Leadership Q&A – Meri Kukkonen

Meri Kukkonen is the Australian Lead for Business Development for multinational software leader Progress in the areas of application development, digital experience, data connectivity, machine learning and cognitive solutions.

Meri is a seasoned sales leader with more than 15 years in the software tech sector working in Europe, North America and Australia. Her passion lies in helping B2B businesses transform the way they go to market, focusing on creating high performing sales organisations built around strategic alliance ecosystems. Meri has a bachelors degree in marketing and consults with companies wanting to become successful by leveraging digital experience and marketing technologies.

What was your first sales role and in which industry?

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I worked in retail during my uni years. I sold women’s high-end shoes and later men’s made-to-measure shoes. Ask me more about shoes!

My first b2b sales role was in the finance and insurance field after graduating.

What was the first lesson you learnt on the job?

Everyone has a story. Everyone deserves kindness. I think I use this as a reminder and a motto of sorts to these days. 

In retail, I saw the cross-section of society, much more than what I had been exposed to prior. To meet sales targets, I found it more effective to have compassion rather than judgement, and I found it fascinating how it was not possible to judge a customer’s intentions or ability to buy based on their appearance or behaviour.

My then-colleagues would laugh and say that some people just want their pair of designer shoes so badly that they forget how to communicate effectively. After all, whatever the question, a pair of shoes can always be the answer!

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Photo by Philip Bohle

How or why did you become a sales professional?

When I was in high school or maybe uni, they used to do these tests which were called compatibility tests. I think they were a combination of IQ test and personality test, not unlike all the personality tests you can do for fun online these days.

I did one of these tests, and my results showed that potentially suitable professions for me would be a politician, a journalist, or a role in sales. I was studying political science, I had worked as a journalist, so I thought,  “why not try sales?”.

The story is told tongue in cheek, but I think there is some truth to it. To be successful in any of these occupations it is important to communicate effectively, negotiate well and influence people. The key to a long term success is maintaining a high level of personal integrity and standing by one’s words. Certainly, a large part of the sense of accomplishment in my work comes from these three elements: it’s wonderful to feel understood, to come to a win-win-win agreement and influence the outcomes of the customer.

How would you describe your approach to sales and what are the values that you live by?

Great question about values. I use the concept of values as a framework, starting from the principles, then assessing my value alignment. I use this method to define my goals and further on, actions to reach these goals, including career goals.

I find that having clarity about values guides me in decision making and living a purposeful life. I encourage businesses I work with to invest in working through an exercise to define their values and creating a value statement and mission. I believe it’s a very powerful tool helping each employee find their purpose in the role they do.

Simply put, my experience has taught me that having mutual, clearly defined and communicated goals help to reach sales targets and even to alleviate the constant stress we live under. I repeat the goals often, both in strategy as well as operational meetings. This can be something very simple such as “we’re in the software business, and our goal is to help our partners and customers become successful with our software”. 

What are the values I live by?

I strive for excellence. I believe that when I set the goal high and build plans to achieve it, I am guiding my behaviour and giving myself a chance to succeed.

Integrity for me means trustworthiness, professionalism and accountability at all times. An example of this would be a tendency to identifying and solving difficult situations before they become chronic pains.

Mastery – nothing beats innovating a brilliant framework or solution which helps everyone become more productive and efficient. And I just love learning.

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In your view, what are the three most important factors that determine sales success?

Sales success is the right combination of strategy and tactics.

Let me continue from the values category first. A factor that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has drawn attention to is resourcefulness. I like to combine this with a good dose of resilience. A lot of the time sales is inventing something out of nothing while pushing uphill in a strong headwind. The engineers don’t have an answer, the laptop crashes at a critical moment, your champion leaves for a better job. It’s good to know when to stop, but it’s not at the first “no”.

Develop your weaknesses. A “natural” sales talent will sooner or later be beaten by a hardworking individual who has less talent but more determination. Get some formal training, follow the process as it’s there for a reason, focus on what works.

The third one, my favourite: learn early on the skill of active listening. Our brain has evolved to fill in the gaps and create meaning where there is none. Teach yourself to break free of these mental shortcuts and master the skill of active listening. Make sure you fully understand what is being said, as opposed to recognising familiar terminology and spending the time another person is talking to think what you are going to say next, or worse, reading emails. In complex sales situations with multiple stakeholder missing a cue could be critical to sales success. This is an advanced skill to master, so make sure you practise lots.

What do you love about sales?

How much time do you have? Sales is a great profession with almost unlimited opportunities for self-improvement. It offers great fulfilment and purpose, and I get to work with really smart subject matter experts, exciting client projects, and get to influence and improve the lives of many. It’s easy to be ok, with practice one can get better, but it’s hard to become excellent, and it’s the challenge which gives the reward.

What do you dislike about sales?

In some businesses, sales are sometimes treated as an afterthought. Particularly in technology companies, the business is often run by a homogenous group of technical people. When working with founders, I often consult the framework from the Business Model Canvas (https://www.strategyzer.com/) to illustrate how sales is an integral part of almost every aspect of the business. From external elements; customers and channels; though value proposition and internal elements; key activities and resources, sales plays a part in all these segments.

For sales to be efficient, it needs a chair at the table.

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Tell us about your most memorable sale and why.

Don’t make me pick one!

There are several occasions when I’ve managed to turn a huge potential loss to a big win or disgruntled customer to a devout advocate. I think these are often situations when I’ve felt most accomplished.

