture trumps strategy

Why do I prioritize culture over strategy in selling? Strategies are designed to achieve a goal; they’re a means to an end. With a strategy mindset, the goal is the only thing that really matters. In fact, the value of the strategy is determined solely by whether it attains the goal. But with a cultural mindset, the goal and how it’s achieved are both important because they stem from the same value system.

Every successful organization has a shared playbook. A football team has a playbook; a choir has a music book. The same concept applies to business. We might work with people from multiple diverse backgrounds. But if we’re all anchored in a common culture, with a clearly defined set of values, then how we operate the business, how we respect one another, and how we approach our customers, will all fall in line. Strategy flows from culture; culture does not flow from strategy.  And business results are far more attainable when there is a clear, shared view of your strategy and your culture!

Culture drives success

The “One Microsoft” ethos is a good example of what I’m talking about. It manifests in all kinds of ways, and it’s especially evident in our evolution from a spirit of competition to a spirit of collaboration. We’re not in silos anymore, we’re teaming to win. Our Platform teams, Business Application teams, and Productivity teams collaborate; we are connected. We work together, we solve problems together, and we approach our technology solutions with customers together. This approach helps our customers, who benefit when we come together as one team with a holistic solution for their business.

All of this directly relates to the land and expand model also mentioned in the last blog. But there’s more to it than collaboration and breaking down organizational and technology silos. To succeed with customers, you need to understand them first. And to really understand them, you need to break down interpersonal silos as well.

Traits of a good seller

We’ve talked about a unified approach to selling, but what are the traits of an individual in a successful sales organization? I’ll give you a hint—it’s not about bringing together people who think, let alone look, the same. Culture isn’t just about a mindset of togetherness and One Microsoft. It’s also about bringing together multiple perspectives that sensitize you to different buying postures and approaches from your customers. That kind of openness, from the organizational to individual levels, has dramatically improved our results over the past four years. It’s critically important to build a team that both represents your business vision as well as a diversity of culture. When people are open to other points of view, they’re more informed and adaptive. And the best part?  It’s evident to our customers and partners, who find working with us more effective and enjoyable.

IBM is another great example of a company that’s worked hard on inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. They’ve been focused on diversity longer than almost anyone else in the tech industry, and actively seek to increase minority representation in their executive ranks. More than 20 years ago, the company created eight diversity taskforces to better understand and address the needs of different cultural groups both inside and outside IBM. However, the company had been walking the walk long before that. For example, IBM chose its first female vice-president in 1943, and has been hiring African American executives since before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I believe that their business flourished for decades because of this.

Keep an open mind

As a global business, it’s critical that we continue to open our perspective. Our customers come from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. If you stay biased toward a race, religion, or gender, you’re restricting your point-of-view, your approach, and understanding of buying behaviors. In turn, it’s likely your narrow view will manifest in your success (or lack thereof) with the vast diversity of customers in the market.

You can and should gain a better understanding of customer behavior and priorities as I’ve mentioned before in blogs like The Pipeline Paradox. And if you’ve been following those earlier discussions, you’ll know that it’s not just about doing your research and gathering data—it’s also about listening and empathy. To really get to know people, you do need to walk a mile in their shoes. We all have unconscious biases based on where and how we were raised; however, empathy and understanding can go a long way toward helping alleviate those biases.

I want to stress again that this is not culture as strategy—that is, you can’t create a culture of collaboration, inclusion, and empathy just for the express purpose of making sales. Rather, culture is about the way you run your business, which extends to managing sales teams, and finally interacting with one another within those teams. If you’re not open and empathetic when you engage with your own team, how are you going to engage customers? It’s fundamentally about transparency and inspiring trust. And if we can inspire trust in each other, we can inspire it in our customers as well. And of course, when we inspire trust in our customers…the business results will follow.

To keep pace with the latest thinking in sales and sales leadership, subscribe today to the LinkedIn Sales Blog