I can remember some of the early experiences from the insurance and finance when a customer was thoroughly disappointed with a claim that was refused for them, and the situation was jeopardizing a large enterprise deal. First, I gave them space to voice their frustration, while listening for potential opportunities to create a better cover for them. It was clear to me that the customer needed a complete risk management solution. I outlined this in the meeting, emphasising the things that mattered most to my client: health and wellbeing of the family members. In the end, they were so happy that I got a selection of wines for Christmas every year after that.

What is the best piece of advice a sales manager passed on to you when you were in sales?

This question reminds me of a famous quote from Buddha:

“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.”

I consider my best managers more as mentors or coaches who’ve played an important part in my career. I believe critique and feedback are part of teamwork and absolutely necessary in the workplace. ,To give and receive feedback, the setting must be mutually approved for the feedback to be effective. I believe that when we talk about great culture, being results and feedback driven is very important to include in this conversation.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out in sales that you know now?

A lot has been written about the imposter syndrome, and today, when I hear the word “should” – I should be better, different, further along, it reminds me of my journey. These are signs of perfectionism and extremely high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations I have suffered from.

My background in competitive sports and surrounding myself with high achieving people can create an illusion that life is on a forever upward curve. This expectation can be taxing on mental and physical health, and without a reasonable balance rarely is sustainable. In some ways, perfectionism is a fear of failure. With practice, I’ve learned to notice the thought about not being good enough. Now I can remind myself: where I am right now, is where I am supposed to be.

Even Wonderwoman can’t be Wonderwoman all the time, sometimes she’s a diplomat.

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What traits do you believe are critical for success in sales management and sales

leadership?

I remember reading Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us years ago. It was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly I had the words to describe what had felt so backwards in the business world. My experience was like the management was still operating like we were all working in a factory. This approach doesn’t work for modern leadership with knowledge workers, and I asked myself why aren’t more companies run following Pink’s principles?

For me, the measure of success for sales leadership is how well it can help members of the team succeed. Building blocks of culture which supports motivation and therefore success are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

To achieve this, the leader’s role is to create the right environment, where there is support from the organisation, where any barriers to sell are removed. This requires them to be good negotiators and communicators, they must be able to ask for help. 

Selling is teamwork, and teamwork doesn’t mean that we sit in meetings all day. It means that everyone understands their part in the puzzle and the value they bring, has a clear definition of their role and is supported by the wider team. Self-awareness and intelligence of the leader will help, with a good balance between motivation and ability to let go, as they can’t do all themselves.

What is the secret for sales leaders to get the best out of their teams?

Sales leadership is tough. Salespeople are like highly-strung racehorses, the high achievers, who score high when they score, but they can also be high maintenance, easily distracted from their goals and in high demand.

More important than getting the best out of their teams I like to draw attention to good practices around growing talent in house. This will create a culture of continuous development. Employers often talk about the problem around talent retention, just to miss the fact that the other side of the coin has “no career progression” written on it. 

At the same time, I’d like to quote Tom Goodwin (https://tomgoodw.in/) who is an excellent provocateur in the area of leadership. “Would be amazing if [2020] could be the death of management and the birth of leadership. The start of rewards and value by output and effectiveness, not effort, risk avoidance and presenteeism.”

How has your industry evolved in the last 10 years or so and what changes do you see coming in the next 10 years?

While many details of b2b selling have changed in the last decade or two, some of the most important concepts are the dramatic change in the customer journey. Namely all the tools buyers are used to, such as social media, empowering the buyer in a new way.

This paradigm shift changes the role and skills required of the salesperson, as most entry-level sales functions are replaced by Google and corporate marketing empowered by technology and automation.

I believe that the winners in the 3rd decade of this millennium are the ones who can excel in two areas: they effectively grow and retain talent. I think there is a huge, missed opportunity in bringing more diversity into sales. Hire people from all different backgrounds, because your clients come from all backgrounds too.

Secondly, organisations will be able to make a bigger impact if they focus on creating strategic partnerships or strategic ecosystems. Together, you will have a better understanding of the customer and their business challenges, and you can more effectively offer a full solution. We are in the business of problem-solving after all.

How do you balance life and work?

I have developed some tactics which work well for me and my routine, productivity and wellbeing. For example, I have clear boundaries, so when I work, I work. I try to set realistic expectations of myself and accept if things don’t go into the plan.

Now and then during the workday, I’ll take a break to have a moment for myself and reset, and this could be a coffee break, a short mindfulness exercise or even a physical exercise. Meditation is a daily practice for me now, but we had a rough path for a long time. I am happy that I persisted as I am starting to see the benefits.

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What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time, the screens get turned off and it’s time for play. For more chill times, I love reading and listening to music, spending time with family and friends. Weekends and holidays, I enjoy in one of the many extreme sports I love: mountaineering in New Zealand Southern Alps, climbing rock or ice or racing motorcycles. My discipline is road racing, in which I won my category in my rookie season and continue to compete on the national level.

About Progress

Progress (NASDAQ: PRGS) offers the leading platform for developing and deploying strategic business applications. We enable customers and partners to deliver modern, high-impact digital experiences with a fraction of the effort, time and cost. Progress offers powerful tools for easily building adaptive user experiences across any type of device or touchpoint, the flexibility of a cloud-native app dev platform to deliver modern apps, leading data connectivity technology, web content management, business rules, secure file transfer, network monitoring, plus award-winning machine learning that enables cognitive capabilities to be a part of any application.